If you put a spotlight on the three best teachers in any building, you’ll notice that they’re all constantly trying new things to support their students and make teaching more enjoyable. These teachers are constantly refining even as they near retirement, unafraid to test out a new classroom management tool, curriculum, or consider a new teaching philosophy.
One of the best teachers in our building decided to jump on the desk pets classroom management fad started by Tiktok teacher Marissa Begay, and she immediately saw some positive behavior changes in her students. It was a fun way to build a classroom community. It’s amazing what you can learn about teaching from other educators on TikTok and Instagram!
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What are desk pets?
Desk pets are a silly yet effective positive reinforcement strategy built around affordable mini erasers in the shape of animals.
In the simplest version of desk pet classroom management, you can simply allow students to earn these mini erasers as prizes for good behavior. Once they’ve earned a desk pet, they can continue with the fun by choosing desk pet accessories each time they earn a certain number of dollars, punches or points. For example, they may want to “purchase” an apple or other food items for their horse or choose a new tree for their desk pet habitat.
To purchase desk pets, be sure to check out Oriental Trading Company or Amazon. You can also visit your Target Dollar Spot or try the Dollar Tree to find desk pet accessories, homes, or organizers for your classroom.
To get started with your desk pet starter kit, you can also make your life easier by purchasing a downloadable product from TPT to avoid making your own printables.
What grade is good for desk pets?
I think they work best in kindergarten through second grade, but with a slightly different approach, they can work well in upper elementary, too! This teacher had plenty of success with desk pets in her 4th grade writing class.
Why are desk pets so popular?
One great thing about this reward system is that you can keep it simpler in scale, or you can really go nuts and make it a central part of your entire classroom theme. There are tons of resources on TPT, and the supplies are so easily available on places you already shop like Target and Amazon. That makes it so easy for lots of teachers to get started and try something new.
Desk pets are a great incentive for kids because their progress is so visible and can be easily shown off to classmates. Because they can keep building their little collection and desk pet “habitat,” it’s more fun for them than prize box items that just go in the backpack and get sent home.
While you might have a small start up cost, you’ll find Desk Pets to be a much cheaper alternative to a prize box.
You can even decorate your classroom around a Desk Pets theme, since animal designs are so easy to find at big box teacher supply stores.
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What’s a desk pet habitat or desk pet homes?
Students will need small plastic or metal containers to store their miniature erasers throughout the day and to avoid losing pieces. That’s the practical purpose of having a desk pet “habitat,” but it’s also just fun to give students opportunities to master a science vocabulary word.
For your pet habitats, the most common choices are a cylindrical container or small plastic containers like this 2×2 acrylic box. Our teacher who enjoyed desk pets used a set of magnetic spice jars so the Desk Pet Day Care could attach to the whiteboard or a cookie sheet. They were the perfect size. You’ll need a way to print each student’s name on the top of the habitat.
The least expensive option would be to use small snack-sized plastic baggies, but these might be harder for small hands to seal and more likely to get lost.
How do I set up a Desk Pet Shop or Desk Pet Adoption Center?
When it’s time for kids to earn their first desk pet, they can visit the Desk Pet Shop, Desk Pet Adoption Center, or whatever other adorable name you’d like to give it. Some teachers even print adoption certificates as if kids were adopting a real pet! Again, check TPT for resources.
If you want to kick off desk pets with everyone together, you can hold an adoption day and let kids all choose on the same day, before anyone has had a chance to earn it. Then, all the earning fun happens with the accessories.
You might consider using a 4×6 photo organizer like our teacher used, which is helpful if you want to be able to store everything out of sight until Fun Friday. Alternatively, you can display everything with an acrylic display stand like this one, which is nice for reducing the number of options for kids who are inclined to be slow decision-makers.
What are some different ways I can use Desk Pets in my classroom?
