A group of children standing on a bridge

Rewarding students in the classroom can be an effective way to encourage good behavior and positive work habits that will have significant benefits throughout the rest of your students’ academic careers and beyond.

While it is important to model to our students that we should always do our best regardless of whether or not it will benefit us personally, it can be especially useful to provide more tangible incentives for younger elementary students to help them develop these motivations.

Luckily, classroom rewards don’t have to be expensive or extravagant to have a big impact! The most important thing to remember is that different people are motivated by different things. Each new class is a new challenge, and every student is a puzzle-box, so keep track of which rewards seem to be especially effective motivators for each student, and make sure to rotate through different rewards to try out different tactics and discover new strategies.

Why and When Teachers Should Use Rewards

People are more likely to do their best work and practice more positive social behaviors when they’re given feedback on their progress to let them know when they’re doing well. Just correcting mistakes isn’t enough; people also need positive reinforcement and reassurance that they’re meeting (or exceeding) expectations.

Rewards are a more tangible way to encourage students to continue their hard-won progress and convey a job well done. While we say rewards are “more tangible,” we’re not just talking about physical objects. Rewards are celebrations of success, and those celebrations can take many forms!

You can give rewards individually for students who meet their classroom goals or keep up good behaviors they’ve been working on. You can reward students in smaller groups, such as groups who are on task during an assignment, or students who get outside of their comfort zone by going above and beyond. You can even reward the whole classroom with a larger incentive for meeting a challenging classroom goal.

The only time we don’t recommend using rewards is when they start to turn from being motivators for those who receive them to punishments for those who don’t. If one or two particular students are consistently being left out—or if rewards are being given in a way that always leaves out one student—consider reassessing how rewards are being given and whether that can be changed so no one is being singled out.

18 Fun Rewards for Elementary Students

1. Helping

Students can be motivated by learning more about adults and the jobs they do. Good candidates for the adults in this reward include school librarians, school custodians, school administrators, other teachers or even the principal or vice principal!

If they’re able to spend some one-on-one time with a student chatting about their work while the student helps them with small tasks, then they’re the perfect person to be involved in this reward. Depending on your students’ ages and abilities to keep on task, this reward can be one-on-one or include a small group of 2-3 students as helpers for one person.

2. Participating in Announcements

A lot of kids, if properly motivated (and some regardless of motivation), are natural performers with their own sense of showmanship. Encouraging this dramatic flair can be a powerful motivator, and one way you can do this is by letting them participate in classroom or school announcements! Rewarding students for good behavior by affirming another behavior they love will help create a positive feedback loop of good behavior.

3. Extra Time with a Favorite Grown-up

Similar to the “Helping” reward, but without any formal direction, such as helping with small work tasks, this is more of a social event. The student and their favorite grown-up (again, good candidates include school librarians, other teachers or anyone else who’s especially favored at the school) can spend time chatting, reading a book together, playing a game, coloring, working on the student’s lessons or watching funny videos.

4. Lunch Meeting

Looking for a more guided meet-up opportunity for student rewards? Try rewarding them with a lunch meeting with a chosen favorite grown-up. This can be lunch at a nearby restaurant or a more laid back, bring-your-own sack lunch, depending on what works best for everyone involved. Having a lunch meeting gives the time a little more structure, and there will be plenty to talk about—if all else fails, just talk about food!

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5. Read to Younger Students

If you teach upper-level elementary students, consider the potential of mentoring programs that match older students with younger students. The bulk of this mentoring program can involve reading together, either with the older student reading to the younger or vice versa.

This gives the older students an opportunity to help teach and the younger students an opportunity for guided learning. If you coordinate it well, this can be a reward for both classrooms for meeting different goals.

6. Letter Home (the Good Kind!)

Rewards don’t have to be over the top to be effective. Send home a letter praising something they’ve done recently at school. Your students will appreciate that you took the time to notice them and recognize them in a way that puts your praise in front of their guardians!

7. Line Leader

Elementary students love taking charge as the leader—use that to your advantage by turning it into a reward! Choose the line leader for recesses and lunch by recognizing different students for their achievements or accomplishments; make sure to announce why the line leader is being awarded this prestigious title, and change the reasons for awarding the title frequently to make sure everyone can be rewarded.

8. Teach the Class

If your classroom is full of young learners with diverse and hyper-specific interests who love talking about their favorite thing—and which classroom isn’t?—this is the perfect opportunity for a new classroom reward incentive!

