Kernel Factsheet — Reinforcement Kernel

Mystery Motivators/Prize Bowl


  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Community
  • Family

Developmental Phases

  • Infancy and Toddlerhood
  • Early Childhood
  • Childhood
  • Early Adolescence
  • Adolescence
  • Emerging Adulthood


Relatively low

Impacted Behaviors

+ Greater engagement in community-building activities
+ Better parent-child relations
+ Better compliance to adult instruction
+ Greater productivity
+ Greater cooperation
+ Homework done
+ Better teacher-student relations
+ Better academics
Fewer delinquent behaviors
Reduced problem behaviors
Less violence
Reduced coercion
Reduced passive-aggressive behavior

How To Do It

Create or decorate a bowl or coffee can. Select and/or invent prizes for the classroom or home. Write a description of each prize on a small card or slip of paper and put it in the bowl. The power of the prize increases when students have a bowl filled with prizes to draw from. If the child or youth does something that you want to encourage, then they get to draw a prize for the whole class, their group, or the family.

How It Works

Here are sample prizes, which you can add to or delete. Please note that none of the prizes are expensive or require buying things.

  • Sing “who let the dogs out?” And bark

  • Kazoo hum (make a kazoo out of a toilet paper roll with waxed paper and a rubber band on one end of it)

  • Invisible jump rope and basket shooting

  • Duck walk down the hall while quacking

  • An outside primal scream

  • Pop bubble wrap

  • Relay race holding a wad of paper between your knees

  • Skip in the hallway

  • Walk backwards in the hallway

  • Dress like a rock star day

  • Hat day

  • Popcorn and a movie

  • Pajama day

  • Tell a joke day

  • Five extra minutes of recess or free time

  • Computer game hour

  • Class snack time

  • Desk football

  • Board game time

  • Bad hair day

  • Slipper day

  • Call in a song request to a local radio station (song is voted on by the class prior to winning the prize)

  • “Walk Like An Egyptian” (wrap the teacher in a roll of toilet paper)

  • Make “fortune tellers”

  • Backwards day, wear clothes to school backwards

  • Try to touch the top of the door frame on your next walk out of the classroom

  • Play grave yard (see how long you can lay down and not move, teacher walks around and tries to get kids to move without touching them)

  • Skip around the school one time

  • Decorate the classroom door

  • Paint the classroom windows

  • Play a game of hangman

  • See how far kids can hit an orange across the playground with a softball bat

  • Make fake mustaches and wear them

  • Play cat’s cradle

  • Wear stickers all over your face

  • Group hug

  • Hold your nose and sing “twinkle, twinkle little star” (or another song)

  • Have an egg on a spoon relay

  • Shoot a rubber band across the playground

Prize Bowl at Home

  • Any prizes from the classroom or group listed that are appropriate to your family

  • Picnic or ice-cream in the park

  • Family bike ride

  • Family walk

  • Blow bubbles outside, making weird shaped blowers from wire like coat hangers

  • Silly family picture

  • Silly family video

  • Call in songs to play on local radio

  • Family roller skating

  • Run through sprinklers

  • Roll down a grassy hill

  • Family joke fest (where family members take turns reading from silly joke books)

  • Make family flag and personal flags and fly them

  • Have back-yard picnic where everything is one color (yellow, pink, green, etc.)

  • Play board or card games and have a party with them. Not video games.

  • Create and perform a family cheer

Visit any of these “family fun” Sites for More Ideas:


Some More Idea for the Prize Bowl at School

  • Make a Jackson Pollack painting: fill spray bottles with water and food coloring. Spray these on a piece of poster board pinned to an outside wall.

  • Funny socks day

  • Stomp on a paper cup

  • Make a sculpture with cooked peas and uncooked spaghetti

  • Make a side walk chalk art gallery

  • Arm wrestling contest

  • Play telephone

  • Obnoxious victory dancing

  • Library time

  • Free reading

  • Doodle art gallery

  • Comic book reading

  • Make hand shadows on the wall

  • Toss a beach ball around with your group

  • Sing “We are the Champions of the World”

  • Play a boys vs. girls game

  • Marshmallow dodge ball

  • Play musical chairs

  • Play with play doh

  • Build and knock over a line of dominoes

  • Take a “three-legged jog” around the school

  • Play limbo

  • Write tootles in a secret code

  • Walk down the hall pretending you are skiing

  • Build a jigsaw puzzle

  • Eat a snack with your hands tied behind your back

  • Have a water bottle on your desk for the rest of the day (or a water bottle with ice)

  • Cotton ball war

  • Footprint or handprint painting: winning group members walk across a long piece of paper with painted feet

  • Play rock, paper, scissors

  • Tear up paper

  • Trash can paper wad toss

  • Make megaphones out of construction paper and do a cheer with them

  • Orange pass relay: put an orange under your chin and pass it to the next person without using your hands

  • Conga line around the classroom or around the outside of the school

  • Pass a ping pong ball back and forth to a partner

  • Ping pong ball catch and count: see how many times you can toss it up in the air and catch it

  • Have a snowball fight with wadded up paper

  • Ping pong desk soccer; play in pairs, 1 student creates a goal with hands, the other student tries to roll the ping pong ball into the goal

  • Cotton ball blowing with a straw

  • Blow in a cup of soapy water with a straw

  • Feather blow (see how high up in the air you can blow a feather)

  • Blackboard tootle time

  • Ice skate around the classroom (in socks, no shoes)

  • Desk fish (flop over the top of your desk like a fish)

  • Do the wave

  • John Travolta dance fever (do a disco dance to music)

  • Sing ”Everybody Was Kung Foo Fighting”

  • Secret message tootle (write a tootle to each student on a piece of paper with a white crayon, the tootle receiver brushes over the tootle paper with water color paint to read it)

  • Make and break a piñata

  • Shaving cream finger paint on desk top (wipe off when finished & everyone will have a clean desk!)

