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Build a positive classroom environment: avoid competition!

Elementary teachers often instigate competition among their students through such common statements as: "Students who make 100 on the spelling test may have 10 minutes of extra center time" and "The most creatively written story this week will be placed on the bulletin board." While such pronouncements motivate some students into action, they strike fear in the hearts of others and cause them to give up before beginning a task. A positive classroom environment of safety and security may be spoiled unintentionally when a teacher attempts to motivate students to do their best work through competition with their peers. Competition belongs on the athletic field, but not in the classroom.

Competition is so common in classrooms, however, that few question its existence or impact. Teachers of young children use it in order to control behavior. "I am looking for the quietest table to line up for lunch." "The students who clean up their center the best will get stickers." Forms of academic competition follow as teachers create instructional games intended to provide variety and motivation for children to learn new content and skills. However, competition can have ill effects on academic achievement as well as moral behavior, as illustrated in the following example:

A 1st-grade teacher created an alphabet bingo game for review. She announced that the student to first attain "bingo" would be given a colorful pencil. Eagerly, the students began the game, but they were focused on winning a pencil and not on learning the alphabet. After two rounds of the game, four students shouted "bingo" at the same time. When their cards were checked, it was found that three of them had "cheated"--all in hopes of winning the pencil. Stopping the game, the teacher angrily admonished the students for failure to play by the rules. One little boy threw his card on the floor and proclaimed: "I hate school. I never win anything." The positive learning environment was shattered for the rest of the afternoon for these children as well as the teacher.

Some students give up before even trying academically competitive games because they feel hopeless at being able to win. Matt, a 3rd-grader, refused to take the timed multiplication facts test because he believed that it was impossible for him to get his name on the board for mastering the task. Having been teased by his best friend for still taking the "3's test," Matt let his fear of competing and being ridiculed hinder his satisfaction of learning a new skill.

Schools often engage in competitive events, such as art contests, science fairs, attendance rewards, and food drives. The intention behind each of these events has merit, but the reality of the behavioral outcomes may be disappointing. Students refuse to do art because they know they cannot "win." Science fairs become a contest for parents rather than students. Children who cannot always control their school attendance are embarrassed and angry with their caregiving adults. Classrooms that do not win the pizza party for collecting the most food donations feel cheated and fail to appreciate the reason behind their efforts, no longer seeing their contributions to the poor as having value.

New Approaches To Avoid Competition

What can be done to motivate students and add pleasure to the learning environment in lieu of competitive contests and games? It is a matter of changing the focus of the activity so that each student is validated for strengths as an individual and contributions as a team member. Celebrations for all take the place of winnings for only a few. Feelings of success are enhanced for all children when the fears of failure, ridicule, disappointment, and embarrassment are alleviated.

Below are some examples of new approaches to consider.

* Adjust commonly used instructional games (bingo, matching, sorting) so that students work in teams to play the game. Learning from each other is the focus--not defeating their peers.

* Guide students to set individual goals for learning math facts or reading books to compete with their past accomplishments. Keeping a personal chart of goals and achievements will indicate progress.

* Give each student a bulletin board space on which he/she may place a weekly paper that illustrates pride in an accomplishment (or, instead of bulletin board space, a teacher may want to consider a personal portfolio for each child). Make it clear that the paper does not have to be "perfect," but may be one in which they learned from their mistakes. Teachers should likewise display their students' accomplishments and opportunities for learning from mistakes--for ALL children.

When competition between peers is eliminated within the school walls, cooperation is learned, creative problem-solving is encouraged, self-esteem is enhanced, and students see themselves as being connected rather than in a world of "me versus them."

Through guided collaboration and support of each other, a harmonious community within the classroom can be created. For example:

* To encourage class clean-up, have the students compete with the clock--not each other. Say, "Let's see how many of the clean-up tasks we can accomplish by working together for five minutes."

* "Yesterday it took three minutes to get our materials ready for the math lesson. Can you do it in less time today?" The group goal can be altered on a daily basis.

Time-honored school contests need not be abolished when competition is eliminated. Just change the process. For example:

* Encourage each child to contribute his or her perceived "best picture" for the school "art museum." Ask the "judges" reviewing the artwork to leave a note of appreciation for each student while focusing on the specific art element that was well done--such as line, space, color, shape. Follow this with a school reception for all the artists.

* Set a reasonable school goal of collecting 1,000 pounds of food for Thanksgiving baskets for the needy. When the goal has been attained or surpassed, the whole school may celebrate their generosity by listening to a professional musician or storyteller.

Call for Idea-Sparkers

Do you have a great idea that you would like to share? Do you know a colleague who has a great idea? Please share the exciting things that are happening in your classroom. Send ideas via mail, fax, phone, or E-mail. Photos and illustrations are welcome. Please include your name, address, where you have used this idea, and a description of the activity. Send your Idea, Sparkers to:

Basanti Chakraborty ( and Sandra Stone (


The Case Against Competition:

Competition and Its Effects on Children:


No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

The following Idea-Sparker was provided by Nancy S. Self, from Texas A&M University.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Classroom Idea-Sparkers
Author:Self, Nancy S.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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