To maximize the impact of these cute critters on your classroom environment, be sure to look for opportunities to extend the learning and fun. Here are some ideas:
If you’re tired of having dance parties or other Youtube brain breaks, try a Desk Pet brain break! You can let younger students play with them once per day before transitions instead of just loading up yet another dance party. You’ll be surprised by how well they can use creativity and make believe to have fun together once everyone has earned their first pet.
You could include your desk pets rollout with an entire research project about animal habitats. For this idea, add an exciting STEM element to your science unit by having students bring in shoebox lids, Q tips, wood chips, leaves and blades of grass from the playground, and anything else that might be good for building a makeshift habitat.
Integrate desk pets with your oral language and writing standards by having students answer a fun writing prompt about their pet, and then present to the class.
I love the idea of using Desk Pets when you begin to really focus heavily on your state-mandated standardized testing. In 3-5, many teachers will begin to practice testing skills and get repeated exposure to the testing format in January or February. This might be a great time to rollout Desk Pets to make the hard stuff more exciting, and to incentive critical thinking skills and using the required strategies.
How can kids earn desk pets?
It’s smart to integrate your desk pets with any classroom management strategies or classroom economy that has already worked for you in the past. That may be classroom money, a Dojo point system, desk pet dollars, or punch cards. See if you can incentivize not just compliance, but also try giving out points, dollars, or punches for effort, academic growth, cooperation and teamwork, excellent manners, or quick transitions.
One writing teacher in the upper grades focuses on just one new skill each day – for example, writing a solid hook. Then she chooses three kids each day who put forth great effort on the assignment and awards them a desk pet, bypassing the point or dollar system entirely.
Most teachers will wait until Fun Friday at the end of the day to let kids visit the Desk Pet Shop. However, it might be wise to let K-2 shop more frequently or as they earn enough points or dollars, because kids in the lower grades or those with behavior challenges will sometimes find it difficult to be motivated over a period of multiple days.
Some teachers skip the classroom economy element and just hand out desk pets when they see something truly special happen.
What desk pet rules should I put in place?
As with any new classroom management system, you’ll want to take a block of time to carefully go over all your desk pet expectations. Luckily for you, there are other teachers who have already created Google Slides and editable PowerPoint presentations to help students learn the class rules.
If I were introducing desk pets in my own classroom, here are some possible rules I would put into place.
- Desk Pets stay at the Desk Pet Day Care or in their Desk Pet Houses until designated brain breaks or other appropriate times of day.
- We celebrate each other’s choices when it’s time to shop and congratulate each other for making good choices.
- Students may not ask for a desk pet or a point to earn one.
- We keep desk pets in our hands and on the desk when they’re not in Day Care.
Getting Desk Pets Off to a Great Start
If you’re considering using desk pets in a new school year, wait until late September or early October, depending on what time your school year starts. It’s important to have all your other procedures and expectations solid before adding something new and exciting.
Plus, it can be a great way to punch up your school year right as the newness of a school year wears off.
The very beginning of the year is a great time to focus on whole-class rewards and building community. Desk pets can add a fun competitive atmosphere to your room once everyone is already clear on the expectations.
Some people will say that a first year teacher or other new teacher should avoid tackling a classroom economy and focus on the basics. But I think something like Desk Pets can save a new teacher’s first school year, since it can be super motivating for kids and likely to improve their behavior. It’s also fairly low maintenance as far as classroom economies go.
You’ll want to avoid handing these out as quickly and easily as you do candy or any other tiny prize. They’re special because they’re just rare enough but not so hard to earn that kids have to wait forever.
In an ideal world, all children would have intrinsic motivation to grow and change. But most educators know that many kids come to us needing extra motivation to reach their potential and experience some “wins” in their lives. One of my administrators once told me: “Every kid will work for something,” and I believe that’s true.
Hopefully, as kids are rewarded for trying their best and not for specific outcomes, they’ll develop confidence and a desire to keep learning and developing new skills. Until they’ve got the built-in motivation to do so, I don’t believe there’s any harm in making learning more fun and tangible for them.
Until then, desk pets to the rescue!