Rewarding Students for Grades: The Dos and Don’ts


The number one question parents ask me is: How do I get my child to care about his or her grades? Academics are the number one reason for parent and child arguments, and I’ve found student motivation to be at the heart of almost all of these disagreements. All too often parents tell me that their child is not motivated or worse yet, that he is lazy; but that’s usually not the biggest issue. The problem is almost always in how we talk to our kids and how we incentivize them for their academic performance. I want to share a few of my top dos and don’ts for improving motivation and rewarding students for grades.


  • Link good grades to effort, and praise any amount of effort, big or small.
  • Implement a when/then routine.
  • Give small but timely rewards.
  • Get additional support when needed.


  • Let grades be the number one topic of conversation.
  • Pay for grades.

The Dos: Good Grades to Effort: We’ve all been there – our son or daughter brings home an A grade after struggling and the first thing we want to do is jump up and down rejoicing. It’s a natural reaction to seeing your child succeed. But saying, “Wow – an A!! You are so smart, I am so proud of you!!” instills what psychologists call a fixed mindset, the ideology that your intelligence is predetermined and unchanging.  Instead, what you want to do is link the success to the effort the student put in to studying for the test or proof-reading and editing his essay. Try saying something along the lines of, “Wow an A! You must be so proud; I know how long you spent studying for this. I’m really proud of how hard you worked!” This creates a growth mindset, and in the future the student is likely to associate hard work with academic success rather than fixed intelligence.

Implement a When/Then Routine: The biggest concern we hear from parents at Educational Connections is, “How do I get my child to care?” Not too long ago, I was at an education conference in McLean, Virginia where a mom told me, “I made an amazing deal with my sixth grade daughter. I told her that if she gets straight A’s, I’ll take her to Disney World! It worked for about a week, but then it was back to the same old deal. Now we’re half way through the quarter and she has solid C’s. I don’t get it.” This mom was not alone in her struggle or confusion. So many parents try to motivate their children to get good grades with the promise of cars, trips, and money. But we find time and time again that it doesn’t work. What psychologists know is that the best way to see consistent results is by using a “When/Then routine.” This ties an action to a reward. For example, “When you finish your science homework, you go play outside,” or “When you are done with your homework, you can play X-box for 1 hour”. Small but Timely Rewards: The When/Then Routine is a great example of a small but timely reward and it is something that works because the benefits are almost instantaneous. Research reflects that people, especially kids, have a hard time staying focused when the benefit isn’t seen until far in the future. This is why the mom’s Disney incentive didn’t work and it is the same reason why so many people forgo their New Year’s resolution by January 14th. Instead, people respond best when the rewards are within their grasp either on a daily basis for younger children or weekly basis for adolescents. An example of a small but timely reward may be an additional hour past curfew for studying every day of the week or getting to pick where the family goes to dinner on Friday for turning in every homework assignment. In motivating children, the extravagance of the reward matters far less than the accessibility.

Get Outside Help: Academics, grades, and homework are among the top causes of parent and child conflict, especially within metro areas such as Washington DC, where academic competition is high. For many parents getting outside help from a professional tutor is the best way to go. These experienced educators are able to help students tackle tough content, create reward systems that work, and provide feedback and advice to mom and dad. For more information about tutoring visit (get a tutor link).

The Don’ts:

Let Grades be the Number One Topic of Conversation: If you ask teenagers what they and their parents talk most about, you’ll likely hear grades, tests, homework, and their college future. As a parent it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking how your student’s science test went the minute she walks through the door, but this can have a negative impact. By focusing on academics there is a strain on the parent-child relationship. By not asking your student how he or she is doing, you give the impression that grades come before the child’s general well-being.

pay for gradesPay for Grades: One of the most common practices for motivating students to improve their academic performance is paying students for good grades. Unfortunately, this isn’t a strategy that you can take to the bank. In fact, research tells us that handing over the cash in exchange for A’s doesn’t actually work. There have been a number of studies conducted in major metro areas and they all found that paying for long-term grades actually could have an adverse effect.


I would be lying if I said grades don’t matter; they do. A high GPA can open a magnitude of doors for a student: entry into a top college, a chance at prestigious internships, access to scholarships, and sometimes a leg up in landing the most competitive jobs. But harping on grades creates friction in your parent-child relationship and can actually demotivate your child academically. Instead, following my simple tips of focusing on effort over product, giving small but frequent rewards, and not having grades be the number one topic of conversation, will both improve your relationship and your child’s motivation!