Reward systems rely on positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. Here's how to make reward systems work for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged kids.

By Nicole Harris
May 15, 2020
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If you want to help your child to reach behavioral milestones (and tame a few tantrums on the way), you can try a tactic that many parents swear by: reward systems. They encourage behavioral modification through positive reinforcement.

“Stressing positive behavior helps build self-esteem," says Katarzyna Bisaga, M.D., Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor in Columbia University's Division of Child Psychiatry in New York City. "The thinking is that once a child develops one positive behavior and gets a lot of praise, then he'll be more likely to cooperate in other situations too."  

Here’s an example of how it works: When Dr. Bisaga’s son Marcin was 7 years old, she struggled to get him ready for school in the morning. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of his foot-dragging, she stressed the positives, made her expectations clear, and implemented a point reward system for kids. 

"In the morning Marcin got points for getting dressed by a certain time, brushing his teeth, and eating his breakfast," she says. "When he came home from school, there were points for putting his coat and shoes away and for washing his hands. At night there were points for taking a bath and brushing his teeth." At the end of the week, the results were tallied and he earned 10 cents for every three points. Marcin would look forward to buying trading cards and small toys with his loot.

Want to implement a similar reward system in your house? The key is customizing it based on your child’s age, personality, and interests. Here’s how to set up a reward system that works for your kid.

Creating Reward Systems for Toddlers and Preschoolers

For little kids, consider using a sticker reward chart. The instructions are simple: Put one sticker on the chart each time your child accomplishes a goal. Some parents also give out rewards for certain milestones. (For example, she can get one sticker each time she dresses herself. Ten stickers earns a small toy or new book). Printable reward charts are readily available online, and you can also make your own DIY version.

Also note that you don’t need to work with stickers. Reward charts can take many forms: dimes in a jar, magnets on the fridge, child-friendly apps, tallied points—anything that’ll motivate your child to behave accordingly! Just remember that most little kids do best with a bit of visual representation.  

Here are some tips for using a reward chart for toddlers and preschoolers.

Reward your toddler or preschooler right away. To eliminate confusion, stickers should be given immediately after the desired behavior occurs, says Dr. Bisaga. Otherwise your kid might forget what they’re being rewarded for. 

Track only one behavior. When you first start a reward system, only track one behavior at a time. Your toddler or preschooler can get stickers for using the toilet, getting dressed, saying “thank you,” not whining, etc. Once a specific behavior is no longer a problem, Dr. Bisaga says you can target another, always making sure your goals are realistic and age-appropriate.

Give plenty of praise. Toddlers and preschoolers love pleasing their parents. Give your child lots of praise when she accomplishes a goal, and she’ll be encouraged to keep up the good work. Also remind her about the reward chart often (“Remember if you go potty on the toilet, you’ll get a sticker!”)

Use simple wording. With toddlers and preschoolers, you need to speak with easy-to-understand terms. Instead of rewarding your child for “showing gratitude for acts of service,” you’re rewarding her for “saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”  

Don’t bribe. Even if you’re desperate to get your child to behave in public, you shouldn’t use a reward system as a bribe. Your child might start acting out on purpose, knowing that a reward awaits when she stops. 

Creating Reward Systems for Kids at Home

For school-aged kids, a reward system usually deals with points instead of stickers. But tracking points alone won’t motivate them to change their behavior, so parents need to encourage them with larger incentives. For example, kids can trade in 20 points for a trip to the playground, a later bedtime, an extra half hour of video games, or small amounts of money. Remember the tactic of Dr. Bisaga, who gave her son 10 cents for every three points earned (which he subsequently spent on small toys!) Here are some tips for success with a point reward system for kids.

Track multiple behaviors. As your kids age, you can implement more items in the reward chart. Your child might earn points for making his bed, controlling his anger, helping with laundry, walking the dog, and being nice to siblings.

Consider removing points. Parents can decide on the dynamics of their chart, but some choose to remove points for bad behavior. If this happens, clearly explain the reasoning to your child.

Add time sensitivity. Does your kid have a knack for procrastination? Then add a time sensitivity element to your reward system! Maybe your kid must make his bed before 10 a.m. to receive points, or he needs to complete all chores before dinner.

Get your kids involved. Talk to your child to brainstorm accessible rewards that will motivate him. He might not care about getting a new book if he already has shelves full of unread ones—but maybe he’s longing for a family bike ride to the new ice cream shop!

Don’t stray from the system. Reward charts clearly state what is expected of your child, but they only work as long as you keep at it. "Even simple star charts require a lot of energy, effort, and time," says Dr. Bisaga. "You need to be on top of your kids and monitor what they're doing and how they're doing it."

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