Ideas for effective reward systems to discipline your child

What is the best consequence to use for a particular behavior?  This is probably one of the most common questions we receive from many parents.  You may wonder which consequences to use, how to set them up effectively, and how long to give them.

We notice some parents are moving towards “gentle parenting”, where they choose not to use rewards (sticker charts, lollies, chocolates, TV time as “bribes”) and punishments (taking away “privileges”, time-out…) to encourage good behaviour for the sake of doing the right thing.  A great way to start figuring out the right consequences for your situation is to sit down during a calm moment and create a list, or “menu,” of consequences and rewards for your child. Each behavior you are worried about should have a specific consequence. 

To help you get started, we suggest some simple, but effective ideas for a reward system in place.

Why reward your kids?

Rewards can encourage your good behavior from your child.
The way you respond right after your child’s behavior makes the behavior more or less likely to happen again.  Rewards can help get your child to do more of the things you want her to do. Rewards that happen right after a behavior are best.

Rewards can help increase self-esteem.
Toddlers and preschoolers hear the words “no,”, “stop,” and “quit” many times during the day.  This is normal and one of the ways they learn right from wrong. But when children hear these things over and over, their self-esteem can begin to suffer.  They may begin to believe they cannot do anything correctly. When a child earns a reward, she knows she has done something good and something you like.

Rewards can improve your relationship with your child.
When you give a reward to your child, you and your child are both happy.  You are happy because your child has done something you like. Your child is also happy because she is getting something she likes.

Rewards are recognition for a job well done.  And while descriptive praise and attention are the most effective form of reward a parent can offer a child, tangible rewards such as an activity or a privilege have their place too.  It’s not easy to keep kids motivated. A system of rewards and consequences at home could be just the incentive your child needs. Here are ideas for putting a system in place.

Types of Rewards

There are several types of rewards. Material rewards include toys, candy, or other things that cost money. Another type of reward is a social reward. Social rewards are cheap or free and can be even more powerful than material rewards. They also can be given more often and immediately after behaviors you like.

Examples of Social Rewards:
1. Affection – includes hugs, kisses, a high five, a smile, a pat on the back, or an arm around the shoulder.

2. Praise – Praise happens when parents say things like “Great job,” “Way to go,” or “Good boy/girl.”  However, specific (or labeled) praise tells a child exactly what behavior you liked. Examples of labeled praise are:

    • “Great job playing quietly while I was on the telephone!”
    • “You were a great helper when you put all your toys in the closet today”

3. Attention and Activities –Extra time with you or a special activity can be a powerful reward for young children. Some examples include playing a favorite game, reading a story, and helping with dinner. Other activities like going to the movies, the zoo or libraries can also be used.

6 steps to set up a reward chart

1.Choose the behaviour you want to change or encourage
When you’ve decided on the behaviour, it’s important to use clear and positive descriptions of the behaviour.  For example, ‘Pick up all the toys from your bedroom floor’ is clearer and easier for your child to understand than ‘Tidy your bedroom’.  And ‘Knock before going into other people’s rooms’ is more positive than ‘Don’t invade other people’s privacy’.

2. Set up a chart
You can choose from lots of different styles of charts or make one yourself.  You can also insert a drawing or photo of the reward they’re trying to earn. For some great ideas for reward charts, click here.  When you’ve decided on your chart, decide which stickers or tokens to use – star stickers work well for younger children, whereas older children might like points or other markers.  Put the chart where your child can see it. Keep in mind that your older child might prefer a spot that’s private – for example, in her bedroom rather than on the fridge.

3.Choose short-term rewards
Most children enjoy collecting stickers or tokens at the start.  But the novelty can wear off quite quickly, and the real reward can seem too far away.  So it’s good to choose short-term rewards that you can give often if your child earns them, like a family bike ride, special time with mom or dad, the chance to stay up late, a movie night, or a new book or small toy.

4.Give your child the stickers straight after the behaviour

When your child gets the sticker straight after the behaviour you want to see, it reinforces this behaviour.  Likewise, some specific praise reminds your child why he’s getting the sticker or token. For example, ‘I really like the way you and Mia have been playing and sharing toys this morning. Here’s a star for your chart’.

5.Try to stay positive
If your child doesn’t earn a star, it’s best to just move on.  Also try to avoid punishing your child by saying, ‘I’ll take a star away’, or ‘You won’t get any stars if you keep that up!’.  Focus on encouraging your child to try again.

6.Measure the behaviour

If your child has a particularly challenging behaviour, you might like to measure the behaviour before you start and while you’re using the reward chart.  For example, count how many times, or how often, your child hits. Record this when you start using the chart, then keep track of it as the days pass. This will help you tell if the reward chart is working.

Reward charts: making them work for you

If you make an effort to notice when your child is behaving well, you keep the focus on encouraging good behaviour.   For example, your child might be cleaning up her toys once a day.  You could try looking for two times in the day when she does cleaning, and give her stickers for those two times on the chart, so she can earn her rewards more quickly.  Remember to reward the behaviour as soon as you see it to keep your child motivated. Thinking about how much behaviour change to expect can help you and your child stay positive and realistic.  You might look for small changes to reward before working your way up to a big change.  For example, if you want your child to help more with tidying up, you could start by rewarding her for picking up the blocks.  Then it could be the blocks and the dress-ups, and so on.

Your child might get bored with the same reward.  To avoid this, you could work together to set up a reward ‘menu’ with a choice of rewards to spend his stickers on.  For example, 5 stickers = a game with mum or extra time before lights out, 10 stickers = a trip to the park or a small toy. Your tweens, or teenagers, will outgrow formal reward charts and systems.  However, this doesn’t mean you have to get rid of reward systems altogether. Create a behavior management contract to link privileges to specific behavior. For example, link your teen’s ability to go to the movies with her friends to get her homework done on time all week.  Electronics are also another privilege that works well for many teens. Consider giving cellphone privileges each day only after their homework and chores are completed. Just make sure that you establish clear rules ahead of time so your child understands what you expect each day.

Children, like adults, enjoy attention.  Children tend to continue a behavior that secures attention.  Behavior that does not arouse a reaction or is ignored is likely to eventually fall by the wayside.  The key to raising kids when it comes to learning positive behavior is consistency in a parent’s reactions to their choices.  Parents should be proactive and engaging, demonstrating and rewarding the behaviors they want their children to learn.



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