By Zuly Ramirez, LCPC
As a parent, you’ve probably tried reward systems and charts to help manage your child’s behavior. And like many parents, you may have had limited success with these tools.
The good news is that reward systems and charts can indeed be highly effective for kids as young as 3 years and even for teens. Effective reward systems make expectations and consequences concrete and clear and allow children to be rewarded consistently and immediately.
If, on the other hand, you are finding reward charts ineffective or difficult to create or maintain, here are some common reasons why:
1.The reward system was not introduced correctly
It is extremely important that when a new reward system is introduced to a child or teen, the child is able to meet the expectations and get rewarded from the very first try. Making rewards easier to get up front will keep the child engaged and motivated to continue trying when more difficult tasks are introduced in the future.
2. The reward is not motivating enough
Every child is motivated by different things. Common reinforcers are food, praise, and access to valued items or activities (eg, toys, screen time, or going to the park). Something to remember is that the more challenging the expectation is, the stronger the reinforcer (reward) must be, so it is important to find the right reward that is strong enough for the child to feel motivated. If your child is old enough, the best thing to do is work with your child on what rewards they want and make sure it is something you can provide.
3. Rewards are not given consistently and immediately
Rewards must be given every single time the child has met their goal and on the day and time it was promised. The child will not continue to follow the expectations set by the reward system if they don’t know they will receive their reward. For example, as an adult, if your employer did not pay you every pay period, you would likely not keep working there.
4. Expectations and rewards are not set in advance
Expectations must be set in advance. If you do not set them in advance, then it is a bribe. The child needs to know exactly what is expected of them before entering the situation and what they are working toward. Expectations should convey what the child is expected to do, not what they shouldn’t do. For example, instead of telling the child, “If you yell in the store, you won’t get to pick a candy bar at the register,” you should say, “If you use inside voices in the store, then you can pick a candy bar at the register.”
5. There are too many tasks and expectations are too high
There are different types of reward systems and using the wrong one can hinder its success.
For younger children, rewards need to be more immediate via a “First, Then” system: “First you finish your homework, Then you can play.”
As children get older you can add multiple expectations and reward later, such as a Reward Chart where they can earn points towards a reward. For example, the chart might be a graph with separate lines for putting on shoes, making the bed, putting away toys, finishing homework, and so on, for each day of the week. At the bottom the chart might indicate how many task completion points are needed to get a specified reward.
As a child therapist, I find that parents can really struggle implementing effective reward systems and that things can really improve with the support of a behavior therapist. Having support and guidance can go miles toward creating a more harmonious family environment quickly!