Classroom DIY: Motivating Your Students: Incentive Systems You Can Start Tomorrow

It’s March, and you’ve probably established routines and procedures while simultaneously carving out more and more time for robust instruction.

DIY Student Motivation SystemTo keep your momentum going, this DIY blog has a few ideas for incentive systems that can help motivate students to actively contribute to the cultivation of a strong learning environment.

Incentive systems complement your hierarchy system. They are meant to recognize and reinforce students for positively participating in your class, yet also allow students who are, shall we say, over-participating in the hierarchy system stay engaged in new ways. Your incentive system is also a concrete way to motivate and normalize the positive behavior in your classroom.

Here are three field-tested incentive systems with some details to help you decide which is ideal for your classroom.

System 1: Party Chart

This system can be used to interchangeably recognize individual, whole group, and small group accomplishments. It is intended to be used throughout the day and can be especially effective when trying to solidify routines and procedures.

Marshmallow Party Poster

This Marshmallow Party chart, taken from Chalmers School of Excellence in Chicago, is one of the most recent iterations of this type of incentive we’ve seen.

How it works:

Choose an item or activity that your students want to earn. Draw the shape(s) of that on a piece of chart paper and within that shape, draw a grid of boxes. For instance, in the example given here, the teacher/students chose marshmallows and chose to separate the whole, small and individual recognition into separate grids shaped like marshmallows.

When you want to reward students’ meeting or exceeding your expectations, fill in a square. When all the squares are colored in, students earn the designated “party” indicated on the chart paper.

Implementation & Maintenance:

The reward starts off small and can get more substantial as you go, but always create one that is practical and manageable.

Some teachers brainstorm lists of these with students. Here’s a few examples of other “parties” we’ve seen:

  • Cupcake Party
  • Free Draw Time
  • Michael Jackson Dance Party
  • Free Gym Party
  • Extra Read Aloud Party

As it is with all incentive systems, in the beginning, students should earn the incentive reward quickly to elicit student buy-in. You can see from the limited amount of squares on the marshmallow party incentive, this primary teacher wanted her students to earn it quickly.

Each time you create a new party chart, increase the number of squares so the time it takes for the students to earn it increases as does your expectation for students to consistently succeed.

Perks of this system:

  • Encompasses all the various ways you might need to recognize outstanding behavior/effort in one system
  • Can be adapted to fit all grades but is pretty well-suited for primary and intermediate grades
  • Can be created in a matter of minutes

Another idea is to attach the incentive system to a specific behavior or routine. Here are two examples of this type of incentive, both designed for use with your whole class.

System 2: Zero Hero

How it works:

Zero Hero is a challenge between teacher and students. The gist is that you choose a transition -– a good one might be transitioning from independent work to a listening position. When it is time to make that transition, use a countdown from 5 or 10. When you get to zero, if ALL students are in listening position or exhibiting the desired behavior, they get the point. If not, the teacher gets the point. Whoever wins the challenge is the “Zero Hero.” It’s simple, but insanely powerful.

Zero Hero Student Chart

Students love to “beat the teacher.” Some teachers attach a reward if the class wins by the end of the day or week. Oftentimes, just having more points than the teacher is incentive enough.

Implementation & Maintenance:

You must be conservative with points at first. Don’t make it too easy for them to win because you should also use this opportunity to solidify your expectations. Be sure, however, to balance that with making them feel successful. For instance, if students are not able to earn many points at first, you may want to try “Do it Again,” and give them another chance to earn a point.

Perks of this system:

  • Limited Materials: Expo marker and a white board
  • Actively helps you make transitions fun and more efficient
  • Adaptable for all grades

System 3: Spell It Out

How it works:

Again, choose something you want to motivate students around. Then, choose the word you want to spell to represent it and each time students complete the desired behavior or activity, they get one letter. Once they spell the entire word, the reward can be something as simple as free draw time (upper grades) or blowing bubbles at dismissal (lower grades).

How Soon Can We Spell

Implementation & Maintenance:

Always add letters, don’t take them away. Once you begin that you start to mix your consequence with your incentive system. The systems need to remain separate to be fully effective.

Words we’ve seen “spelled” out through this incentive: CHAMPION, FREE CHOICE, EXCELLENCE, TEAMWORK.

Perks of this system:

  • Again, limited materials
  • Can be used to address chronic behaviors
  • Applicable to all grade levels

As you continue to do the hard work of establishing a culture for learning that is rigorous, full of high expectations and success, consider adding one of these incentives to help support you and your students along the way.

Good luck!


Rosemary currently works for AUSL, co-managing their Elementary Coach team. Using what’s she’s learned in her 14 years as an educator, she supports coaches, teachers and administrators as they do the important work of turning around failing schools.

AUSL was among the first in the nation to adopt Teaching Channel Teams.

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