  • Act out a funny story

  • Make a tootle chain: write each winning student’s name on a paper chain strip, pass them out randomly, write a tootle to that student on the chain strip, glue chain together and decorate the room with it

  • Make and decorate a book cover

  • Outdoor Frisbee toss

  • Make a friendship bracelet: use 9 nine strands of embroidery thread, which might be used for the group

  • Make a “me” collage from magazine pictures

  • Spleem knock down (save some plastic 2-liter soda bottles. Write “spleem” on each bottle. Students roll a ball to knock them down)

  • Bring a stuffed animal to afterschool day

  • Make, decorate, and wear a newspaper hat

  • Conduct a science experiment

  • Set up and complete an obstacle course

  • Play “duck, duck, goose” but call it “Spleem, Spleem, Tootle”

  • Learn a phrase in sign language

  • Bean bag catch with a partner

  • Play air guitar to a great rock song

  • See who can clip the most clothespins to their shirt in 10 seconds

  • Play hang man

  • Make an origami crane

  • Play a game of Crazy 8s

  • Play battle ship

  • Chair squirm to music

  • Plant flowers

  • Bring your baby picture to school day

  • Make a class scrapbook

  • Make a class time capsule

  • Play heads up seven up

  • Take a funny group picture

  • Draw cartoons

  • Have a lunch picnic on the playground

  • Karate chop a block of Styrofoam

  • Make a fruit loop necklace and eat it

  • Mail someone a tootle note

  • Bird calls

  • Go take a hike (around the school)

  • Star wars light saber fight

  • Seventh-inning stretch

  • Try to lick peanut butter off your nose

  • Play connect the dots

  • Guess how many raisins are in a jar and then eat them

  • Beach ball toss

  • Robot dance

  • Make a group flag

  • Paper wad soccer headers

  • Itty bitty prizes: put a label on a small plastic jar that says “itty bitty prizes." A vitamin jar would work well for this. Write some prizes on small slips of paper that will fit in the jar. Wear a funny pair of glasses to read the prizes.

  • Wright brothers contest (see who can fly a paper airplane the farthest)

  • Make up a “mad libs” sheet for your classroom

  • Have a marshmallow eating contest

  • Make a reward ribbon for group members

  • Fly a kite

  • Make an “our group rocks” poster

  • Play a game of checkers

  • Hallway skiing contest (each winning group takes off their shoes and sees how far they can slide down the hall without picking up their feet)

  • Play limbo

  • Decorate a cool nametag for your desk

  • Sit on a balloon and pop it

  • Bubble gum bubble blowing contest (then throw away your gum after the contest is over)

  • Make a tissue paper flower

  • Who, what when where? Write a student’s name at the top of a sheet of paper. Fold it over so the name is not showing and pass them out. Student writes what the student did and folds it over so it can’t be seen. The papers are passed to another student who writes when this happened and folds it over so it can’t be seen. The papers are passed again to another student who writes where this happened. The papers are then unfolded and read aloud. They will be funny because no one knows what everyone else wrote.

  • Read books to students in another younger grade

  • Cookie decorating contest: buy plain sugar cookies and decorate with frosting, sprinkles, and candies

  • Write a note to a friend

  • Draw on your desk with removable dry erase markers

Performance and Impact

Very powerful in changing child behaviors at home & school, parent behavior, and work-related behaviors; effective with conduct disorders, oppositional defiance, ADHD, substance abuse. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


  1. DeMartini-Scully, D., Bray, M.A., & Kehle, T.J. (2000). A packaged intervention to reduce disruptive behaviors in general education students.. Psychology in the Schools, 37, 149–156.  

  2. Madaus, M.M.R., Kehle, T.J., Madaus, J., & Bray, M.A. (2003). Mystery motivator as an intervention to promote homework completion and accuracy.. School Psychology International, 24(4), 369–377.  

  3. Moore, L.A., Waguespack, A.M., Wickstrom, K. F., Witt, J.C., et al. (1994). Mystery motivator: An effective and time efficient intervention.. School Psychology Review, 23(1), 106–118.  

  4. Petry, N.M., Martin, B., Cooney, J.L., & Kranzler, H.R. (2000). Give them prizes and they will come: Contingency management for treatment of alcohol dependence.. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(2), 250–257.  

  5. Petry, N.M., Martin, B., & Finocche, C. (2001). Contingency management in group treatment: A demonstration project in an HIV drop-in center.. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 21(2), 89–96.  

  6. Petry, N.M., Petrakis, I., Trevisan, L., Wiredu, G., Boutros, N.N., Martin, B., et al. (2001). Contingency management interventions: From research to practice.. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 158(5), 694–702.  

  7. Martin, B., Petry, N.M. & Tedford, J. (2001). Reinforcing compliance with non-drug-related activities.. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Petry, N.M., Tedford, J., & Martin, B.  

  8. Petry, N.M., Peirce, J.M., Stitzer, M.L., Blaine, J., Roll, J.M., Cohen, A., et al. (2005). Effect of prize-based incentives on outcomes in stimulant abusers in outpatient psychosocial treatment programs: A national drug abuse treatment clinical trials network study.. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(10), 1148– 1156.  

  9. Petry, N.M. & Simcic, F. (2002). Recent advances in the dissemination of contingency management techniques: Clinical and research perspectives.. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 23(2), 81–86.  

  10. Robinson, K.E. & Sheridan, S.M. (2000). Using the Mystery Motivator to improve child bedtime compliance.. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 22(1), 29–49.