Someone asked me recently about how I keep the boys focused and inspired especially with a cute, distracting baby brother around. I have used an incentive program with my boys every year (for various reasons) that helps us move through the day's projects and activities. It may not be a popular idea since it seems to borrow from the government schools, but it makes engaged learning more fun and on the days when even a great incentive can't make it more fun it, at least, ensures that we don't just give it all up for the year...er, day.
1. The Reward Puzzle
During J's first grade year I wrote a note to him on a sheet of paper like, "Let's walk to the park." "Let's make cookies today." or "Enjoy playing with a friend." Sometimes it was just a note to say that I thought he was good at something or just a note of love. I cut it into six pieces and colored them all a different color that corresponded with our folders of activities for the day. (i.e. his blue folder was for drawing something about our lesson so the front of that folder had a pocket on it with a blue puzzle piece in it). When he finished the activities in his six folders he earned the puzzle piece. When all six were earned he could read the puzzle. If there was ever a power struggle in which he refused to do a particular folder then he simply didn't receive the piece. And if he didn't receive the piece, he couldn't do/have/know what was on the puzzle.
At this point it wasn't about behavior as much as it was about helping him stay focused. He enjoyed "doing school" for the most part but attitude did play into whether or not he received his puzzle pieces.
2. The Punch Card
I spend my summers trying to find ways to fine tune what didn't work by utilizing methods that did. The problem with the puzzle reward was that there were only so many free or low cost things I could think of to write. So, I had about 20 of them that I rotated over and over. By the end of the year he didn't always care about the reward as much as he cared about being able to earn all his puzzle pieces. So, the punch card took over.
I moved from colored folders to five colored wall pockets (Spelling, Writing, Unit study, etc). Same idea as the folders but in a different package. I made up a punch card with a row for each pocket and a column for each day of the unit we were in. When he finished the pocket he punched his card. If he got all of his punches for the whole unit study (usually 2-3 weeks) we ventured to Barnes and Noble where I would buy him any book he chose as long as it was connected to what we had just studied. I gave him a wide berth because it needed to be a reward but I did give him a price limit.
3. The Marble Jar
The problems with the punch card were: J couldn't easily use the hand held hole puncher, shopping for a book took a long time because he didn't know how to search for things and there wasn't any opportunity for instant gratification. He was also bucking the system more and so attitude needed to count for something. Enter the Marble Jar.
This is one I remember my ps teacher using in my sixth grade class. If the class filled up the jar to a certain line, then we got a pizza party or something. So, if he completed Bible, Book time (social studies or science lesson), Math and six stations "cheerfully and cooperatively" he got one or two marbles for each one. He could earn up to about 12 marbles a day. It's pretty gratifying to hear marbles clinking in the jar every 20 minutes or so. When he filled the jar to the line he got some rewards similar to the ones I had used in his reward puzzle two years earlier -- now adjusted for his new age and interests. I just wrote them on slips of paper and put them around the outside of the jar with a rubber band. Nothing was a secret. He needed to know what he was working toward and the choice was his when it came time to earn them.
4. The Marble Jar Revisited
The marble jar worked so well that we did it again next year. By now B was well involved with school. The previous year he didn't require the marble jar to move along because his "schooling" was about 45 minutes with mom a few days a week. That meant that whenever J earned his reward, B got the same thing. Now B was in Kindergarten and he wanted a marble jar too. So we did the same thing only this time I went with a treaure box full of dumb...er, fascinating toys and pencils and packs of candy. When they made it to their lines they got to pick something out of the box. And to alleviate the competition between them the rule was if either of them made it to their lines they both got to pick something.
5. The Race Track
The marble jar was fine but after two years J said he was done with it and he wanted to try something new. It had some downfalls. We would forget to do marbles many days which meant the kids felt like I "owed" them something and I didn't like that. It was also hard to keep S out of the marble jars and marbles would get lost. This year we worked together to come up with a new incentive program. That was the first great idea.
The best part was that it is pretty much the brainchild of my kids. J wanted something like a treaure map, but it would have been a huge undertaking to draw a new map for every unit. I didn't want all that work. DH suggested a racetrack which worked well because I was thinking of a way to do the stoplight idea that is used in a lot of classrooms. Then we took the competition out of it by giving the boys each a racetrack and instituting Racer X as a competitor.
Here's how it works: J drew an oval race track with two lanes and divided it into 18 sections (because our unit will be 18 days long). Then he divided each section into nine smaller sections because we do that many different things each day. Racer X is in one lane and he is the perfect driver. He will go the whole distance each day so the task is to keep up with him. J and B can each move one space for each activity he completes cheerfully and cooperatively. How do we gage this? The boys both have cardstock stoplights. If they blow-up in an unreasonable display of frustration and stubborness I can pull their green light out. This doesn't affect their race track at all, it just serves as a warning to chill. If a similar circumstance arises I can pull their yellow card out. This means their race is stopped for the day. They can only move forward on their race track the number of spaces they accomplished to that point.
What keeps them from just checking-out for the rest of the day then if they've only accomplished two out of nine activites? Grace. They can continue on with the rest of their work, make better choices and pull from a small deck of "Student Driver Cards" in which they get to advance 1 or 2 spaces for "maneuvering out of that turn" or "avoiding a wreck." This makes up some, but probably not all of their missed spaces.
However, if they have a completely green light day then they get to hinder their Racer X by drawing from his deck of cards to see if he has to go back 1, 2 or even 3 spaces. This makes Racer X the competitor and not each other, gives them control of not only their own race but his, and keeps Racer X close enough to still inspire them to move along and not give up.
So who wins? Well, there are pit stops along the way every five or six days in which we revisit the treasure box. This time THEY filled the treasure box with some hot wheels cars they want to earn. At the end of the unit if they have beaten Racer X then we get to do a fun family outing/event AND they get to buy books or food for people who may not have any. If Racer X wins the race then we just get the books or food for other people.
So, those are all my ideas I've tried. You can probably use them for things other than school work, but I thought I'd just put it out there in case you were looking for something similar. I know we had a treasure map in there somewhere too. I think it was in conjuction with the punch card. It was about that time when being "cheerful and cooperative" was just as much of a struggle as getting through each activity. (One of my children really struggles -- he's incredibly smart but can often be dark and dreary.) As they grow and self-motivation takes over these programs will go away. Then again, there is still S...