Praise and Reward Systems Anti-Bullying Network

Back Praise and reward systems have their origin in behaviourist psychology which in turn underpins many of the commercial packages on promoting good discipline that are now available to schools. In brief, these packages suggest that schools can make a difference to children's behaviour by setting out clear rules and specifying rewards and sanctions for breaking the rules. The essence of these systems is a belief that children can choose how to behave. By recognising and rewarding 'good' behaviour and punishing 'bad' behaviour it is believed that the good behaviour will be encouraged. Many commentators argue that schools react only to 'bad' behaviour and do nothing to recognise or reinforce the good behaviour of most young people most of the time. Critics suggest that such an approach is too simplistic as it eliminates the context in which behaviour occurs and places total responsibility on the individual for his or her behaviour. Despite these criticisms, praise and reward systems are now in operation in many primary and secondary schools in Scotland. Teachers and pupils seem to like them and they are reported as having beneficial effects on pupil behaviour in general.

Although there is some variation in the detailed operation of systems they have a number of features in common.

Setting the Rules

There needs to be a clear set of rules. Schools report that a small number of rules is preferable as everyone will be able to remember them. Many schools have three or four rules for the whole school, which often focus on rights and relationships and help to define the desired ethos. They may be overtly positive (e.g. "everyone has the right to have their concerns listened to") or seemingly negative (e.g. "no put-downs"). However, all rules should help to achieve an orderly ethos in which achievement and positive relationships are valued equally.

Sometimes rules for the whole school and for the classroom are the same. This has the obvious benefit of promoting consistency throughout the school. Sometimes there is one extra rule to take into account the special circumstances of a particular subject department, or age group, for example safety rules in science or physical education. There are many advantages to expressing rules in positive terms, not least the setting of expectations of good behaviour. The following is a typical set of classroom rules:

  • Arrive on time, in an orderly manner and with the necessary equipment;
  • When the teacher gives instructions, stop, look, listen and then do as you are told;
  • Do your best in your work and allow others to do their best;
  • Raise your hand if you wish to speak to the teacher and then wait quietly for the teacher's attention.

Teachers report that respect for these kinds of rules is heightened if pupils and parents are involved in deciding what they should be and why they are needed. The agreed rules are displayed in classrooms and around the school to remind everyone of what they are.

Sanctions and Punishments

The consequences of breaking rules are clearly specified. Again this is most effective if sanctions are worked out collaboratively with pupils and parents. An example of sanctions for breaking classroom rules is given below. They begin with the less severe and gradually increase in severity:

  • verbal warning;
  • pupil moved to another seat;
  • punishment exercise;
  • pupil moved to another classroom;
  • detention;
  • referred to a senior member of staff;
  • excluded from class;

At some stage (perhaps if misbehaviour is persistent or serious - but not if there is an isolated minor problem) parents are informed that their child has been given a punishment for breaking classroom or school rules. This, in itself, should not be seen as a sanction as that could lead to a situation in which the only time parents are personally contacted by teachers is when there is a problem. An aspect of praise systems is that positive contact with parents is encouraged.

Praise and Rewards

The most novel aspect of these systems for Scottish teachers is recognising good behaviour. We seem to be much more accustomed to noticing and reacting to bad behaviour that to acknowledging good behaviour. Research on teachers' classroom talk has shown that teachers use praise very infrequently. Most of their talk concerns giving instructions, explaining something or organising work. Even where individual teachers use praise and encourage their pupils there is very seldom a formal system for recognising pupils` efforts. In contrast there is a formal system for recognising bad behaviour.

Praise and reward systems involve the formal and public recognition of good behaviour. Recognition is the reward. Again, the particular systems in use vary according to the individual circumstances of each school. They typically involve a praise card or homework diary in which the teacher stamps a mark or places a sticker to indicate good behaviour or effort. Each stamp is worth a number of points and the accumulation of these leads to a bronze, silver or gold award, presented at a year group or school assembly for the most prestigious award. Schools design their own awards or certificates and year groups in secondary schools or individual classes in primary schools can have their own particular designs.

Parents are informed about the awards to their children and can be present at the award giving ceremony. At a lower level there can be a positive referral to a senior member of staff for good behaviour and effort. This makes quite a change for these staff who are accustomed to seeing pupils for indiscipline rather than for good behaviour.

Schools using these systems report a general improvement in atmosphere, although they are by no means a panacea for all discipline problems.

What has this to do with Bullying?

