Immune to Incentives

The other day, I was supply teaching in a challenging school. I was in a grade 4 classroom that, among other students, contained three children with behavioural problems and one with autism. Even without these four, the class was challenging.

I often bring incentives in case I face situations like this. We supply teachers often go into schools we’ve never been in before and don’t always know what the day will entail. I had some stickers with me and when I saw that my day might be difficult (Before I even introduced myself, two of the children ran out of the room and had to be roped in by a Special Ed. teacher), I addressed the class.

I told them that I had stickers and that I’d be handing them out at the end of the day to the students who were behaving and who were focused on their work.

Most of the time, stickers still work with grade 4 students. Usually when I make such announcements to this age level, I get a number of excited nods and lit-up eyes. In this class, students stared at me vacantly. Two of them actually told me they didn’t care for stickers; they really didn’t interest them.


I have had other experiences like this, though very rarely. Once, I went into another slightly troubled class, this time a grade 4/5 split, and offered to read to them when I saw that they were restless and beginning to get out-of-hand. I held up my book, a children’s fantasy novel with an engaging cover. I got some mumbles and a few outright No’s. Nobody was interested or even a little intrigued.

I wouldn’t be so perplexed if both classes were made up of grade 7 or 8 students since they aren’t always moved by said incentives. But we’re talking 9- and 10-year-olds here!

What is most interesting to me is that the times such strategies failed have been in schools in areas of low socio-economic status.

I will not jump to conclusions here. I haven’t done the research and I don’t have enough evidence but I thought that this would make a great thesis paper: to study how and where and why incentives work. Or why they don’t.

One could say that parents with financial concerns cannot afford to buy their children what might be considered incentives. Or, since incentives do not have to cost anything and can include hugs and praise, are these kids despondent to the point where incentives don’t always matter? Surely, this cannot be true since so many needy children seek love and attention.

It’s all very puzzling.


About randycoates

Randy Coates graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor of arts degree and went on to acquire his teacher’s certificate at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently an elementary teacher in the Toronto District Board of Education.
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