Two weeks ago, we began a two-part series that aims to provide information to parents about rewards and how to use them strategically and systematically to teach children skills and modify behaviors. Our first post discussed common parental concerns about rewarding kids for good behavior. This week’s will focus on how to use a reward system effectively.
1. Define the target behavior and set up attainable goals. This involves planning what behavior(s) you want to target over time and then defining the behavior so it is specific, observable, measurable, positively-stated, and attainable:
Specific and Observable: Avoid using vague terms that cannot be measured such as “Behaving,” “Listening,” or “Being nice.” Instead try “Staying next to parent outside of home,” “Using kind words with brother and sister.” Make sure the target behavior can be observed directly by anyone observing including a parent, nanny, or sitter.
Measurable: The next step is to make sure the goals are measurable. Make sure to focus on behavior and to avoid using thoughts and feelings in the goal because these internal states can’t be quantified by an observer. Also, make sure your goal has parameters like a time of day, number of reminders, or quantifiable amount. For instance, “Completing homework accurately,” could be defined as “Completing homework with at least 75% accuracy.”
Positively-Stated: After goals are specific and observable, they should be reworded if needed to ensure they are positively-stated. Positively-stated goals tell a child what to do instead of what not to do. For example: “Using a big boy voice,” or “Using an appropriate tone of voice,” can be used instead of “Not whining.”
Attainable: It’s important to set the target so it’s an improvement over where your child started but not so hard that it’s impossible. You want to find the right balance so you don’t reward things they are already doing and also don’t make it so difficult that they lose interest and your chart starts to collect dust. Adding a set number of reminders or specifying a small timeframe can help make challenging goals more attainable. Then when a child is successful, parents can make the target harder, which shapes the goal closer to the parents’ desired outcome. For instance, a goal of “Keeping hands and feet to self with 2 or fewer reminders in the afternoon,” can be changed to “1 or fewer reminders” after a child is consistently successful with 2 reminders.
2. Select Appropriate Rewards. Once targets are set, parents need to establish rewards based on their child’s preferences. Parents should brainstorm privileges, activities, and tangible items that would be enjoyable for their child. Examples of privileges or activities are extra screen time, extra story time, a board game with a parent, a craft or activity with a parent, a later bedtime, or an outing. Tangible items can include stickers, small prizes in a grab bag or treasure chest, a special treat, or items a child wants such as Pokemon cards, Legos, downloading a song or game, or gift cards. Parents should make sure the reward is something the child does not already get for free, such as offering an additional 20 minutes of screen time when current screen time is unlimited. They will also want to make sure they are comfortable withholding the rewards if the child does not earn them. For instance, a parent who is trying to help a child make more friends may not want to use play-dates as a reward. In general, younger children and children who have trouble waiting respond best to daily rewards and older children can wait for larger rewards.
3. Preparing Your Child: It’s important to prepare your child in advance by discussing briefly during a calm time. In this discussion you would want to let your child know what he or she will be working on and why, review how rewards can be earned and what types of rewards will be provided. You will also want to get input from the child about rewards.
4. Starting the Program, Giving Feedback, and Monitoring Progress: Once you start the system, it’s important to monitor and give feedback consistently after every opportunity to earn. Feedback should be praise when your child meets the goal and neutral feedback when he or she does not. For instance, positive feedback could be, “Great job getting dressed on your own with only one reminder. You earned something from your reward list.” Alternatively, on a tougher day, feedback could be, “I had to give you three reminders to get dressed today so you didn’t earn your reward. We’ll try again tomorrow.” You could also help problem solve with your child any difficulties depending on their age and ability. In addition to regular verbal feedback, formally tracking progress is important to assess the effects of the program and determine next steps. Having a visual such as tokens, a marble jar, or a behavior chart with stars or stickers helps the child understand the system and their progress. Visuals also can be important cues to busy parents that remind them to use the system. In addition to providing a visual cue, behavior charts are particularly helpful for tracking progress over time to help parents decide when to make the goal easier or harder.
5. Troubleshooting: A number of problems can come up with reward systems. It’s important to consider several causes if your child is not responding or was responding and then stopped. One possible problem is your child’s motivation. Consider whether they are motivated by the reward, if the reward is too far in the future, and if the reward is something they already get for free. Sometimes refreshing the reward menu periodically can significantly help motivation and prevent a child from getting bored of the system. For children who are hard to motivate, pay attention to how they are spending their free time and what they are asking for. Some children are very motivated by parent attention and respond best to individual time with a parent or parent-child activities. If it’s not a motivation problem, parents should consider whether they are giving regular and clear feedback consistently and should take steps to improve consistency by using reminders on a phone and/or placing the chart in a visible area. For parents with children who argue about their behavior, parents should make sure their feedback is given right when they see a behavior, let their child know that parent decisions are final, and then ignore arguing consistently.
Behavior charts can be very effective in changing behavior over time when used correctly. If you’ve tried these steps without positive results, you may want to consider professional guidance.
Stephanie M. Wagner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. She serves as the co-director of the Early Childhood Clinical Service at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.