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“I’ll Work If You Give Me Candy”


Students were working on an assignment a couple of weeks ago. “Jack” (who faces a lot of challenges at home, and has been having some difficulties at school), however, was not. I went over to him and asked how it was going, and if he had some questions about what he needed to do.

“I’ll work if you give me some candy,” he replied.

I told him that wasn’t going to happen, that he was better than that, and that he needed to get to work. I knew that he didn’t like me “bugging him,” and we had made an arrangement a couple of months ago that when he was in this kind of mood I would leave him alone for a few minutes. Often, after that period of time, he would get focused without needing any additional intervention.

A few minutes later, though, and Jack still wasn’t doing the assignment.

I went over to him to check-in. “I’ll work if you give me some candy,” he repeated.

I asked him to go outside where we could talk privately. I asked him if he felt that eating helped him to concentrate. He said yes, it did.

I said, “Jack, I want you to be successful.   We all have things that help us concentrate — with me, it’s important to be in a quiet place.   You know there’s a class rule against eating in class, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable with your eating candy. But how about if I give you the option of bringing something besides candy to school and, if you’re having a hard time concentrating, as long as it doesn’t happen too often, you can have the option to eat while you’re working? How does that sound?”

He eagerly agreed, we shook hands on the deal, and he went back to class and focused on his work.

He’s been working hard since that time, and has not eaten anything in class since we made our agreement.

But his knowing that he has the option to do so, I believe, has been a key part of the solution.

This is similar to the option I’ve given some students to leave the room when they feel like they’re going to “blow”  — as long as they remain directly outside the door (see When A “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (And Back To “Good” Again!). All of us, particularly students who have family lives which are often out-of-control, function better when we feel we do have a certain level of control over…something.

I have individual “deals” with many students in my class, and everybody knows it (we talk pretty explicitly about everybody being different, having different talents and different needs).  Only very, very ocassionally will students actually exercise the power they have in these deals.   Some might think these kinds of arrangements would prompt charges of unfairness from other students.  Surprisingly enough, in my five years of teaching, that has never occurred.  The students who don’t need these deals to focus understand why some do,  and everybody else understands because they have their own special arrangments with me.

What kinds of individual “deals” have you made with students in your classes?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry, last month I read a post on Jim Burke’s blog titled “breaking my own rules” It was another example of a teacher being flexible and understanding that each student has unique needs. I believe that good teachers practice the teaching arts. It is not an exact science and anyone who thinks that using one global approach should not be anywhere near a classroom.

  2. I have individual deals with all of my students (I work with students who have behavioral challenges). And depending on the day and how a student is dealing with his behavior I react to the same behavior from different students differently because we are all individuals. I almost never get any complaining of “it’s not fair” from the students. On the few occaisions I do the student complaining is usually having a rough day and I turn the conversation into, what can I do to help you make it through the day.”

    Over the years, when I have suggested to teachers practices or interventions they might try for a student who is having a hard time in their class I hear, “but it is not fair”. I’m left wondering if the reason I don’t hear that in my class is because I know in my heart and soul I AM being fair to all my students and believe deeply that fair and equal are not the same. My students know that the “it’s not fair” whine will not push a button, and they know that I am their biggest fan ready to do anything I can to support them in their drive to be a successful student.

    Other teachers who worry about fairness may not have that belief system and are not sure that it is fair to treat students differently. Their students pick up on that quickly and know that they have either: found an area for a legitimate complaint in their teachers’ eyes, or that they have found a button to push on those teachers.

  3. I was asked if there were times that I moved teachers beyond the “its not fair” feelings. The most success I’ve had in that area is when I have had some of my students in their classrooms. Because they are “mine” it seems to be okay to do different things and the issue of fair hasn’t come up with teachers (and therefore the students haven’t brought it up either). I have then been able to point out that no one in the class mentioned it and that maybe the intervention would work with a student that wasn’t “mine”. It has taken time, but slowly I have made some inroads.

  4. I don’t. I did a lot of personal reflection several years ago, and decided that the token economy route didn’t speak to me as a teacher. This is said without judgement of other teachers. As a colleague and friend told me, we each have to listen to and follow our teacher voice.

    That said, it’s fun sometimes, to reward a class that has been working really hard. I don’t recall what it was that my Spanish 2 class was doing, but, I told them that if they were able to translate all eight sentences correctly, I would bring in donuts. They did, and so I did.

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