Everything Is Earned: Living This Principle in Your Classrooms and Schools

As LeBron James says, “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” Regardless of your feelings on LeBron, it is important for our young people (well, all people) to internalize this life lesson.

Most kids spend at least 13 years in a K-12 school setting. Be it public, private, or charter—13 years of a similar setting can get a bit redundant. 13 years of at least 7 hours a day is also a significant amount of time. Many kids spend just as much time with their peers and teachers as they do with their families at home. As such, it is critical that we intentionally plan for scaffolded privileges and freedom throughout their school “careers.” The goal of doing so is two-fold:

  • To teach and continue reinforcing the idea that “All Actions Have Earned Consequences”
  • To make each grade level feel different for our students and that by earning the next grade, they have earned additional responsibilities and freedom. For example: A student’s time in 6th grade should not feel identical to their life as a 10th/11th/12th grader. Some foundational expectations should remain the same, but the shift of responsibility onto the students needs to increase with each grade level.

Disclosure: I do believe we should be developing students who choose to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and not just for a tangible reward. However, I also think every kid is at a different stage of decision-making, so earning tangible rewards can aid in building habits.

How do you make this happen? I’ve included tips, examples, and images below from my time as a teacher and grade level leader. Most of the tips are geared toward teachers; however, the ideas can be expanded to the grade or school-level.


Plan what students will earn when they make a choice that meets the expectation or direction given and what they will earn when they make a choice that doesn’t. Plan if you will have both individual and team (or class) rewards. Here’s an example:

Everything is earned blog 1

Plan what you want students to be invested in this year. Then determine the goals and what students will earn when they reach the goal. Here are some examples:

Everything is earned blog 2

Everything is earned blog 3

Everything is earned blog 4.png

Plan what students will earn now that they are in [insert number] grade. Below is a 6-8 grade example. The ideas could be applied across any groupings of grade levels. This example is more geared toward school leaders or grade team leaders as you need to have some decision-making power for multiple grade levels.

Everything is earned blog 5

If you are a teacher with most decision-making power over your individual classroom, you could also use some of these ideas within a school year.

  • Example: A 5th grade teacher only allows students to use wooden pencils at the beginning of the year. Each student earns using mechanical pencils when they consistently show their work in class and on assessments. The teacher conducts a celebration and publicly lists the “Mechanical Mathematicians.” They can also lose using mechanical pencils if they stop showing their work, thereby investing students in consistently showing their work.


Teach a lesson to the students at the beginning of the year. They will be more invested and more likely to make choices that better themselves and their team if they know upfront what they are earning.

Tell parents what students are working to earn. It is a great way to collaborate with parents and get them invested in your classroom goals and habits. You will also see students build habits more quickly when they are hearing similar messages from school and home.

Tell other students what students are working to earn. Whether it is other teachers on your team or your school leaders, let them know what to look for when they see your students in class or in the hallway.


Create weekly routines to ensure you keep the earned rituals living. Otherwise, they can easily get pushed to the backburner and forgotten, leaving the classroom priorities ambiguous. When instead, for example, every morning, students know you will be shouting out 3 scholars (i.e., 1 for homework quality, 1 for reading growth, and 1 for kindness/inclusivity), it keeps the priorities top of mind and you begin to see habits strengthen within days. When your rituals are routine, students will also begin using the language and looking for the habits in each other.

  • Example: This past year, I created Dragon Tags (after our mascot). These were my own version of  Brag Tags that I had seen on Pinterest. Each student had their own necklace that hung on the wall. If a kid earned a special shout-out during the week, they immediately put on their necklace and added the new dragon tag. They could wear it starting from the shout out. On Friday, all students put on their necklaces before we went to Town Hall (weekly grade level celebration). Here is the full file of Dragon Tags I’ve created thus far. A few examples are below.

Everything is earned blog 6

Other ideas of earned privileges:

  • Free Dress Day
  • Board Game Tournament
  • Talent Show
  • Dance
  • Others? Comment below!

Instead of letting your room or school be a place where students “get” items or privileges, be a room or school where everything is earned. Teach and continue reinforcing the idea that “All Actions have Earned Consequences.” And make the grade level or part of the year feel different for students.

meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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