Rewards for Kids: A reward system can be one of the easiest and effective methods to use on children of any age. In this post, you will learn how to use a reward system a) to improve challenging behaviors in children or b) to increase desired behaviors they already have in their repertoire but are not currently displaying. You will learn what constitutes a “reward” and why it works.
Table of Contents:
- What is Reward?
- Difference Between Reward and Bribe
- Why Rewards for Kids Work?
- Reward Ideas for Kids
- How to Use Rewards
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What is Reward?
A “reward” is a simple yet powerful tool for behavior modification.
For adults, a reward can be getting paid to do your job. For children, a reward is multifaceted.
To better understand how rewards can modify behaviors, it might be helpful to define what reward means.
A reward is something given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.
When we are working to increase a child’s behavior, we should reward the child when they have put in some effort or attained a level of achievement.
For example, your child does well on a test, and you give them a reward to acknowledge their efforts or achievement.
A reward can be many things.
It can range from something tangible, such as a little treat, to something intangible like a high-five or a hug.
We will discuss the different types of rewards later on in the post.
A Reward Versus A Bribe
The difference between a reward and a bribe can be quite subtle yet make a huge difference in behavior modification.
We use rewards to encourage or motivate a child to continue with the positive behavior. It is also only given once the positive behavior has been achieved.
For a reward to work, it must be given after the fact. Preferably immediately after the positive behavior occurs.
Bribery is used to coerce or persuade someone to act or do something that you want. Generally, bribes are given beforehand.
They don’t encourage or motivate.
Instead, they teach your child that they can get what they want and promptly go back to inappropriate behaviors.
Bribery does not elicit any type of change or modification in behavior the way reward does.
Think of a reward as dangling a fun toy in a child’s face and bribes as “giving in.”
With rewards, the child actually wants to change, while with bribes, the change is merely temporary.
Why Rewards for Kids Work
Behaviors don’t occur randomly.
Consequences that follow our kids’ behavior play an essential role in its future occurrence.
Behaviors followed by a favorable result (reinforcement) are more likely to happen in the future.
There are two types of reinforcement (both result in an increased frequency of a type of behavior):
- Positive reinforcement
- Negative reinforcement
Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus (reinforcer) and, as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future.
Rewards are the reinforcer that will make more frequent the behavior we are trying to promote.
If you think about it in terms of a behavior cycle, you will understand the reward system’s basic methodology.
- Step 1: A child is taught an appropriate behavior
- Step 2: The child receives something (a reward) for their efforts or achievement.
- Step 3: The child remembers the reward and inherently wants to continue getting that reward
- Step 4: The behavior continues until it eventually becomes habitual.
You can use reward (positive reinforcement) for any type of behavior that you’re looking to modify.
For example, we can use rewards to motive children to do household chores or diligently do their grooming (brush teeth, comb hair).
Another example can be during potty training. A reward will most likely increase success exponentially.
Nonverbal children also benefit from a reward system, primarily in the early years, to develop communication skills.
Reward Ideas for Kids
As previously mentioned, rewards can come in many different forms.
As a parent, you know your child best and can come up with the most effective reward system for your child.
If your child loves a specific toy or a particular treat, those items will likely be the most motivating. If you’re rewarding success frequently and effectively, the unwanted behavior should diminish (or the desired one will be present consistently).
List of Rewards for Kids
Let’s look at some examples that can make good rewards for kids.
For easier understanding, I have divided them into tangible items and items that lean towards social praise.
Tangible Reward Ideas for Kids:
- Piece of chocolate or candy
- Different types of cereal
- A set number of minutes on an electronic device
- A specific song
- A specific toy (preferably one of their favorites)
- A game
- A specific video
- Time with a specific person
Social Rewards / Intangible Reward Ideas:
- Verbal praise, e.g., “Good job finishing your homework.”
- Body squeezes
- Playing with your child’s hair.
Of course, these are not the only items that work as motivators for your children. It is just a starting point to get your mind thinking in systems of reward.
My post Reward Ideas for Kids has more than 100 suggestions for you.
How To Use Reward
Using reward as a system of positive reinforcement does not have to be complicated or time-consuming.
The most important thing to remember is that the reward should be given AFTER the desired behavior is achieved.
Parents everywhere have trouble rewarding their children in a way that elicits change.
This section will help you learn how to administer a reward effectively.
Tips for Rewarding Appropriate Behavior:
- Start on a specific behavior.
- If you are trying to modify very challenging behaviors, consider starting with a moderate problematic behavior to increase your success chances.
You can address more challenging behaviors once you are comfortable with the mechanics of positive reinforcement, and your child has made the connection between appropriate behavior and getting the reward.
You may want to establish a baseline of the current occurrence of that behavior to help you assess the success of your intervention (ABC behavior trackers are great for that)
- Identify highly reinforcing rewards. (What does your child love the most?)
- Reward frequently and consistently.
- If you are rewarding with a tangible item, always pair it with verbal praise. Why? You will eventually fade the tangible reward and only reward with verbal praise.
- Let the child choose their reward. There are two reasons for this: a) It will be far more motivating. b) Children’s preferences are continually changing. It’s crucial not to assume what they will like and stick with it.
- Be patient. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It may happen quickly, but not necessarily on the first try.
To help you better administer rewards, you can use a token board (also known as behavior chart rewards chart).
A token board is a visual representation of where your child stands in terms of their behavior.
It helps them stay on task and/or remind them of the consequences of the desired behavior.
Let’s say your child is a picky eater, and you’ve been working on this behavior for quite some time now. Implementing a token board into your routine can help your child understand that they are working towards a goal.
Below you will see a basic reward chart. This board should be filled in with your child’s favorite images (such as a cartoon character or a singer), or maybe even stars or smiley faces.
Going back to our example of a picky eater, you would ask your child what they want to work for. Ideally, they will answer with one of those highly reinforcing items you identified at the beginning of this process. Then you give your child a “token” for every bite they take or every attempt at a bite (if that’s their level).
Once they accumulate the 10 tokens, you give them the item they’ve been working for.
If your child can’t wait that long for their reward, you could create a token board with only five spots, four spots, or as few as you require. The beauty of token boards is that they cater specifically to your child’s needs.
Conclusion: Rewarding Success is Crucial for Change
If your child is not being rewarded for their appropriate behavior, or at the minimum, their attempts at appropriateness, you are unlikely to see a positive change.
In this post, you learned what reward is, what it is not, and how you can effectively implement a reward system into your life.
Remember that not all rewards have to be tangibles. They can also be hugs and tickles. Whatever item motivates your child is great because they will soon learn the connection between appropriate behavior and reward.
Related reading about kids with challenging behavior and ways to deal with it:
- Setting Limits with your Strong-Willed Child
- The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges
- The Explosive Child: A New Approach For Understanding And Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children
Related Post: Reasons Why Your Child is Misbehaving
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