Six Simple Words: “Kids Do Well If They Can!”

This week, I got rid of reward systems … all reward systems. Over the years, I’ve read lots of posts about moving away from rewards, and I’ve engaged in numerous dialogues with people like Chris Wejr and Pernille Ripp about the benefits in doing so. I understood their viewpoints. For many students, what they say makes sense. But what about struggling students? What about those students with different learning needs? 

Every expert that I spoke to or that came to observe in my classroom over the years, recommended some kind of reward system. I liked the systems that focused more on rewarding positive behaviour instead of punishing negative behaviour. My plan was always to try and phase out the reward system: helping students develop that “intrinsic reward” instead. I’m not going to say that all of these systems failed; they didn’t. It was though a line written in Andrew Kelly‘s recent blog post, and also shared with me by a Character Networks Pathways teacher for our Board, Valerie Bennett, that changed my perspective. These six simple, but powerful, words are the key theme behind Dr. Ross Greene‘s Collaborative Problem Solving method: “Kids do well if they can.”

Many thanks to Chris Wejr and Karen Lirenman for sharing this video with me.

This made so much sense. I think about the primary students that I teach. 

  • They’re inquisitive.
  • They’re eager to learn.
  • They want to please.
  • They’re excited to ask questions.
  • They love school.

They don’t intend to make mistakes or cause problems. So if there are problems, maybe instead of rewarding and punishing, I need to ask these questions:

  • When are the problems occurring?
  • Why are they happening?
  • How can we change things to ensure that what triggers the problems, don’t occur?
  • If problems still arise, how can I de-escalate them and help students “turn things around?”

My students haven’t changed this week, but my approaches have. Even with reward systems in the class, sometimes the students earned them and sometimes they didn’t. Earning the reward one day though, didn’t necessarily ensure success the next day. Looking closely at my practices then, having these rewards weren’t really changing behaviour, so why was I using them?

I know that there is sometimes the concern that this “kids do well if they can” approach means “just letting students do whatever they want,” but that’s not what’s happening here. For me, it’s been about really examining what’s triggering behaviour and what’s outside of the students’ control, and working hard with them to develop alternatives to situations and/or eliminate or change expectations during problematic times. It’s about setting kids up for success! And you know what? It works!

This is usually the most problematic time for our neediest of students because routines change, there are more interruptions at school, and the thoughts of summertime either cause increased excitement or increased stress. For four days though, I have been without a reward system: we’ve had six visiting teachers one day, a field trip another day, a Staff vs. Student Basketball Game to watch on a third day, and many unscheduled interruptions to our regular routine, but we’ve also all had the best week of the year! I’m not saying that problems may not occur, but I’ve seen incredible success, and I only wish I reconsidered reward systems before now. What do you think? Do you use reward systems in your classroom or at home, and if so, would you consider making a change? Why or why not? Thanks to those people that pushed me to think differently!


12 thoughts on “Six Simple Words: “Kids Do Well If They Can!”

  1. Good for you! That was an incredible article and it has certainly stuck with me as well. I have never found a reward system that worked in the long run; kids will do well when they can and when they don’t, it is our job to help them figure out why. Rewards seldom change behaviors permanently, but relationships do. Bravo Aviva, I know this has not been a light decision for you to make.

    • Thanks Pernille! No, this has not been an easy decision to make, but I know it’s been the right one. I think it took these six words coupled with the ideas shared by you and Chris, that really made the difference. Thank you … my students thank you too!


    • Thanks for sharing your experiences! I’m excited to read the posts. Please let me know if you write more this summer. It’s great to be able to learn from each other.


  2. Aviva, we often have to work our way through things that are obvious to others. I never found reward systems to be beneficial because those that needed the recognition never did well enough and just stopped trying. I also felt there was another factor, those that earned it looked down upon and teased those who didn’t. I have no rewards, no bonus points, no extra credit, we come and work together and learn we all have something special to contribute. Sometimes we have to look hard but if we do we find it.

