Using Incentives or Rewards to Motivate Positive Behaviors in Your Child

Parents sometimes feel uncomfortable about using rewards to encourage positive behaviors in their children. Parents report that this feels somewhat manipulative, like they are “bribing” their children. If you can look at rewards from a different perspective and view it as using incentives to help your child learn, then using rewards can be a useful tool in your parenting toolbox. When using rewards, there can be some important concepts that will make reward programs successful. This article will go over some of these concepts so that any reward programs you may want to set up will be successful.
Rewards or incentives can be useful at times to motivate positive behaviors in children. They can be especially useful to overcome resistance to accomplish a difficult task such as playing cooperatively or learning a morning or bedtime routine. Rewards or incentives are generally something concrete such as extra privileges, special treats, or stickers. One way to use rewards is to set up a Reward Chart ahead of time with your child.

The first step is to identify what negative behavior you want to reduce and what positive behavior you want to increase. For example, if children are not staying in bed at bedtime, you can identify the negative behavior as getting up out of bed and the positive behavior as staying in bed quietly without having a parent present.

Another example would be if you are having a problem with children not playing cooperatively together. The negative behavior would be not sharing or fighting with each other and the positive behavior would be playing together cooperatively. A time limit would be a good idea in this case so that there is a specific beginning and end to the time period that is being monitored by the parent, for example playing together cooperatively for 15 minutes.

The positive behavior you are asking for from your child, such as playing quietly for 20 minutes while you are busy, should be something that is age appropriate for your child and should be something that you think your child would have a pretty good chance of accomplishing successfully in order to receive a reward. It should not be too easy, but also not too hard either. Your child needs to be able to feel that he or she has some chance of success with earning the reward. It is important for parents to understand that children may need to achieve success using small steps towards the larger goal.

As your child learns and is able to achieve success at getting his or her rewards, it is important to modify the system so that it becomes somewhat more challenging for your child. For example you can require that the time period for playing cooperatively becomes longer.

Choosing incentives or rewards can be challenging; it is a good idea to involve your child in setting up the reward menu, because rewards or incentives need to be something that your child desires. It is a good idea to make a reward menu fairly long with smaller less expensive items as well as larger more expensive items included. It is important to note that rewards do not need to be expensive and can even be no cost, like getting a chance to play a game with a parent. It is a good idea to set a maximum price limit on any one reward item on the list so that the most expensive reward would cost no more that a certain amount specified by the parent.

Here are examples of rewards or incentives you could use:

Small, inexpensive items:

Special Privileges:

Special Activities:

Special Time with Parents:

After you make up your reward menu, you then assign points for each reward. Some items will be worth 2 or 3 points and some items can be worth more such as 10, 20, or 30 points.

You also need to assign points to the desired behavior you are working on. For example putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket could be worth 1 point, brushing teeth before bed could be worth 2 points, and putting toys away in a weekly cleanup of the bedroom could be worth 3 point.

Be sure to calculate the points so that children would be able to earn daily rewards if they are young and daily or weekly rewards if they are older. This will take a bit of calculating on your part in figuring out how many points your child would earn in a day or week if they were 100% successful with the program.

Now you are ready to make up the Reward Chart itself. It is best to put this in writing and for you to keep control of this chart. At the top of the Chart you would outline the positive behavior and the reward for this behavior. For example, “If you brush your teeth carefully before getting into bed, then you will earn 2 points” or “If you and your brother can play cooperatively together for 15 minutes then you will each earn 3 points.” Underneath this, you would record the times that the child was successful in doing this by writing the date and assigning the points.

It is good to keep reward programs separate. For each behavior that you are monitoring, there should be a separate Reward Chart. This may sound complicated, but in fact it makes things easier to monitor. For example, you would set up one reward chart for playing cooperatively for 15 minutes, one chart for picking up toys after playtime is over, and one chart for getting pyjamas on by 7:30 pm.

At the end of the day for young children, and the day or week for older children, you would count up the earned points and the child may redeem the points for a reward or save up points to redeem for a more expensive reward.

You may have noticed by now that the Reward Chart system does take some time and commitment from the parent. The biggest problem parents generally report is the time required to monitor the children to ensure that the positive behavior is being shown by the child, especially at the beginning of this program. For example, the parent must be available to monitor that the children do play cooperatively for 15 minutes, that the child does brush teeth carefully before bed, that the toys are picked up and put away appropriately in the weekly cleanup. Then the parent must record this on the Reward Chart. And then there must be time set aside for calculating and redeeming points for rewards.

It is important how you word your statements for rewards or incentives. You do not want to word it to sound like a bribe, for example you would not say “You can have this cookie if you stop screaming” or “you can have a chocolate if you go back to bed.” With this wording, you are rewarding your child for inappropriate behaviors such as screaming or getting out of bed. The important point is that you set up the reward program ahead of time so that you are rewarding the positive behaviors.

It is generally best if you do not take away rewards earned from your child. For example, if you had a reward system set up for playing cooperatively without fighting, such as getting to watch 30 minutes of TV for playing cooperatively for 30 minutes, and your children earned this reward by playing cooperatively for the time specified, then it is not a good idea to take away this earned reward later in the day if they do not play cooperatively.

Reward Charts, assigning points, and redeeming points for rewards must always be under the control of the parent. Parents must also be prepared to ignore arguments, complaints, and tantrums when the child has not earned points or when the child attempts to get the reward for less work. The best wording for this situation is something like, “It looks like playing together right now for 15 minutes without fighting is too hard right now. You won’t be able to earn points this time, but maybe next time I ask you to do this, you will be able to do it and earn your points.”

I would encourage you to try out using one Reward Chart to help your child learn one positive behavior just to see how it works. Don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to work right away; choose another behavior, a different reward menu and try assigning different points. Also, don’t overwhelm yourself with several positive behaviors at once.

And finally, remember that although rewards are only one way you can help your child learn positive behaviors, they can be helpful in certain situations to motivate kids to be successful.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster