How to Set Up a Reward System for Kids

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.

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Many parents swear by rewards systems to help kids reach behavioral milestones (and tame a few tantrums on the way). Rewards charts encourage behavioral modification through positive reinforcement—though it should be noted that children’s social-emotional development is a learned process that reflects their maturation and growth

"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 when a child develops a positive behavior and gets a lot of praise, they'll be more likely to repeat the behavior in the future.

Read on to learn more about reward charts and the age groups and situations that benefit from them the most.

How Reward Systems Work

Here's an example of how reward systems work: 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, clarified her expectations, 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." They tallied the results at the end of the week, 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.

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, such as getting dressed. It's often helpful to have both short-term and long-term goals; for example, maybe they get to watch a favorite video after three stickers, and they get a larger reward (such as a small toy) after 10 stickers. If your child can't count, you can make a grid on the chart, and they can get a reward after completing a line. Parents should avoid bribing a child by giving extra rewards for good behavior; instead, the chart should focus only on the designated tasks.

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. 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 them right away.

To eliminate confusion, you should give the visual reward immediately after the desired behavior occurs, says Dr. Bisaga. Otherwise, your child might forget why they're getting a reward.

Go slow.

When starting a reward system, only track and reward one behavior at a time. For example, your toddler or preschooler can get stickers for using the toilet, getting dressed, saying "thank you," or not whining—but not all at the same time. Instead, start with one and once that 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. So, give your child lots of praise when they accomplish a goal, and they'll be encouraged to keep up the good work. Also, remind them about the reward chart often: "Remember if you go potty on the toilet, you'll get a sticker!"

Use simple words.

With toddlers and preschoolers, you need to speak in easy-to-understand terms. For example, instead of rewarding your child for "showing gratitude for acts of service," you're rewarding them for "saying 'please' and 'thank you."

Avoid bribes.

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 they stop. Instead, you might explain to your child what behavior is expected, and that this behavior will earn them a sticker.

Reward Systems for School-Aged Kids

For school-aged kids, a reward system usually deals with points instead of stickers. But tracking points alone won't motivate most kids to change their behavior, so parents need to encourage them with larger incentives.

For example, kids can trade in a certain number of points for specific rewards, such as:

  • A trip to the playground
  • A later bedtime
  • An extra half hour of video games
  • Small amounts of money

Older kids might earn daily, weekly, and long-term awards. For example, each day that they get a certain number of points, they can play their video game, and after a certain number of points in one week, they earn extra video game time on the weekend. (Say every 20 points gets you an extra hour, so your kid doesn't just "stop acting good' after they reach 20 points). A longer-term reward could happen when your child accumulates a certain number of points over a month, and it might be something like a new video game.

Here are some tips for success with a point reward system for older kids.

Track multiple behaviors.

You can implement more items in the reward chart as your kids get older. For example, your child might earn points for making their bed, controlling their anger, helping with laundry, walking the dog, and being nice to siblings. You might give more points for harder or important tasks (doing homework could be worth more than making the bed, for instance). Make sure to clearly define expectations so there's no arguing over whether the reward is earned.

Consider removing points.

Parents can decide on the dynamics of their reward system, but some choose to also remove points for misbehavior. If this happens, clearly explain the reasoning to your child and remind them how they can earn points back. That said, some experts advise against removing points because it could negatively affect motivation. Instead, you might pick a few major misbehaviors and have pre-set penalties for those. The penalties can be things such as doing extra chores, having to wait a few hours before using their reward, or only getting half the extra time on the video game.

Add time sensitivity.

Does your kid have a knack for procrastination? Add a time sensitivity element to your reward system! For example, maybe they must make their bed before 10 a.m. to receive points, or they need to complete all chores before dinner.

Ask your kids for input.

Talk to your child to brainstorm accessible rewards that will motivate them. For example, they might not care about getting a new book if they already have shelves full of unread ones—but maybe they're longing for a family bike ride to the new ice cream shop!

Be consistent.

Reward charts clearly state your expectations, 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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