The Carrot vs. the Stick: Motivating Students in the Classroom

We’ve all heard the words “If you do that one more time…” which are quickly followed by some kind of threat. Most of us may have heard our parents say that, probably followed by “you’ll be grounded for a week!” However, this phrase is not unfamiliar to teachers either. This old parenting “gem” is generally brought out in dire situations when we are at our wits’ end and don’t know what to do; we generally follow it up with “You’re going to the principle’s office” or “I’m writing you a referral” or “You’re going to have to spend the rest of the period in the corner wearing a dunce cap!” (oh wait, it’s not 1956. Never mind).

I have found that when trying to motivate students to do what is right (or what I want them to do in class), the carrot works much better than the stick.

Motivating students can be difficult, especially if you are asking them to do something they don’t want to do, like sit quietly at their desk and work on an assignment without distracting others (or themselves). However, it is at these times that we should try the carrot, rather than the stick. Threats rarely work, and if they do, the motivation you are giving your students is coming from the wrong place; students should not be working out of fear they will get into trouble. When students are fearful, this can lead to them feeling uncomfortable in your classroom because it has become an unsafe learning environment (not physically unsafe, but they may begin to fear getting into trouble everyday and thus dread coming to your classroom. None of us want that).

Here are some situations when I implement the carrot, rather than the stick:

A student is continuously calling-out in class. Usually when we are taking notes in class, I have at least one student in each class that cannot contain their thoughts in their head and feel the need to call-out and ask questions or make random comments. Sometimes they are on-topic, usually they are distractors to the other students in the room and I have to stop and bring the class back to focus on the notes. It’s easy to respond to this type of student with “Go outside!” That fixes the problem, right? Wrong. You may have gotten rid of the distraction but you have just taught all of the kids a specific lesson: do not ask questions, do not call out, do not participate. Yes, you also taught them that they need to raise their hands if they want to speak, but you have made your classroom a hostile learning environment. Instead, thank the child for their comment, remind them to raise their hand and then speak to them after class. Let them know that you really appreciate and admire their enthusiasm for the subject matter and that you want them to really focus/reduce their comments in class so that others get a chance to talk. You can a then go few different directions from here. You can tell them to write all of their questions and comments down and then reflect on which should be asked after class, one-on-one, and which questions can be asked during class because they would benefit everyone. You could also ‘challenge’ them to only ask questions that they think others may be wondering. Then say that when they ask a question, you will ask the rest of the class who else was wondering the same thing; this can be like a secret ‘bet’ between the two of you. You can also limit them to three questions per day, in which case, writing their questions down is very helpful. I have done that with students and it’s a great way to get them to focus their questions and make them more succinct so they are not just blurting out everything that comes to mind. Of course, when I say they can only ask three questions per day, that’s during class; be sure to reassure them that they can stay after and ask you more questions. When they are able to restrain themselves (or when you can tell they are trying to) remember to praise, praise, praise! “Thank you for raising your hand!” or “What a great question! Who else is wondering that same thing? Wow! Great!” Show them how doing what you want will get them positive attention rather than negative attention.

A student cannot sit still and is constantly distracting others. First, start with proximity. Generally, just standing near the student can be very effective in getting them to settle down. It usually takes about two minutes to get them completely focused, so get ready to plant near them for a couple of minutes and every time they look up to distract someone else, be there to immediately remind them to focus on their work. Your presence should also help the kids around them focus and they will be less likely to engage with the distractor. Surround them with positive peers that are less likely to be distracted and more likely to remind them to be quiet. Put them near the front of the room, closer to you so you can help support them. Try giving them a classroom job so they feel part of the community and show that you trust them; this way, they will NOT want to break that trust or disappoint you. If they are having a hard time sitting down and focusing on a quiet task, offer to them a chance to walk around the building to get some of their excess energy out. If all of this fails, you can try the fortress of solitude or isolation island that I talked about in this post on classroom management. Remember to praise, praise, praise when they are able to stay focused! Teach them that they can get attention for doing good things in your classroom.

