Rewards vs. Bribes: What’s the Difference?

How do you know the difference between when you are rewarding student behavior, bribing student behavior or holding them to logical consequences?

This is really important because if you are bribing and bargaining with your students – you are in deep doodoo.  It often sneaks up on you and before you know it – you are selling your soul for a little piece of mind in the classroom.

Not any more because I have some Teaching Truth for you!  I love teaching truths!

The true reward is the satisfaction of doing the right thing.  It builds character.

Many teachers get confused about the difference between rewarding and bribing.  Isn’t it all the same thing anyway?   Nope.  Not even.

I can give you the bottom line in two words:  compensation and persuading.   It is that simple.  Here is an example of how this works:

FiFi the poodle is running wildly out the front door and down the street. (Hey – sometimes it could be a student. . . .)

  • SCENARIO 1:  You call to FiFi and say “Stop!  Sit down Fifi!”  Fifi obeys you and sits down.  You go and give Fifi a doggie treat.  You just rewarded Fifi for correct behavior (doing the right thing).  Fifi has been compensated for doing what you asked.
  • SCENARIO 2:  You call to FiFi and say “Stop! Sit down FiFi!”  But FiFi keeps running.  You call your command again.  No response from FiFi.  You are worried about her safety so you rush to get a treat and anxiously say, “Look FiFi, come to me and you can have a treat!”   FiFi stops running from you and turns around to come for the treat. You are bribing FiFi into doing what you want her too.  You have just persuaded Fifi.

Do you see the difference?  Let’s break it down even further.  How does it look in the classroom:

Rewards are used to REINFORCE appropriate behavior.  A student is asked to complete a paper first thing each morning.  The student complies and does as he was asked.  He is rewarded for his appropriate action with a trip to the treasure chest on Friday.

Bribes are used to persuade students to do what you want them to.  But here is the catch.
Say for example, this same student is asked to complete a paper first thing each morning.  The student does not do the work and even worse, distracts other students from their work.  The teacher is at his wits end with the lack of work being done.  “Hey!”  he says to this student, “If you finish your work every morning this week – we will have a movie on Friday.”  The student responds (with a sparkle in the eye) “Can I pick it?”  “Sure” replies the teacher.

  • The student was bribed into doing the appropriate behavior.
  • The student DID NOT demonstrate any personal motivation to do what is expected.
  • Respect and responsibility are completely missing from this situation.  In fact, the student was ignoring the teacher’s instructions outright.

While rewarding students has it pitfalls, it does demand that the student is demonstrating personal responsibility to do the right thing.   This is a good thing.

Whereas bribing actually REINFORCES that the student does not need to do the right thing to get what they want.  They can manipulate and hassle the teacher into rewarding them for doing the wrong thing!

SALLY’S TEACHING TRUTH – it never works to bribe and bargain with your class!  It is setting yourself up for more chaos!  Yikes!

The most effective method is logical consequences.  It does not reward or bribe.  It teaches and guides!  (The Classroom Management Boot Camp dives into this big time.)

In the comments below tell me – Where do you think the Light systems fit in (like the red light/green light and similar methods)?  Are they rewards?  Bribes?  Logical consequences?  Love to hear your opinion!!

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  1. This is awesome! thanks for posting!! Now I have a question…sometimes when I want my students to work quietly, I will say things like “I’m looking for students who can clip up on our behavior chart” or “let’s see if we can earn some marbles for our jar” and then a minute later allow someone to clip up or add marbles to the jar. Is that a bribe or a reward?? So confused!! lol

    • It is rewards based on a community level. You are observing the entire class working on task and you “compensate” the class with a marble. The marbles are exchanged for a the final reward.

      It would be bribing if you said “Okay class, it is getting really noisy in here, quiet down.” Nothing happens – noise gets louder. “Quiet!” Nothing happens. “If everyone works quietly – I will let someone put 3 marbles in our jar and maybe we can have a movie on Friday.” Room quiets. Do you see the difference?

    • One more thing – while you might pick individual students who are demonstrating the desired behavior – what really makes this work or NOT is how you say it. Using what I call the “witness” voice that does not put value on the behavior but simply states what you see – such as “Macy is writing and working.” This is magic. Then follow by witnessing other with a simple thumbs up or “Yes.” But it is still based on working as a class.

