Classroom Management: Positive Social Motivation

I’ve already written about how I set up my classroom to teach students to encourage and respect each other, both in the context of Christian groups and public school classrooms. But setting expectations is just the beginning. How do you maintain the expectations? Negative consequences only? Should we put a rewards system in place? What about points, tokens, tickets for a mini store? Or the ever-popular reward: edible treats? How can we motivate students to reach for the goals?

In writing how I create an encouraging classroom, there are 6 parts:

  1. Creating an Encouraging Classroom
  2. Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher (This is how my journey started and how Ron Clark’s writing influenced me.)
  3. Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats? (You are currently reading this article.)
  4. Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
  5. Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom
  6.  (Not yet completed) List of Encouraging Choices and Behaviors: Concrete Examples for Students

While I teach in many different settings, what I describe below comes from my most recent experience of a homeschool group called Classical Conversations. The classes meet once a week and are designed small: 8-9 students. The age group I’m focusing on is the 9-13 year old set.

Reward system

I do not set up any tangible reward system. No pizza parties for good behavior, no jars to fill with marbles, red lights or green lights, or tickets. “Why not” required another post, Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give? In short, I decided I did not want to start the expectation of a tangible reward.  I’ve learned that for this age group, other things are even more motivating. They care about their peers and generally thrive and come alive the more social interaction they can get! And yet, this is also a challenge for students of this age: how to make friends and still treat others well.

My growing up, as well as observations of kids, taught me that a lot of social interaction and making friends is based on making connections with others and then trying to maintain them  by excluding others, even making fun of and ridiculing them. Part of the challenge of this age group is teaching then positive social behaviors and coaching them to choose better than human nature’s tendencies when insecurity rears its head. So I want to motivate my students by rewarding them with more social choices the better they treat each other.

First, let me back up and explain what students arrive to on the first day. I always start with assigned seats usually denoted by notes with names placed on each seat. For this age group, I seat two girls by each other, then two boys by each other.


                                                      photo by Namasteschool via Flickr

After kids have been introduced to our classroom goals (in Creating an Encouraging Classroom), I explain the benefits of a classroom where each of us encourages those around  us by our level of participation, attitude, comments and follow-through of directions. When we create a space where everyone feels encouraged, actively tries to keep the space positive and helps each other learn, a lot of privileges unfold.

I ask if they’d like to be able to pick their own seats for class. Resoundingly, the answer has always been, “Yes!” And this is key; for this age group, approximately grades 4-8, the social world is beginning to become more important than it has been in the past. Peers are a powerful motivation. This is the privilege we work for: to choose their own seats (which usually works out to all boys sitting together, all girls sitting together, at least through six grade 🙂 )

The privilege of maturely providing an encouraging environment to all around them is having this freedom to choose where to sit and by whom to sit. I explain that it can be done on a person-by-person basis. Based on how well they live out the class goals/class verse, they could return to the next day of classes and find more choice.

Week-By-Week Progression

I start the year doing it in steps:

Second class: I have names on sticky notes placed on desks for only students who need more practice and training on class goals. The rest of the sticky notes are placed on seats, but they say merely, “boy” or “girl.” When students arrive, I tell them if they don’t find their name, they may choose any seat for their gender. I still have seats paired off by gender at this point.  If any student showed in the previous class that he/she needs to be nearest to me or separated from certain other students, I keep assigning that child a seat by name. (Note: if you have, for instance, a talkative girl you do not want with friends you know she will only distract her self with, then to ensure other girls cannot choose to sit by her, make sure to place a note for a boy to sit in the seats near her.)

The third class meeting time, if all things are  a go for releasing more privileges, I may have the room arranged so that more than two of the same gender can choose to sit together.

Eventually, you’ll probably get to the point that all students have earned the privilege of more freedom because they have shown progress in building up their classmates rather than tearing them down or tearing down learning efforts. Especially if this occurs early in the year, or I am concerend about 4-5 kids of the same gender tempted to lose their minds when they get to sit together, I may choose to have the seats divided by “girl” and “boy” cards so that no more than three of the same gender can end up together. My goal is to give them the best chance for success and some kids need this more incrementally than others.