A student will not stop talking over you, and is consistently having side conversations with other students. You can approach this similarly to the situation above. If that doesn’t work, I would suggest a daily check-in that I created for many of my very difficult students. Before they enter class, pull them aside and quickly let them know that you feel they have been having a hard time focusing in class and you want them to be successful. Therefore, you are going to check in before and after class each day to talk about where they fell on a scale of 1-10 for that day. Prior to entering class you will ask them what their goal is for the day on a scale of 1-10, 1=terrible and 10=perfect. You can discuss examples of what various numbers on the scale would look like to help them understand (an 8 might be fairly focused, but just a little chatty a couple of times). Then, at the end of class, they check in with you before leaving and tell you where they think they were during class (if they met their goal) and then you share whether or not you agree and why. Having these daily check-ins works great because it allows them to get quick feedback on their behavior without the fear of getting into trouble. It focuses them so they are forced to actually think about how they are acting and if it’s where they want to be and most importantly, it gives them positive attention from a teacher. More often than not, they will give themselves a lower score than deserved (not surprising that the kid who acts out has low self esteem or self-view), and then I can tell them that I think they did better than that and explain why. Sometimes they will score themselves too high and I can explain that they would have had that number if it weren’t for a specific thing they did and then tell them what it was. I came up with this approach one year ago when I had a group of 5 boys in one class who were all best friends and were all walking around with labels that said “troublemaker” (these students were constantly getting detentions, suspensions, referrals, getting kicked out of other classes and were in danger of not graduating. They were really struggling.) This approach worked beautifully with them. I actually did it as a group with all 5 at the same time. They would all stand outside with me before class, tell me their numbers and then stay after. The great thing about these boys was that when we were reflecting on their numbers, they were giving each other feedback: “No, dude, you were so NOT an 8! You were, like, a 6.5. You talked three times!!” It was awesome to see them holding each other accountable. Plus, when they started to act out in class, I just had to give them a look like “hmmm is this 8 behavior?” and they quickly straightened up. And, of course: praise, praise, praise when they do something right and meet their goal or act better than yesterday! (At the end of the year, those boys wanted to take a picture with me and all hugged me and said “thank you for not giving up on us.” It took everything within me not to cry. I will never forget those words or how they made me feel.)

A student is not turning in most work and is failing your class. First and foremost, ask them why they are not turning in their work. Sometimes there are things going on at home that make it very difficult for them to do their work (both parents are working and they have to take care of their four younger siblings and they just do not have time for homework). Offer solutions, if you are willing to give up your lunch hour or stay a little bit after school, offer to help them get their work done during one of those times. They will probably say no, but keep offering until they accept. What is their elective? If it’s a class like study hall, see if you can make arrangements with the teacher to send them to you during that period so that they can focus on the assignments missing from your class. That way, if they have questions you are right there to help. Make a special packet of the missing work and send it home with them (if age appropriate, contact the parents for this one to let them know it’s coming home). Offer them some kind of incentive for each paper they bring back to you (for me, I give out classroom tickets that I draw for prizes once a month). Let them know they are getting the “friends and family discount” and that you will accept all late papers from them until they bring their grade up to a C. Show them that you are on their side, give them many opportunities to be successful, but remind them that they have to meet you half-way. And…. when they turn something in, praise, praise, praise!!

A student refuses to do work in class. Give them choices. Often, when students are refusing to do work, it’s a power struggle. They feel out of control, so in order to take control, they choose not to do the work. Offering choices, can allow them to take ownership through autonomy. When they feel that they have a say, they will often end up doing something. I usually give 3 options: The current task, something similar with equal difficulty or something more difficult (depending on the age group, you may want to limit choices to 2 for younger students in elementary levels). For example, if I have students silently reading and annotating the text, I may give this student a choice of reading and summarizing the text in 2-3 paragraphs or reading the text and creating a 10 question quiz with answer key. They are still reading, they are still thinking about the material, but they are choosing the activity themselves which will most likely result in them doing something. If you are able, you can try to make some of the other options more friendly for different learning styles; this way, students can also self modify and choose something that feels more aligned with their comfort level. I actually used this concept for my masters research (almost two years ago I graduated with my Masters in Education with an emphasis on Curriculum and Instruction). My action-research showed that, with my population of students, the overall productivity increased when options were given. It had the highest effect on students who were struggling academically and the least effect on students who were already successful (they were already doing their work, so there wasn’t much room for improvement with those students). Again, when they make their choice and do the assignment (even just part of it), praise, praise, praise! Show them that you are proud of them and give them credit for the amount that they got done, even if it’s just 3 out of 10 points. This should eventually lead to them doing more and more in an attempt to get more praise from you.