    • Thanks for the comment, JoAnn, & sharing about your own experiences with reward systems. My thoughts on rewards have changed a lot over the years, & while I don’t always use them for all students, I have for at least some. The words in Andrew’s blog post changed my perspective, & ultimately, my practices. Your experiences actually make me think of Kristi Keery-Bishop’s recent blog post: You’re building character and acceptance through these meaningful experiences, and these are such important skills.


  3. Once again, you have my brain churning with my morning coffee! This is something I have struggled with as a teacher, as well. Fundamentally, I don’t believe in reward systems, but have heard great arguments for them. My organizational style, or lack of one!, doesn’t do well with rewards, because I forget them.

    I am meeting with the parent of a student who struggles with most areas of school on Monday. I know I am likely teaching this student again. I want us to work together to help this child have a better, and more productive year. Your post is helping me figure out where our conversation needs to go.


    • Thank you so much for your comment, Michelle, and for sharing your experiences! Both Valerie and Andrew have helped me think about what is stopping some students from having this success. Sometimes things like alternative tasks during carpet activities or more structured lessons, help (e.g., turning on the computers during a morning carpet time). Sometimes fidget toys or various seating options make a difference. Sometimes it’s just a child knowing that he/she will have a chance to share. I find that it’s often my students with attentional needs that struggle the most, and Valerie Bennett (@vkbennett) on Twitter, shared some fantastic articles that explain why these students may need to “fidget” to learn. These articles really changed my perspective. I really hope that your meeting on Monday goes well! I love how you’re working with the parents to make next year more successful for this child — so very important! I also wonder if the child may have some thoughts on what might work for him/her.


  4. Aviva,
    Captured by your blog posts! Growth and Fixed Mindset, now this! You are speaking about topics that are essential for helping children become lifelong learners.

    No rewards…Congratulations! My last 20 years of teaching were without offering rewards and I was very much alone professionally when it came to how we motivate or keep children engaged. Yet, my students often reach out to me now as adults to tell me know how much of an impact my teaching made on them as people who learned to believe in their capabilities.

    I have created a resource that I would love to send to you. It is something I have been working on for a number of years and it supports the whole concept of “Kids do well if they can” by “setting them up for success!” It an easy read, not long, and offers a fun approach for your 1st graders to make working at any goal their mission. Along the way they can “track their progress” which is “self-rewarding”, similar to what any of us do as we strive for a goal. The result: they enjoy the intrinsic rewards that come with achieving their goal.

    I recently posted my thoughts about the importance of an “I Can Do That! Framework” on my blog: I have a website about my work as well.
    I want to send you the resource to hear your thoughts about it. I will direct message you my contact information on Twitter. If you provide an email I’ll send the Educator’s Kit to you as a pdf that you could upload to any device.

    There are also printed materials for students that I would mail and a website subscription that I will provide if you would like to see them.
    Let me know!

    • Thanks for the comment, Angelo! It’s great to hear that you gave up rewards for the last 20 years of your teaching career. I would love to see these materials. It sounds like they’d align with what I’m trying to do. I’m teaching Senior Kindergarten next year. Would these resources work with students of this age?

      I will definitely check out your blog post links too! Thank you! It’s been great connecting with you through these posts.

  5. After reading a lot about the reward systems, I did away with them this year too. Also, after reading some posts by Matt Gomez, I went to one Rule “Be Brave”. We talked a lot at the beginning and through out the year about what it means to be brave in our actions, work and relationships. I also started asking children to come up with plans – sometimes with my help – to change behavior, advance to the next level in learning, etc.. Making plans for change were really difficult for them at first, but I was amazed just how good they got at doing this. It was cool that kindergarteners were able to figure out what was causing them difficulty and then put a plan in place to help them get past it. I love “Kids do well if they can”! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Terri for sharing your experiences! I love the “be brave” rule. It kind of reminds me of my professional goal to “get uncomfortable.” I guess that you need to be brave to do that too! 🙂 It’s wonderful to hear that your Kindergarten students can even develop these plans on their own. It really is quite amazing what kids can do when we give them the opportunity to do so.


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