3 Easy Middle School Incentives
Oooh…..middle schoolers. Sigh. They are interesting little things, aren’t they? No one knows the joy of 30 preteens full of raging hormones in one room like a middle school teacher.
Although I have extremely high expectations for my students, I do not expect them to come into my class with pocket fulls of intrinsic motivation. To me, this is something about 90% of my students need explicit instruction on throughout the year in order to build. I mean, even adults need help with motivation. I don’t know about you, but I always need a little extra incentive to workout. That’s why I have a running friend. If it was just me, I know I wouldn’t go.
While you are working on building the intrinsic motivation of your students, you have to have some tricks up your sleeve to get those drama filled, eye rolling, and slightly salty students to focus on your amazing lessons. Once you can hook them, we know the rest will fall into place.
You just need some strategies to get past their tough exteriors. Lucky for you, after trying too many incentives to mention over my 14 years of teaching (sticker charts and silly bands were some of my major fails) I have found 3 solid incentives that work well with middle school students!
Tickets (oldie, but totally a goodie)
This is the incentive I use at the beginning of the year to reinforce my expectations and procedures. When students are doing what’s expected, I give them a ticket and play it up big time. Like, “Oh my gosh! Thank you so much for coming in, reading the board, and getting all of your stuff ready for class! You’re amazing! Here’s a golden ticket!! Other students see their peers getting praise and magically they start doing what they need to do as well. This one strategy has decreased frustration level and the number of times I have to say, “Stop running around the room and touching each other! You know you need to get started on your bellringer!” The key to making this strategy work is consistency and praise, praise, and more praise. I give a lot of tickets out that first week to really enforce following my procedures and expectations, and I slowly back off throughout the nine weeks. I give tickets for getting materials out, doing homework, answering questions, participating in group activities, taking risks, etc. I give extra tickets if an entire table has their homework, or if 100% started on their bellringer without a prompt. Sometimes I have a multiplier day where we roll the dice and the number of tickets you earn for completing your homework is multiplied by whatever number is on the dice. For my classroom, tickets are a lot of fun and a great way to build relationships with my students.
When I first started this incentive, I bought the raffle tickets from Walmart. Well, some future entrepreneurs found some of the same tickets and created their own little black market of sorts. Since I only give out 3 hallway and bathroom passes a quarter, some students were trading these fake tickets for extra passes, and others were trading for cookies and ice cream at lunch. Crazy!
To put an end to the counterfeit tickets, I started making my own. All I did was cut 1 inch squares out of yellow paper and stamp them with the special stamps I ordered from Amazon (it was the unicorn self inking set). I spent about an hour at the paper cutter after school one day making enough to last me for the quarter, and I kept them in a large bowl locked up in my cabinet. I would grab a handful and keep them in my pocket or close by throughout the day.
When the students earned a ticket, I told them to immediately write their name on the back, and save it until the drawing. This is a great lesson in responsibility and keeping up with stuff.
The amount of time you wait in-between ticket drawings is up to you. I usually start off with shorter amounts of time,1 week, and build to 3-4 week period between drawings. When you decide it’s time for a drawing, have the students turn all of their tickets into your bowl/bucket/box. If you’re a super cute teacher, you can even use your fancy Cricut to label your ticket collector!
Have a grab bag of prizes ready. DO NOT LET YOUR STUDENTS SEE THE PRIZES! My prizes ranged from paper plates with an outline of my hand (it’s a high five whenever you feel like you need one) to dust bunnies I have found in popular teachers classrooms (yes, I really gave away dust in a bag and the students LOVED it.) to cans of Spam or pinto beans, to movie theater boxes of candy. Pull out the prize first and really play it up. This is key to get students excited about your random off the wall prizes like hangers and string! “Our first prize today is a bag of slightly used and broken crayons that will take you straight back to your carefree days of coloring!” Then pull out a ticket of the person who wins the prize. Watch the excitement unfold!
Well, I actually called this Kepley Kash, but that name probably won’t work for you. My co-teacher came up with the name Brain Bucks so she could use this incentive in her classroom.
This is kind of along the same lines as the tickets I do the first quarter, except for this one I really do not give out the cash for following routine procedures. The students earn their bucks by exceeding expectations. For example, if a student volunteers to help another student who is struggling, or if a group completes a pop challenge by working together and thinking creatively, or if a student goes above and beyond in their reading response question and demonstrates deep, analytical thinking.
When someone earns these Brain Bucks, I make a huge deal out of it! I get so excited, make a production of pulling the cash out of my drawer, and announce to the class why the student is earning it. We all clap and then move on with class. This incentive is a great way to encourage deeper thinking, a positive classroom environment, and collaboration.
I made my Kepley Kash on Google Slides, inserted my Bitmoji, and printed on light green paper. For some reason they are all impressed when they see my Bitmoji, like I earn some street cred or something for knowing about it.
I pass out the cash to the deserving students. They save their cash until I decide to do a pop up sale. All this really means is I have some items on a cart and I wheel the cart around to the different tables every 2 weeks. Somehow this ended up being called the Kepley Kart and I sing, “It’s time for da Kepley Kart, It’s time for da Kepley Kart.” to the beat of It’s time for da Percolator in my best 90s clubbing DJ voice. (For all of you who are not as hip and cool as me….here is a link!) My students have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s fun for me.
The items on my cart vary.
I have raffle tickets they can buy for a dollar. I raffle off things like our special chairs (old office rolling chairs and yoga balls), movie boxes of candy, automatic 100 on a vocabulary quiz (they still have to take it, but if they don’t make the grade they want, they can trade in the automatic 100 to replace the grade they made), take a quiz with a friend, get in free to a sporting event (just clear it with admin.), etc.
I have small candy like Jolly Ranchers, mini AirHeads, Smarties, Pixie Sticks, and anything else I can find at the Dollar Tree. I usually sell these things for $1 each.
I have the coveted hall passes for $3 each!
I found these little sticky sling shot aliens at Walmart this year in the party section, and that was a crazy hit with my 8th graders this year.
Mechanical pencils and colorful pens were also popular.
Most students go for the raffle tickets, so the cost is minimal.
In Living Color
Out of all my incentives, this one is by far the easiest one! Therefore, it’s perfect for April and May when you’re just trying to make it through! It is designed to be a whole class incentive, but you can use it for table groups as well!
I put up a sign for each of my classes that say Intentional Excellence in block letters.
I prop up three light switches that I purchased at my favorite teaching store: The Dollar Tree.
If the students are not meeting my expectations and start acting a little cra-cra (translation: they’re getting on my nerves), I flip a switch. If all three switches are flipped at the end of class, they do not get a letter colored in. If they manage to keep under three lights on, then they can color in a letter. I even put someone in charge of the coloring because I know I will not be able to keep up with it.
When they get all of the letters colored in, they will earn their class prize.
Before I start this incentive, I have the students complete a Google Form where they all have an opportunity to provide input for possible rewards. Most of them wanted free time, time on their phones, and homework passes. I take the top three suggestions, and we vote on a class reward for when we get all of the letters colored in! This year, all four of my classes voted for period of free time.
We talk about the meaning of excellence and intentional. I want my students to be the best they can be by making an intentional choice to be that way, not by accident. Having it on the sign in front of the classroom gives them a great visual everyday of what we are working towards!
I really hope that you can use one, two, or all three (it’s always fun to change things up) in your classroom this year! They are a great way to build student relationships, reinforce expectations, and make learning a little fun and rewarding. Let me know if you give them a shot and how it works out for you. If you have something that works for your class, drop a comment below! Like you, I’m totally open to new ideas and trying new things in my classroom!