Guide to Student Rewards and Incentives

Student rewards and incentives are a central area of focus and discussion in schools across Australia. As a parent myself with two children attending primary school, I have seen first hand how much emphasis is currently being placed on rewarding and incentivising students to achieve goals and to improve behaviour.

But to what extent are student reward programs working, and what types of rewards are achieving the best results? Today we will review some of the literature available that has studied these areas and provide a guide of sorts to student rewards and incentives.

Student rewards are not new

As far back as 1820, New York City (source) began offering financial rewards for students who achieved certain grades. This began what has become known as “token economies” in schools. Rewards in schools have taken many forms over the years, with the definitive solution to motivating students still up for debate.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that education is a crucial part of our society. Better educated students tend to obtain better jobs. People with better jobs tend to be paid more and are able to contribute more to an innovative and forward thinking economy. Additionally, well employed people are less dependent on government assistance.

As such, the education industry has, for years, searched for ways to improve academic performance, student behaviour and results. More teachers, smaller classrooms, better qualified teachers, more investment. All of these things have improved over the past 40 years but with limited effect.

  • In 1961, 24% of teachers has masters degree. In 2005 it was 65%
  • In 1970, the student to teacher ratio was 22:1. In 2005 it was 16:1
  • In 1970 schools spent an average of $5,200 per student. In 2005 it was $12,000


Despite these obvious improvements to the structure of schools and the teaching experience, results have either remained constant or improved only marginally.

Reward and incentives

School Reward Programs

School Reward Programs

At the same time, rewards and incentives of many kinds have been attempted. Rewards and incentives can be structured in a variety of ways, with the three main categories as below:

Input vs Output

Rewards can be targeted to inputs or outputs. Inputs are activities and behaviours that lead to outputs such as better academic performance. It is an important decision for schools to determine which of these will result in more improvements.

The Power and Pitfalls of Education Incentives” found that rewarding inputs resulted in better results than rewarding outputs. The primary reason being that students, younger ones especially, did not know how to improve their own performance in most subjects. Sure, a reward could be offered for moving from a C to a B, but without being provided the right tools to achieve this, students can be de-incentivised. However, by rewarding the behaviours and activities that lead to improvement, results can be improved. This might include rewards for completing homework, for behaving well in school or for following school rules.

Long term vs short term

Students respond better to short term rewards and incentives. Offering a grade 9 student a financial incentive for graduating high school may seem like a good idea, but asking that student to work harder today to achieve an incentive that will be paid in 4 years is unlikely to result in a positive result. It’s just too far away. The effect of short term incentives is even greater on younger students, as those of us with young children know!

Financial vs Non Financial

The issue of WHAT to reward students with is also important. In US states where there are high proportions of economically disadvantaged students, financial incentives have been used to improve attendance, behaviour and academic results. For example, in Houston 5th graders (and their parents) were offered $2 for every math objective they achieved throughout the year. Those that were incentivised in this way achieved 125% more objectives that those that were not, with the average student earning $228.72, and the biggest earner enjoying a $1,392 windfall! The cost to the City of Houston was a touch under $900,000.

In Washington, 6th-8th graders were offered financial incentives for attendance. At a cost to the city of $3.8m the average student incentivised in this way earned over $500. Attendance during this time did improve but interestingly, not one student achieved the total reward value on offer. This is an example of rewarding an “input” behaviour.

School Promotional products

School Promotional products

Non financial student rewards often used in Australia include silicone wristbands and branded merchandise such as pencil cases, bounce balls and water bottles. In addition, especially at early primary school stage there are ‘in classroom’ behavioural (input) mini rewards. This includes running a red, orange, green, silver, gold chart in class which is updated live as children perform well or poorly. Everyone starts on green and progressing up (to silver and gold) or down (to orange and red) depending on how they have behaved during the day.

Other methods such as reward stamps for good behaviour also offers a low cost way to incentivise students. For example, the top five students in each class (who have earned the most behaviour stamps) might attend a “fun day” at the end of term.

Implementation of student rewards and incentive programs

Whilst the types of rewards can vary, one element of reward programs are constant – the implementation. Without a thorough plan of implementation, any reward program will fall flat. Total buy in is required across the entire school, with teachers, administrators and students all on the same page. In addition, the program must be actioned without fail at every available opportunity. If students see their efforts not being rewarded as promised by the program, then the effect of the program will be non existent.


Student rewards and incentive programs offer schools a way to improve the behaviour of students and, in turn, the academic performance of those students. Reward programs must be managed carefully, with thought put in to what is rewarded, how it is rewarded and then how the program is implemented. Of course, once a program has run for a period of time, it also needs to be reviewed and improved wherever possible.

AAC ID Solutions supplies schools in Australia with school reward products like silicone wristbands, pencil cases, rulers, bounce balls and water bottles. Talk to the AAC team about how we might assist your school to maximise the effects on a reward program. Contact us at [email protected] or 1300 797 478

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