Competition - is it a good tool to motivate kids?

I always thought that competition is an excellent way to motivate kids. Many times, I made contests in the class, competitions, etc. I always found it that extra bit more fun when I was a student, if I had to compete against some other students. That's probably why I really like games. My friends always tell me that I am very competitive and some friends even tell me that I'm overly competitive. It's true. I make a game out of everything. Even with myself. With anything I do, I try to improve myself, get faster, get more efficient... win.

Just like my life, I run my classes as a place to improve, a place to get faster, to understand best, to get more efficient - and what better way than a friendly competition?!

Recently, however, I find that competition is not for everyone. Most students really enjoy the sense of play, the sense of fun in beating or trying to beat their opponent in a silly competition, but for some kids competition evokes the exact opposite effect. Some students just shut down - they don't see the point of playing when they have no chance of winning.

I decided to make a list of things I think are good and bad (my pros and cons) about competition in the class. And then accordingly, I would decide whether it's a good idea for a given situation or not such a great plan for the lesson.


1. Most kids really enjoy the "game" aspect of a competition. Fun = good for learning.

2. This is a great way to get the students to actively participate in the class. They get really involved, and just from the involvement they learn more than they would have by sitting and just passively listening.

3. Great for the bright and fast kids. If they're usually on the border of boredom, a game / competition will get them motivated to start thinking again.

4. Lets students have a sense of success.

5. If done in groups, can really develope comradeship with the other team members.

6. Some students work best under pressure. Competition is the perfect source of pressure.

7. Works better for older kids. Younger kids seem to take things very personally, and cannot distinguish between playing a game and reality.


1. Not so great for the weaker students. If a student finds himself among intellectual superiors, they will either not participate or else get frustrated with the competition and possibly the subject itself.

2. Not suitable for younger kids. The younger the kid, the easier they get frustrated, and the competition won't work. Younger kids don't understand that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, therefore losing is a very traumatic experience.

3. Some students don't do well under pressure at all. You must know your students well to know which students can succeed under pressure, and which will not. Usually the ones that do well win a stressful situation should enjoy a friendly competition. Those kids that blank out during tests will not enjoy the competition either.

I find that school is all about competition anyway. When we give grades or stickers, we compare the students amongst each other. Even if the students don't know what other students got on a test or report card, we give them an understanding that an A is the best (like winning) and F is that they lost completely.

I actually had the opportunity to take a whole degree (my education degree) where there were no grades - just a pass or fail. I thought this degree to be a joke. I no longer felt I had to do my best. I knew that even my worst would allow me to pass the courses and I would get my degree. I always blaimed my lack of enthusiasm for the courses on the silly "no mark" system. But sometimes I wonder if I was just programmed by my previous schools and my parents, that this reward system, this mark system, this competition in my blood, made me not care about learning how to teach, because there was no carrot at the end of the string.

I wonder if I am really reaching for what I want, or am I only programmed to reach for a reward?

I think I'll still use competition in some of my classes, but I will not resort to a competition style game all the time. There are other activities that are fun and don't necessarily include competition - these activities can be great for all students - not just top of the class.

Further Reading:

competition, motivation
Submitted by bogusia on Thu, 10/30/2008 - 18:29

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I think you hit the nail on the head. My nature is to really improve under competition but I know many people who crumble under competition. Watching my young kid cry after losing a game makes me totally concur that youngsters have trouble with competitive games.

That said, I think teachers might need to make the children cry a little. Real life demands that kids know how to rebound and learn from losses. The people we all look up to are those who keep their creativity, resolve, and character during both good and bad times.