A student is being rude or disrespectful to you or someone else. When I was first starting out as a teacher, I went to a classroom management seminar and learned about the 2×10 model. Man, does it work! Just as an example, at the beginning of the year, I had a student who flipped me off in class (sneakily, so it would have become a debate of he-said/she-said), so I played it off and I immediately employed the 2×10 method; now we get along great. This method is very simple: for two minutes a day you engage in conversation with the student about things that they like. They’re wearing a Yankees jersey, talk to them about the Yankees and how they are doing this season, who their favorite player is, have they ever gone to a game, etc. Wearing a band t-shirt? Talk to them about that. Are they a total enigma? Ask how their weekend was, try to get any information out of them. Do this for 10 days straight. They may resist at first, but when they realize that you are going to keep coming back, they will eventually talk with you. This is a great way to show that you are not the enemy! You care! When they give you information to go off of, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little research. They like the Lakers? Find out when they are playing next and use that as your next conversation starter: “Are you ready for the big game tonight against _____?” Find out when that band that they like is coming to the area “I heard Metallica is coming to the area for a concert, are you going? You are? Cool!” They may roll their eyes or look at you like you are crazy, but it will mean something to them that you are trying. Be persistent! Don’t give up on them! If you keep at it you will eventually win them over. Sometimes it takes a bit longer than the 10 days to fully gain their trust depending on their background, but you will see the walls starting to crumble before the two weeks are up. If this task seems daunting to you, think about this: would you rather spend two minutes a day trying to win over a difficult kid or spend the rest of the year fighting with them and dealing with a constant power-struggle in your class?

Remember: motivation can come in two ways–intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation means that the student is motivated for internal reasons (they want to feel proud of themselves, they want to accomplish that specific grade, they want to be successful, etc). Extrinsic motivation means that they are trying to obtain a specific object, prize or a physical reward (prizes, money etc). Obviously, intrinsic motivation is better as it teaches the students that they should be trying to do well in school for themselves, not for anything or anyone else. However, sometimes, in order to get our students to a place of being intrinsically motivated, we need to implement a little extrinsic motivation for buy-in. Just beware, often when extrinsic motivators are introduced, the stakes need to be increased in order to keep their attention, unless you are also praising their actions to begin leading them to more intrinsic motivation. Example: Giving a student a reward for staying focused ALL class when this has been nearly impossible in the past. Start with something small, and allow them to choose (I have a box of random toys in my classroom that I give out as part of my ticket drawings). By allowing them to choose, they may eventually choose nothing if you really start to hand out heavy verbal praise to them and even call home to also get the praise happening on both ends. The student will most likely be so excited by all of the positive attention they are getting that they will now really want to do well everyday in your class.

Good luck as you try to win over and cheer on those ‘difficult’ students. I believe in you! Now, show those students that you believe in them.

-The Ardent Teacher


Photo Credit goes to: Bruce Thomson


4 thoughts on “The Carrot vs. the Stick: Motivating Students in the Classroom

  1. Robyn says:

    These are wonderful ideas. I sometimes struggle with that student that refuses to do work and I have to focus not to get visibly frustrated with them. I am going to try employing your strategy. May I ask what you do if the student continues to refuse even when given the choice between activities?


    • Hi Robyn,

      Thank you for your kind words. We have all dealt with that student– the one who gets under our skin and refuses to do what we ask. You are right to focus on not visibly showing your frustration (or anger, for that matter). I sincerely hope my strategies work for you.
      Now, onto your question. When faced with a student who is not responding to choice, my first suggestion would be to ask them to go outside with you. By, asking them to join you, rather than sending them out (“let’s go outside and talk” vs “go outside. I’ll be right there”) sends a very different message– it’s putting you in a support role and takes them
      off the defensive. By removing them from their environment and away from their peer audience, it changes the dynamic between the two of you. They should no longer feel the need to “perform” or “assert” themselves. Once outside, simply ask them “what’s going on?”. You will either get a real (and possibly surprising) answer or they will continue to shut you out. Based on their answer, help them come up with a solution to get their work done. Do they need to work in another room? Do they need another option? See if they have a suggestion. If they continue to shut you out, let them know you are just trying to help, but unless they meet you halfway, you will have no other option than to send them to the office due to defiance (make it clear that you don’t want this anymore than they do). Regardless of what happens, by showing how willing you are to work with them, things should eventually get better as you are starting to prove to them that you care (it’s my experience that this type of defiant student feels like they are alone in this world).

      I hope this helps and good luck! Feel free to ask me for more help or suggest topics for future blog posts!


      The Ardent Teacher


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