27th February 2018

Do points systems miss the point?

By Eve Conway

One of the first things that new teachers are taught, especially if they are having difficulty with a new class, is that in order to better manage learners’ behavior they should set up a points chart. Points systems vary from simple concepts such as adding marbles in a jar, having a classroom chart on the wall or even online e-platforms where points can be stored and remembered. Whilst sometimes being efficient and visual, points can stir up quite a lot of controversy if you ask any group of educators what they think of them.

The principles behind using points in the classroom derives from a school of psychology called "Behaviourism", in particular, BF Skinner, one of the theory’s main pioneers. Skinner coined what is known as ‘Operant Conditioning’, which holds that people respond to ‘reinforcement’, which is the consequence of a certain behaviour. Consequences may be positive (a reward) or negative (a punishment). If good behaviour is reinforced through a reward, it will often become repeated and therefore solidified. Behaviourism has had a huge impact on our current classroom practices, although in the 21st century, much of this has been called into question in favour of more modern theories of learning and behaviour. This blog post aims to highlight some of the occasions when points may actually harm learning rather than aid it.

4 times when using a points system won’t work

1)  When the children are too young

If you work with learners aged 2-4, quite often, rules may be abstract, but also they are pre-literate, which means they will not see their name on a rewards chart. You could try assigning them a picture of themselves but conceptually the idea that the picture represents them is quite abstract and they may not pay the chart much attention. When working with learners at this age, I have noticed they respond much better to teacher voice and language coupled with strong routines rather than a points chart which they often ignore.

2) When the points last for the duration of the course

Every class has those students that are perceived by the teacher to be ‘problematic’. Often this may not be the fault of the learner and could be due to problems with the class dynamic or because the learner may have special educational needs. The problem with keeping a points chart for these learners is they may feel targeted by the teacher and they are likely to trail behind their peers, especially if the points continue from one lesson to the next and they can clearly see that they are lagging behind their peers. It is important that every child feels that a new lesson is a new start in terms of their behavior, so points should ideally be erased and counted from zero in the next class.

3) If learners are overly competitive

If your class is particularly competitive, children may start to bully those who have fewer points, leading to low self-esteem for those learners. Another side effect is that you may find yourself constantly interrupted by students asking “teacher, teacher, a point please!” which takes up valuable teaching time. If you find the points are getting in the way of the learning, try a different behavior management technique.

4) If your learners show a lack of interest for the subject

This may sound counter-intuitive, but if learners are disinterested, it means that they are lacking in intrinsic motivation to learn the subject. Research has shown that when we offer a reward for positive behaviour, intrinsic motivation is actually diminished, in other words, the children start working purely for the points instead of for a love of the subject. If your learners hate the subject, try to bring it alive for them in another way, such as making activities more lively or making the content more relevant to them.

I have heard some senior teachers talk about abolishing points systems in schools altogether. I think that such an attitude can come across as a little bit Puritan and perhaps lacking in empathy for the teacher. We have all had very difficult classes that have suddenly started becoming more attentive after implementing a points system and sometimes this does have a huge impact on learning if what was once a rowdy class suddenly starts paying attention.

If you decide that you do want to use a points system, there are some steps that you can take to make it a positive experience for the learners. First, you should think about whether it is the best fit for your class and your students. Consider allocating points to groups rather than to individuals so that no one learner feels singled out if they have fewer points. The lack of names on the chart makes it less likely that a child’s self-esteem will suffer if a point is deducted. Moreover, the prime focus should be on adding points and reinforcing positive behaviour rather than highlighting learners’ attention to negative behaviour. Be sure to wipe the points clean at the end of every lesson so that learners feel like a new lesson equals a new start. If after having the system in place for a term, you feel like it does not benefit your class, by all means abandon it.

At the end of the day, a points system is just one tool in a teacher’s toolkit. Often, it is not the tool itself but how the tool is used that can make our lesson successful or unsuccessful and how the tool is used depends on the teacher themselves.


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

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Eve Conway is our TYLEC and CertTESOL trainer. She has worked in Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and TYLEC trainer as well as having worked on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for over 6 years for the British Council, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.