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Using Rewards with Children

August 23, 2017|Child & Adolescent

By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.

Sometimes parents worry that by giving their children rewards, they are “bribing” their kids and that their child should do a specific behavior just because it is the right thing to do. In general, even very little children can and should be expected to do certain behaviors without additional reward besides a smile of approval or the satisfaction of doing what one is supposed to (these expectations need of course to be age appropriate: a two year old’s “chore” might be to bring her bowl to the sink, but an eight year old’s might be to empty the dishwasher.) However, rewards or “positive reinforcement” can be very useful when we’re trying to increase a wanted behavior or minimize an unwanted one. Pet owners use positive reinforcement naturally when they give their dog a treat if it sits when told to, so that eventually the dog learns to sit on command. Teachers use it all the time as well. For example, every time a class lines up in less than three minutes, a teacher might put a chip in a jar, and once the jar is full, the class might get an extra recess. By rewarding it, the teacher is increasing a behavior she values (efficient, independent lining up.)

So how can we use this type of positive reinforcement appropriately at home? Let’s take the example of a child who is having toileting accidents because he gets so busy that he puts off going to the bathroom before it’s too late. You might have him try to use the toilet every two hours, giving him a star each time (regardless of whether he urinates or not,) and a bigger reward after ten stars on the chart. The stars themselves, and the reward after ten, motivate the child to use the bathroom. After a while, remembering to use the toilet may become “second nature” and the behavioral chart will no longer be needed.

This is an example of positive reinforcement to increase wanted behavior (using the toilet frequently), which automatically reduces unwanted behavior (accidents.)  It is the preferred method over punishment (such as scolding when the child has an accident), because punishment does little to increase the wanted behavior, and can create anxiety and stress for the child.

Another situation in which one can use positive reinforcement appropriately might be when a child avoids a task that they don’t like or that is difficult for them, such as handwriting. Using a timer, you might give them check mark on a chart for every five uninterrupted minutes they work on writing, and again provide an additional reward after a certain number of check marks.

A few reminders for parents:

  • All expectations should be appropriate to the child’s developmental level (check with the teacher, the pediatrician, a psychologist, or reputable child reading and child development resources.)
  • Behavioral charts should not be set up in an all-or-nothing way. It is less effective to say “If you do X once a day for a whole week, you’ll get a prize,” because if the child loses a day early on, there is little incentive to keep doing X—- she has already lost the prize. Imagine not reaching your goal three or four weeks in a row? What a sense of failure. Instead, if she earns a prize after a certain number times she does X, she is motivated to keep trying. Perhaps it will take our writing avoidant child ten days to earn her first five check marks, but because the positive behavior is being reinforced/rewarded, she has an incentive to continue to try. After a time, she might earn five check marks in two days, and before you know it, with any luck, she may stop avoiding writing. ​Even if she doesn’t, the reward system insures that homework is getting done more regularly and there are fewer disagreements over it. A few stickers and a timer are a small price to pay!
  • Finally, of course, if an unwanted behavior is unusual, concerning, or persistent, always consult with your pediatrician or a child psychologist for support and information on how to best support your child with it.


Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.

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