Choose a student who has done something you want to recognize and let them know they’ll have the chance to teach the whole classroom about their favorite thing. Set a time limit—somewhere between 5-10 minutes is ideal—and let them teach their peers all about their favorite TV show, board game, book or anything else they need the whole class to know.

9. Choose the Read-Aloud Book

Start up a weekly reward of allowing a student to choose the read-aloud book for story time. You can announce at the beginning of the week what students will have to do to get this reward, or you can select someone based on overall performance and share the reason they’re being rewarded when you let them know it’s their turn to select the book.

This is a good way for students to get to hear their favorite story and share it with the rest of the class—or maybe the whole class will all conspire to choose the same fan-favorite book to read every week!

10. Extra Recess

No class has ever tried to turn down extra recess, and if this isn’t on your list of classroom rewards, consider adding it immediately!

Beyond being an all-time crowd pleaser and guaranteed to be the answer when someone asks, “What did you do at school today?”, extra recess is also the perfect way to add some more activity to the day and give young learners a chance to burn off some energy to leave their brains calmer, more able to focus and ready for the next lesson!

A group of children playing soccer11. Extra Sports or Game Time

If you want a more guided version of “Extra Recess,” then try rewarding your class by giving a set amount of time to play a sport or a game.

Competitive activities help students learn important traits like teamwork, good sportsmanship and how to have fun whether they win or lose. More collaborative games that don’t have winners and losers at the end teach many of the same skills and also teach students how to play games non-competitively, which is a skill that can be transferred to any activity with elements of free play.

12. Dance Party

Motivate your classroom by setting a goal at the top of the week and rewarding the class with a Friday dance party when they succeed. This is a good classroom incentive for longer term goals, such as meeting a certain average number of correct answers on a spelling test, or having each student achieve a specific goal.

Choose goals that are specific, measurable and achievable based on your knowledge of your classroom, with the intent of having a dance party and you’ll help everyone to get there.

13. Music While Working

Some students can be extremely motivated by being allowed to listen to music while working on activities, especially neurodivergent students who benefit from having an audio-stim to help with focus. Ideally, the music will not have lyrics, as hearing words can be distracting, and the activity should also be chosen with care to make sure the music isn’t distracting or hindering anyone’s ability to complete the task at hand.

14. Switched Seating

To switch things up and gain a new perspective, just switch where your students are sitting. Reward your classroom with a free seating day where they choose where they’d like to sit and don’t have to stay in their usual seat or with their usual group. Encourage them to sit with people they don’t usually spend a lot of time with, have a short icebreaker game to get everyone comfortable with their new groups and note any surprising changes to the group dynamics.

15. Movie Day

As a big reward for the whole classroom, watching a movie in school is hard to beat! If possible, have movie-themed snacks available (such as popcorn), and get your students involved in selecting the movie. Find a few options that are related to recent or future lessons and put it to a vote which one will be enjoyed.

16. Art Gallery Showing

Celebrate a classroom achievement in the arts by hosting your own classroom art gallery showing. Put your students’ artwork up on the classroom walls and take a tour around the room, allowing a few minutes for each student to give an “artist’s statement” where they explain their art, their inspiration and anything else they’d like everyone to know about their creative process.

This can be especially beneficial as a way for students to get positive feedback from each other about something they’ve created and care about.

17. Dress-Up Day

Choose a theme and get wild with it! Your whole class can dress up to reference recent lessons (such as historical figures), as their favorite animals or in retro outfits from a specific decade (the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s are all fair game now). You can have themed activities and games to match or a very normal and regular day except for the fact you’re spelling to students dressed as zebras, alligators and jaguars.

18. Publish a Classbook

One more way to reward your students is by turning your whole class into published authors! You can help your class create their very own classbook and become published authors by using one of our FREE classbook publishing kits! Simply sign up online, and we’ll provide everything you need to publish your students’ writing and illustrations, including any help you need along the way.

Nearly any classroom subject or area of focus is the perfect place to start brainstorming about your classbook project! Each of your students will contribute one page of writing and one page of illustration to help create something so much more than the sum of its parts—you’ll get a free classroom copy, and parents can also order copies to keep at home as a literary time capsule and keepsake for the future.

You can also check out our blog and online Teacher’s Lounge for more writing activities, lesson plans and teaching strategies. Now that you have oodles of new ideas to add to your own list of rewards for your elementary students, you’ll have even more ways to incentivize good behavior and a job well done!