Of course the pinnacle is when they walk in and there are no notes on any seats! They can truly choose to sit wherever they want.


                                               photo by Save the Children via Flickr

The beauty of this system is that it is easy to pull back for a single or couple students without having it repeal the privileges earned by the rest of the class.

This never lost its appeal. The entire year, studnets remained motivated to want to keep the privilege. As they saw me have to pull back the privilege by varying degrees for some studnets, the entire class took seriously there was a standard, an expectation, for them to treat all others in the room (evne me) by those principals of encouragement laid out in the beginning with our class verse and goal.


If you run into the scenario of a certain student or two whom you feel need to be reigned back in every other week, this is possible. However, be careful to be sensitive. Some kids are really sensitive to being singled out. Seeing that their name is the only name on a seat week after week can create an undue burden (can lead to tears or aggression to save face) when it can be managed differently. Some students who seem to care the least are actually very sensitive; they may even act out and draw negative attention to themselves to help save face for the embarrassment. I try to avoid situations that make a student feel they have something to prove while also still letting the individual know the consequences hold.

One way I’ve managed this is by numbering the desks. When students showed up, I held two baggies with notes in them. One bag had papers that read “choose any seat.” The other bag had papers that had specific numbers on them–usually front seats or seats along the edge so they were next to only one other student and easy for me to reach if they needed intervention. The beauty of this is that no one knew what anyone’s paper said. All anyone knew was that people walked to a numbered seat. Not everyone even really knew who didn’t have the choice–except those specific individuals.


Another flexibility I like is that there are more than two degrees in this. If I notice all boys are quite rowdy, then the next class, the desk may be labelled with specific “boy” tags, perhaps the seats nearest me, etc, but the girls do not have tags. And as always, I retain the right to move anyone’s seat as necessary, even in the middle of class. Sometimes, it cannot wait until the following week, so I make some shifts to help us through the rest of the class.

In my years of doing this, this has alway worked well. I’ve never had a student fight with me: “Why do I have an assigned seat today? What did I do last week? Why don’t I get to choose?”


                                              photo by USAG-Humphreys via Flickr

Part of the reason may be because I built really good relationships with these students. Especially the ones who needed more intervention. I purposely built into them. I wanted them to know I love them and care about them.

Sometimes I have wondered if I am a bit too nebulous. Students are told that if I have to repeatedly correct them, expect to have an assigned seat the next class. I’ve never gotten so specific as to say, “One is a warning, two means you cannot sit by your best friend, and third time means an assigned seat.” I am glad of that. I do feel this would be much harder for me to regulate/keep track of, and perhaps even lead to temptation to argue: “But I don’t remember you telling me anything three times!” I have left myself some wiggle room. Maybe it’s accurate to say that if I have to intervene in a student’s behavior two times, I have chosen not to give him complete freedom next class. Not sure. I like to not have myself chained to strict procedures that students will expect me to adhere to; I need the freedom to deal with students on an individual basis too. Some just cannot be managed the same way others can. One student would crumble if called out while another barely registers a reprimand, like water off a duck’s back. You have to take personality into account, and this is where it is better to weigh a student’s choices differently than by numbering them and saying “3 strikes, you’re out.” This rule of thee can be appropriate, easy and helpful at times, but it just  does not work for me in this context.

You may have been asking yourself questions about accountability. How do I talk to my students when they are edging up to the line or ccrossing it? How do I intervene? What do I say to get them back on track? How do I hold students accountable in a way that encourages them rather than shuts them down? Read about that here.

So, fellow teachers, tutors and youth leaders, has anyone else found a way to avoid tangible rewards system and still motivate students to reach your classroom goals?

Other resources for teaching/tutoring:
OiLs lesson #1: How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1 (Masters and Journeymen level)

Basics of Drawings: Fine Arts Week 1 for Classical Conversations (Masters and Journeymen level)




About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
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2 Responses to Classroom Management: Positive Social Motivation

  1. Pingback: How I Talk to My Students about Drawing on Day One | Renee Lannan's blog

  2. Pingback: Basics of Drawing: Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations | Renee Lannan's blog

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