There is no firm evidence that the introduction of a praise and reward system in a school will immediately help to reduce the level of bullying. However, we know that most victims of bullying and some bullies suffer from low self-esteem. It seems reasonable to assume that, in the long term, any system which helps such young people to feel better about themselves is likely to help prevent bullying behaviour and to speed the healing process for those who are suffering from its effects.

The sanctions which form a part of such schemes can, in certain limited circumstances, be a deterrent to bullying. They may help prevent overt physical attacks or bring an end to a tradition of initiation ceremonies. However, before they can be used, there must be clear evidence that a rule has been broken. Bullying is often a hidden activity so such evidence can be difficult to gather. Bullying may simply involve a child being excluded from a group by her peers but for a child with a sensitive temperament this can be devastating. In other cases it may be difficult to decide if what has happened is really bullying or not: there is a fine dividing line between social teasing and unacceptable name-calling. All of this makes it difficult to specify the sanctions which would be imposed if a no-bullying rule were to be broken - and even more difficult to prove that such an infringement has happened. Other anti-bullying strategies will have to be applied in response to the majority of bullying incidents.


Schools have identified a number of issues which need to be addressed if praise and reward systems are to be effective:

  • The need for consistency among teachers in their use of sanctions and rewards; (This means a lot of time spent in discussion, setting up the system and explaining its rationale and a reduction in teachers' autonomy.)
  • regular monitoring of how the system is working, looking at patterns of positive and negative referrals, investigating variation amongst departments or stages and taking steps to ensure consistency;
  • avoiding rewards which have a monetary value or which signal that school work is not valued - for example being allowed to arrive late or being excused homework;
  • ensuring that praise is genuine and deserved not routine and meaningless;
  • keeping the system fresh and meaningful - each year with the arrival of a new set of pupils it needs to be reintroduced.

Can Praise ever be Harmful?

It is possible that in certain circumstances praise by teachers could have a deleterious effect. For example, if a child who was perceived by his peers as being a 'swot' were to be over-praised this could further isolate him from the group. In the long term, of course, the aim is to create an ethos in which personal achievement is valued by all members of the school community but, until this goal has been reached, teachers should be sensitive to the feelings of potentially vulnerable individuals. This is particularly important when dealing with older teenage boys. In Scotland and elsewhere this is a group in which academic achievement is often seen as not being 'cool' or macho; support structures are less well developed than among girls of the same age; and there is a rising rate of suicide. Praise systems, however, are based on a wide notion of achievement and not are not confined to academic attainment. Essentially they are concerned with the development of the whole person and are a way of making explicit the school's role in this process.


Praise and reward systems can help to establish a positive ethos in schools by recognising the good behaviour and effort of pupils. Most schools have systems for dealing with bad behaviour and many have systems for recognising the sporting and academic achievements of pupils. Until recently fewer schools had systems for recognising the good behaviour of pupils. If the trappings are introduced without the underlying discussion of, and agreement with, the rationale underpinning the system, then the system will quickly fail.

In addition, the beneficial effects of a system which has been devised and implemented exclusively by adults may be limited in situations where adults are not present. Research tells us that a surprisingly large amount of subtle but harmful bullying takes place in the classroom. However, much more happens in the playground, corridors, toilets and other places out of adult sight. To tackle this it is vital that strategies should be adopted which ensure that pupils are appropriately consulted and fully involved. Methods used to achieve this, including circle time, pupil councils, buddy schemes, peer mediation etc., can be a vital complement to a praise and reward scheme.

Praise and reward systems have to be part of a larger picture of a whole school ethos of positive relationships. In other words such systems have to be congruent with the deep structures and values of the school, otherwise they are doing no more than putting a Band-Aid on behaviour issues. Most schools who have experience of these systems say that they help tackle low-level indiscipline and they help pupils with deeper emotional and behavioural problems. However, additional support and help is also needed for these pupils.


Munn, P. (ed) (1999) Promoting Positive Discipline Edinburgh: Moray House Publications.

Smith, I. (1999) Is Praise Always a Good Thing? Dundee: Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum.


PeaceBuilders is a long-term, community-based, violence reduction/crime prevention programme. It is designed to help create an environment that reduces violence and establishes more peaceful ways of behaving, living and working. It incorporates many of the elements of a praise and reward scheme and is intended to affect all aspects of the ethos of a school. It does not emphasise the use of sanctions. The Anti-Bullying Network is supporting a trial of this programme in a Scottish primary school.

Pamela Munn and Andrew Mellor
April 2000

Back Any comments or questions about this information sheet should be directed
to Andrew Mellor at the Anti-Bullying Network.

0131 651 6103

This information sheet may be photocopied or reproduced for use within schools and other educational establishments providing the Anti-Bullying Network is credited.