When your child is in the midst of throwing a tantrum and is refusing to do what you tell him, the last thing on your mind is giving him a reward. However, rewards can be a great way to turn your kid's behavior around. And don't worry, rewards don't need to be lavish gifts that will spoil your child. In fact, if your child is like most kids, he probably already receives quite a few extra privileges that you can start linking to his good behavior.
Rewards Motivate Kids
Sometimes parents worry that giving kids incentives is really just bribing them to behave. However, much of society is based on rewards. For example, most adults show up at their job every day so they can be rewarded with a paycheck. Similarly, kids can benefit from a reward that gives them extra incentive to behave. Rewards can include things that don't cost money, such as time with electronics or a later bedtime. Special time doing a fun activity together, such as making a special snack or going for a bike ride, motivates some kids, while others may want to earn a play date or a trip to the park. Involve your child in choosing rewards that will motivate him.
Identify the behaviors you want to target with a reward system. For example, do you want your child to start following directions the first time you tell him to do something? Or are you more concerned with his aggression toward a sibling? Keep it simple and start with one or two behaviors initially. Once your child masters the initial behaviors, you can always create a new target behavior. Explain the reward system to your child and describe it as a positive way to help him make some changes. If you can get your child excited about the program, he'll be much more motivated to work hard on changing his behavior.
Sticker charts can be an effective reward system for young children. Behaviors like potty training or learning to stay in his own bed all night can respond well to a sticker chart. For preschoolers, the sticker alone often provides incentive enough to change their behavior. Allow your child to pick out the stickers that he likes and display the chart prominently on a wall or on the fridge. Allow an older child the opportunity to earn a bigger reward once he has earned a certain number of stickers. For example, take your child on a trip to the playground once he has earned five stickers.
Reward systems don't have to be complicated. A simple daily reward system can give kids an immediate reward every day if they meet their goals. For example, allow your child 30 minutes of video-game time after he completes his chores. Or allow a child to stay up 15 minutes later if he brushes his teeth without needing a reminder. Pick one or two small behaviors and offer simple rewards or privileges that will motivate your child.
Point systems work best for older children. Allow your child to earn points each day for good behavior. Then, offer a reward menu with rewards worth various amounts of points. Small rewards, like 30 minutes of TV time, can be worth a couple of points. Bigger rewards, such as going to the movies, can be worth many more points. Give your child the freedom to save or spend his points as he wishes. Provide interesting incentives on the reward menu to keep your child motivated to keep earning points.
Making Reward Systems Work
Reward systems need to be updated over time. If your child isn't earning any rewards, you may want to ensure that the program isn't too difficult for him. Work together with your child identifying problems with reward systems and be flexible with making changes. Assess his progress toward his goals often and add or delete target behaviors as needed. Also, keep your ears open for reward ideas. When he asks for something at the store, offer to add it to his reward system and give him the opportunity to earn it.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker who works as a therapist for adults and children. She is also an instructor at a community college, where she teaches courses in psychology and mental health. Morin received her Master of Social Work from the University of New England.