  2. Mary says:

    I will be teaching Kindergarten for the first time next Fall, and in the meantime, I’m trying to wrap my head around what I want to do for classroom discipline. I have used the “stoplight system” before, but I still have mixed feelings about it.

    I want students to realize that they are responsible for their behaviors and attitudes, and I want other students to be able to help each other stay accountable for these behaviors and attitudes.

    I believe strongly in logical consequences.

    One reason I don’t like the stoplight system is that it often makes each child’s choices so public; I never want a student to feel humiliated or to feel they have to compare themselves to others.

    So then I think maybe a whole-class reinforcement tool is best, like putting together a Mr. Potato Head, adding one piece when we are making respectful agreed-upon choices as a class. Each of these pieces is a tool for positive reinforcement, and there is a reward for a completed Potato Head. I think this reinforces the idea that we are working together as a classroom family toward a shared reward. We can work as a team to achieve our goal.

    Then, I can talk privately to a student who is making undesirable choices that do not follow the social contract. I can set individual goals with that child/child’s family. And that child will receive logical consequences for his/her misbehavior.

    I’d love some feedback on this post; help a new teacher out! 🙂

    • First, you are dead on – the light system SHAMES the children who have no control. If you use a rewards system – it is always best to do it as a whole class or group reinforcement tool. I have done this and it works great. You are so on the money – it reinforces that we are a team/a community of learners – we are in this together! Another teaching truth is to always consider – what are you rewarding? Do you want a class of individuals who are all out to be better than each other? Beating each other at how many rewards they can get? Bigger and better? Or do you want a class of learners who work together to succeed? Where getting everyone on board benefits the whole class?

      Girlfriend – you are so on target! I am sooooo impressed! You are going to rock it in the kindergarten!

  3. Mrs. K says:

    Whoa. I love this post! Now I’m reconsidering my beloved clip chart… hmm…

    • Oh yeah! Think about the students it has not worked with, think about what message you are sending, think about the bottom line of what you are teaching your students. Only you can say. It all depends on many factors but yeah for you for reconsidering – it shows courage!

      It is risky to reconsider our teaching practices but life gets juicy when we do!

  4. If you design a separate behavior plan (consequences and incentives) for a challenging student, would that be bribing the student?

    • I feel it depends on the specific kind of behavior you are dealing with. It is not bribing. If it is like most behavior modification plans – it is rewards based because the desired behavior is being rewarded.

  5. laura says:

    I am worried children will catch on to the fact that if they make the ‘right choise’ then they will get a reward. Then they may only do it because they hope to get a reward rather than for themselves…

  6. Brandi Huckaby says:

    I recommend the book Conscious Discipline by Becky Bailey. Doesn’t use rewards or bribes but teaches school family! Wonderful management style.

    • Love, love, love this book. I agree wholeheartedly. Bailey is the closest thing to my style of management that I have read.

  7. Melanie says:

    I have parents make “badges” from felt or fabric- I give them a template and the volunteers either copy the template or embellish as they wish. I have had the most wonderful badges made for my students.

    I have the volunteers make enough for all the students in our class (plus a few extras).

    Our class goal is to “collect” enough badges for each child in the group. Our class collaboratively chooses one behavior we need to adjust (I usually have this in mind:-) for example, working with a soft voice. Over the course of the next days, I “notice” when the class THE WHOLE CLASS is doing what we’re aiming for and I make a purposeful walk up to the bulletin board with a badge in hand and pin it up. At first, I’ll say something like, “Way to go team- your voices are so soft and I feel very peaceful right now,” or something like that, but the next time I may say nothing at all after pinning one up, but the KIDS smile or say, “Hey, we earned another badge.” We like to count the badges during meeting times and see how many more we need. At first, I don’t wait too long before capitalizing on a “moment” that I see is working. The important thing is to “catch” what you WANT to see/hear. We have goals like making others feel good with our words, on task behavior, quality work, work completion, being responsible for materials. I try to focus on ONE thing at a time and sure enough, things improve our classroom functions at a higher level.

