Motivation Challenge 4: The Student Does Not See an Adequate Payoff for Doing the Work

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: The student requires praise, access to rewards, or other reinforcers in the short term as a temporary ‘pay-off’ to encourage her or him to apply greater effort.


What the Research Says: The use of external rewards (‘reinforcers’) can serve as a temporary strategy to encourage a reluctant student to become invested in completing school work and demonstrating appropriate behaviors (Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett, & Little, 2004). It is expected that as the student puts increased effort into academics and behavior to earn teacher-administered reinforcers, the student will in turn begin to experience such positive natural reinforcers as improved grades, increased peer acceptance, a greater sense of self-efficacy in course content, and higher rates of teacher and parent approval. As the student enjoys the benefits of these natural reinforcers, the teacher can then fade and perhaps fully eliminate the use of programmed reinforcers or rewards.


Here are recommendations for using reward programs with students:


  • Do not use reward programs with students who are already demonstrating acceptable academic effort or general classroom conduct (Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett, & Little, 2004). While incentives can be a good way to ‘jump-start’ the academic motivation of a disengaged learner, they are not likely to benefit a student who is already making an adequate effort to perform in school.
  • Adjust rewards to match a student’s developing academic skills (Daly, Martens, Barnett, Witt, & Olson, 2007). During initial acquisition of a skill, provide reinforcement (e.g., praise, exchangeable tokens) contingent upon on-task behavior (time-based reinforcement). This approach avoids ‘penalizing’ students for slow performance. As the student moves into the fluency-building stage of learning, change to reinforcement based on rate of performance (reinforcing both accuracy and fluency in the skill). This approach explicitly reinforces high response rates. Then, as the student reaches acceptable rates of accuracy and fluency, maintain high rates of academic performance through such efficient methods as intermittent reinforcement or reinforcer lottery (e.g., the student earns tickets for each successful performance of target behaviors and those tickets are used for periodic lottery drawings for possible rewards).

How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: Through direct observation, student interview, and/or other means, the teacher has verified that instruction is effectively delivered and sufficiently engaging for most of the class, that the target student has the academic and related skills required for the academic work, and that the student has failed to be motivated by existing incentives such as grades that are typically available in classrooms. In the teacher’s judgment, the target student needs additional incentives (e.g., praise, rewards) to promote motivation to complete academic tasks.


How to Fix This Motivation Problem:


Praise the Student. The teacher praises the student in clear and specific terms when the student engages in the desired behavior (Kern & Clemens, 2007). The teacher uses praise statements at a rate sufficient to motivate and guide the student toward the behavioral goal.


Use Rewards. The teacher establishes a reward system to motivate an individual student by implementing these steps (e.g., Kazdin, 1989):

  1. Define the Target Behavior. The teacher writes a definition of the undesired student behavior to be decreased or the desired behavior to be increased as a result of the reward program.
  2. Establish Criteria for Success. The teacher defines the minimum acceptable criteria for student success in the target behavior, which may include information about time intervals, cumulative frequency, and/or percentage of compliance.
  3. Choose Student Incentives. The teacher selects incentives (positive reinforcers or ‘rewards’) that are likely to motivate the student. 
  4. Decide Whether a Point System Will Be Used. The teacher decides on one of two options in delivering rewards: the student is either given earned rewards directly whenever those rewards have been earned or the student can is assigned points (or tokens or tickets) each time that he or she meets the teacher’s behavioral expectations and then is allowed at some point to redeem these points for items from the reward menu.
  5. Decide How the Reward is to Be Delivered. The teacher selects a means for the student to receive earned rewards (e.g., from the classroom teacher, from another school staff member, from the parent).


  • Akin-Little, K. A., Eckert, T. L., Lovett, B. J., & Little, S. G. (2004). Extrinsic reinforcement in the classroom: Bribery or best practice. School Psychology Review, 33, 344-362.
  • Daly, E. J., Martens, K. K., Barnett, D., Witt, J. C., & Olson, S. C. (2007). Varying intervention delivery in response to intervention: Confronting and resolving challenges with measurement, instruction, and intensity. School Psychology, Review, 36, 562-581.
  • Kazdin, A. E. (1989). Behavior modification in applied settings (4th ed.). Pacific Gove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Kern, L. & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 65-75.