When I first started giving piano lessons to young children, I resisted using stickers as a motivating reward. Other teachers sang the praises of stickers, while I scoffed at the idea. Other teachers spoke of their magical lure, while I held onto the notion that no permanent marks should be made in one’s music, only notes in pencil. Looking back, I see that my reasoning at the time was not especially sound. I approached teaching little kids with the same attitude – if not expectations, that I maintained with older students. I figured the reward for mastering an exercise should be a “Job well done!”, should be satisfaction with the knowledge that one’s technique is improving,… blah, blah, blah.
After teaching little kids for more than fifteen years, I see now that that approach is entirely flawed. Young children are not motivated in the same way that older kids are, and as their teacher I should explore and accommodate this difference.
When I began giving piano lessons to Danny, he was five years old. Smart as a whip, he easily memorized all of the pieces he worked on, without effort. Usually this indicates a weakness in note reading, rather than a strength, and that the child is looking at his fingers more than at the notes on the page. But that was not the case with Danny; he simply has a near photographic memory and an extremely mathematical approach to life, as I have learned in the many years since we first met. As a five-year-old, he wanted very much to please me and to do well in his lessons, but he hated to try playing anything new in front of me. I learned very quickly that the best way to teach Danny was to play the music for him, explain any new symbols or concepts in the piece, then allow him to go home and work it out for himself. He almost always mastered those little pieces on his own at home. Anti-sticker though I was at the time, I wanted somehow to reward Danny for his extraordinary progress, and so I drew stars in pencil in his book.
Occasionally Danny would not master an exercise in one week (nobody’s perfect!). At those times, I did not draw stars in his book. He was crushed! He would insist on playing the piece over and over, hoping for a perfect “star” record. It was a tough lesson for him to learn, that some things take more than one try and that it’s okay to take some extra time with the trickier assignments! I reasoned with him that he does not want a bunch of stars in his book next to exercises he did not master. He and I would not be able to tell which ones he did really well on. Bright boy that he was, he accepted this idea and worked hard to earn any future stars. Though they weren’t brightly colored, those penciled-in stars were a good motivator and made my job easier.
Danny is now in his first year of high school. He reminds me to call him ‘Dan’ rather than ‘Danny,’ and is no longer motivated by pencil stars. Now discussions about improving his technique resonate with him. I’ve learned my lesson from Danny the five-year-old, and in the years since have allowed many, many stickers to “mar” the pages of little kids’ music books. The once sacrilegious has become exalted, a necessary item in my teacher toolbox.
My transition to “the other side” came abruptly, not slowly. It was after two or three lessons with seven-year-old Tessa. She folded her arms, gave me a cross look, and demanded to know where my stickers were.
“Excuse me?” I asked. “What stickers?”
“Every teacher has stickers. Where are yours?”
What I heard implicit in her reply was, “Every teacher worth their salt has stickers.”
That evening after work I went to the supermarket and picked up a pack of stickers along with the salmon for dinner and coffee for the morning.
And teaching little kids suddenly got so much easier.
Now there is a decisive result to show that they have done well. Now there is a colorful visual record in their exercise books logging the progress they’ve made.
Here’s an example of how using stickers has made it easier for me to reach my goals as a teacher:
When a small child ends an exercise, I want them to count out loud to show that they are holding the final note long enough. If it’s a whole note (to be held for four beats), I lean down and stare at the child’s hand while excitedly counting, “One, two, three, four, off!” Often they’ll count along with me. The child knows to wait until we say “Off!” before releasing the note. Before stickers, however, there would be little to no motivation for the kid to hold the note until “Off!” even if they knew that’s what I wanted. Now, if the child lets go before, “Off!”, then no sticker is given. The whole exercise is repeated until the final note is held long enough. Some kids will repeat the exercise many times, not willing to give up until they’ve earned a sticker. One of my young students has come to expect a certain routine at the end of every successful exercise, and I don’t mind obliging him. As he holds the final note, I lean way down and stare at his hand, increasing volume as I count, “One, two, Three, FOUR, OFF!” As he releases the note, we high five and I say, “Sticker worthy!”
Many of my young students come to lessons guessing out loud how many stickers they’ll earn that day. If I ever forget to reward a good job with a sticker, the student will often stare at the spot where I keep them, waiting for me to get the hint.
Of course not all students are motivated by stickers. Some kids are too cool for them by second grade. But the majority of kids under fourth grade respond to the incentive. Fourth grade seems to be the cusp. It’s a delicate task for me to discern whether or not a nine-year-old would be into stickers. If they feel too mature, I run the risk of insulting them. If I assume they’re too old, they might feel slighted.
This semester I am teaching two sisters, one six years old and one nine. The stickers are a hit with the six-year-old Patrice, but I made the mistake in thinking that Justine, because she was the big sister, would not be interested. Piano comes naturally to her, and she works hard. I assumed that my declaring, “Job well done!” would be reward enough.
One day Justine came in and very shyly asked, “How come my sister gets stickers but I don’t?”
Wow! I felt SO bad!
“Oh, Sweetie! Of course you should get stickers! What was I thinking? Sometimes your old teacher is a little crazy, right? Forgetting to give you stickers! That’s crazy. Let’s see just how many stickers you’ve earned!”
Justine giggled at my over-the-top response. I went through all of her music and acted like a funny crazy woman as I slapped stars and animal heads and rainbows on most of the pages. She beamed widely.
Occasionally I’ll even reward an older kid with a pencil star. Sometimes words just don’t seem to be enough to convey praise, and I feel like being demonstrative. I’ll say, “I know you’re too old for stickers. But that was a sticker worthy performance if I’ve ever heard one!” I’ll imitate my Brooklyn grandmother and say, “You deserve a gold star,” and draw a great big pencil star. Why, just last week, after Danny played a perfectly even D flat major scale at a rather fast clip, I scrawled a great big star in his notebook, and the lanky teenager couldn’t help but smirk.
Last year I bought a jumbo pack of rather small stickers. I was saving money buying the economy pack and I felt like a cheapskate when I saw how tiny they appeared in the music books. But it turned out these small stickers had an added benefit, and deeming exercises as “sticker worthy” became even more fun.
I use A Dozen a Day technical exercise books (Edna-Mae Burnam, Willis Music Company) for almost all of my students at the elementary level of piano. These are books of short exercises meant to build muscle control and sight-reading skills. Above each exercise is a stick figure, the majority of them without a face. My tiny stickers fit just right on top of these figures, and the effect is often comical. Most of my young students look forward to adding funny faces to these figures, whether it’s an animal head or a basketball. They often ask me to turn my head while they place the sticker, hoping that when I turn around I am so surprised by the funny way they’ve placed the sticker that I burst out laughing.
Last week as I was leaving the music center after a day of teaching, a six-year-old student lowered her car window and shouted, “Bye, Meg! I can’t believe I’m so good at piano that I got five stickers! See you next week!”