    I LOVE it, it’s working and we all feel like a great TEAM.

    • I think is so great to work as a class for acknowledgement. I like that it is badges and not a party. What a wonderful idea and LOVE that parents helped make the badges. Super idea! Love it!

  8. @Matt_Gomez says:

    Bribing is much worse that rewarding but I dont think either are necessary. I stopped worrying about managing the behavior in my class with a system and focused on relationships and expectations. I wrote about my year with rewards here

    • I am on your train! I have only used a chart (my safe pocket system) one year when I had an extreme behavior disorder and no services. Otherwise – you are so right – focus on being related!

  9. Love the discussion!! It has sparked a change for next year and how I “reward” homework! I did away with the sticker and sticker chart last year, but still gave out jelly beans for their tic-tac-toe and reading. In light of this discussion I realized that homework was part of their “job” of being a student. Their parents have jobs and only get paid once a week….so, instead of daily paying my students for doing their job, we will have “payday Fridays”!! I do think (as my mind is turning while typing this) that I could have a “training” week to practice expectations…..hmmmm. GREAT food for thought!!

    • Brandi Huckaby says:

      As a Conscious Discipline “practitioner” I do not believe in rewards. However, last year I felt like those who completed their homework needed something extra, especially because in kindergarten it’s not actually required that they complete homework. So I created coupons that could be redeemed for special privileges such as having an extra day of being the line leader, sitting at the teacher table at lunch, getting an extra book in your independent reading bag, and checking out an extra library book for the week (cleared with the media specialist of course.) They were definitely a hit and I didn’t feel like I was rewarding them with silly prizes or junk.

  10. Sara says:

    This was the perfect analogy! Thank you so much for bringing it down to layman’s terms.

  11. TammySF. says:

    I wanted to invite you over to my site! I’ve got some great resources that I just posted and I know you would love to have them for your little ones….there’s going to be a giveaway EVERY Day for the next 5 days!! WooHoo!!

    1…2…3…Teach With Me

  12. Christine says:

    I homeschool my son but would like ot offer up a suggestion for everyone to read. The book is called Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach by Howard Glasser. My son is one of those “Difficult” children and in fact we now homeschool because he came home devestated every day because he was always sat out of activities and never got the rewards or to be a part of the group. These “consequences” only worked to make his behaviors worse as he at five years old told me, “she says I don’t listen so I decided I am not going to ever listen to her”. My mother is using the steps in the book with her entire Montessori class and has seen wonderful results. This system uses no rewards or bribes but fills the child’s heart by accetuating the positive behaviors and downplaying the negative behaviors. Highly recommended for all teachers to read. It has helped us sooo much and we have a much better relationship now.
    As a side note, the book does have an option to use a reward type chart but we found we did not need it.

    • Thank you so much for the recommendation. I agree wholeheartedly that nurturing the heart is the way. I appreciate your sharing the deadly impact that the rewards system has – it is why I can’t go there. I saw the damage first hand when I had my most difficult student. It was horrible! I have a manuscript of a book I have written and would love to email it to you for your feedback if you are interested. Your experience is priceless to me. Email me at if you are willing. Again, thank you for a powerful share and another resource for a better way!

      • Elsa Berndt says:

        I have to chime in here, I also saw the red light system be damaging to my child in kindergarten and first grade. He was often on yellow and red for talking out of turn and being too active, both of these are very challenging things for him to deal with, but certainly not “bad” behavior. By the middle of second grade I saw a child who had super high self esteem, feel horrible about himself. Most of the time he was the only one who’s clip was in the red zone, and then he was walking laps and being singled out again. It was so sad.
        We switched him to a new school, and he ended up with a teacher who didn’t use a system that was up for everyone to see. She also embraced him for his gifts, and helped him find ways to redirect his energy. She helped to turn his feelings about school and himself around!
        Now I have a kindergartner who is in a class with the clip system and I see it starting all over again, but I am excited to report that the teacher is eager to change her ways and learn new ideas. I have directed her to your site!
        Any pointers you have for me as a parent, to help encourage and support this teacher to make positive changes in her classroom?

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