I am on the road to becomming a teacher, and I agree with the statement that a little competition is good. I also just finished a great book that discussed the Me Generation (those under 35), and the author wrote alot about the crusade to raise our child's self-esteem and how teachers were teaching differently in order to raise children's self-esteem. She was saying that teachers shouldn't have to tip-toe around the student's emotions and give good grades to everyone to avoid a hurt self-esteem, and I have to agree. I think students need to be a little competitive and have that attitude of, "well, I didn't do so good on this test but next time I will try harder and do better." I believe competition helps build self-esteem and that it makes kids WANT to be better and work harder! I know it always worked for me. This is something, of course, that will be debated forever, and I am sure I will encounter it when I am a teacher myself. And lastly, every group of children is different, so I think it is up to educational professionals to gage how well their children compete and if it can be done healthily and in a way that benifits the group.
Thanks =]

Exactly... good point...

"...every group of children is different, so I think it is up to educational professionals to gage how well their children compete and if it can be done healthily and in a way that benifits the group..."

And that is why a great teacher, with a good sense of flexibility and judgement is so important.

Thanks for the comment.


I agree that there are times for competition and times not for competition. I think it is a great motivator and keeps most of the children interested in the subject. I agree that for most kids, fun is a great way to learn.

I am student teaching now and my master teacher played a Jeopardy game with one of his two sections, which combined sixth through eight grade students. They broke up into five groups, which had different grade levels and different performance levels. Some groups did well and some did poorly on the Jeopardy game. However, when it came to test time, the “Jeopardy” section performed better than the section that did not play Jeopardy.

I do not like the idea of always getting rid of competition because a few students may get upset and cry. I agree that everyone needs to know how to rebound from a situation like this. However, I do not want the classroom to be a place where there is always competition where some children are always on edge and brought to tears. The classroom needs to be a safe place. Breaking into groups can help this problem.

I agree that the majority of children like classroom competition, which keeps them alert and motivated. I don’t want to get rid of competition for the small percentage of children that do not like it. I think we as teachers should modify our competition to try to minimize the problems with the kids who lose, but not get rid of it completely.

I have volunteered in classrooms with third graders and they liked competition also. I think the younger the children, the more sensitive the teacher must be. Also, if the teacher realizes one student hates the competition and it hurts his or her performance, then the teacher must modify the competition so that the child is not individually called upon, or put them in a group where they can more passively participate.

Thanks for the great comment. I agree with you completely.

I really like your Master Teacher's mini experiment. I wonder if there is any actual studies supporting this theory... very interesting.

What did the non-Jeopardy group do? Did they play a non-competitive version of Jeopardy? I suspect they didn't - they merely did the usual classroom activities, am I right?

Yes, kids enjoy games, but the games don't have to be competitive.

Did the bottom performers in the Jeopardy section outperform the bottom performers in the non-Jeopardy section? The reason I ask is that, from quotes above, it appears that weaker students can get demoralized from competition. Perhaps a cooperative Jeopardy-type game would get even better results, for both stronger and weaker students? Let me know if you try the experiment in your classroom.

I enjoyed playing competitive games as a kid, sometimes, but sometimes I hated it. It really depended on whether I was good at the game relative to other kids. But even when I wasn't good at the games, a classroom game was better than a classroom lecture that I had to sit through and be bored to death.

I do think kids enjoy games, but I think the "fun" aspect of the game can be separated from the "competitive" aspect of the game. I remember playing charades with one child and one other adult - we adults took turns telling the child a secret word and the child would act out the word for the other adult to guess. It was a great deal of fun, and not a single bit of competitive!

So why not have the best of both worlds - yes, play games in the classroom, but take out the competitive aspect of it? There are lots of fun cooperative ways to play games.

I'M A STUDENT AND I BELIEVE THAT COMPETITION IS A GOOD THING, IT NOT ONLY makess you feel proud when you win BUT IT ALSO INSPIRES YOU. WHEN I GET BEAT IN COMPEITION I DON'T LIKE THE FEELING BUT IT INSPIRES ME TO DO BETTER NEXT TIME WETHER IT'S PRACTISING OR PAYING MORE ATTENTION. WHATS THAT SAYING “A competitor will find a way to win. Competitors take bad breaks and use them to drive themselves just that much harder. Quitters take bad breaks and use them as reasons to give up. It's all a matter of pride.”