7 ideas for using rewards and consequences

It’s not easy to keep kids motivated. A system of rewards and consequences at home could be just the incentive your child needs. Here are ideas for putting a system in place.

1. Understand rewards.

A reward isn’t a bribe. It’s something your child earns for correctly doing what you asked. Consider using both tangible and intangible rewards:

Tangible rewards include stickers, small toys, treats, privileges (like TV time), choosing what’s for dinner, or earning points toward a special gift.

Intangible rewards include heartfelt thanks and acknowledgment: “I liked how you listened to Sarah today — you were a really good friend.” Be careful not to overpraise, though. Kids can tell the difference between a true compliment and an exaggerated one.

2. Let your child have a say.

Giving your child a say about the reward he receives can make it feel more enticing. Consider creating a reward “menu.” If your child seems to be losing motivation after a couple weeks, change the reward — but be sure to talk it through with your child first.

3. Be specific.

Some kids have trouble understanding the “why,” “what,” and “when” in your requests. Others may be too distracted or overactive to pay attention. It can be helpful to closely pair your directions with a reward for completing a task.

Clearly state expectations. “If you want to play a game in the morning, you need to eat breakfast, have your teeth brushed, and be dressed by 8:00.” You can reinforce expectations with a written list.

Calmly repeat your deal as often as necessary. Use “when, then” statements: “When you complete setting the table, then you can go play basketball.”

4. Understand consequences.

Consequences are not punishments — although they may feel that way at times. They’re a good way for your child to learn that there are natural outcomes in life. This knowledge can help kids structure and organize their behavior.

In most instances, a consequence should simply involve withholding an agreed-upon reward. Here’s an example: You agreed that your child could video-chat with a friend after practicing the piano for 20 minutes. No piano practicing means no chat.

5. Use consequences appropriately.

Follow through with a consequence as soon as it’s clear your child hasn’t completed a task on time or in the way you agreed. The more you delay, the less likely your child will connect behavior with the consequence.

Don’t go overboard. Taking away privileges for an entire week may be tempting, but prolonged consequences can lose their power and meaning.

Avoid being overly critical. Let the consequence do its job. It will remind your child what the reward might have been.

Use positive consequences, too. Try to “catch” your child being good. The positive attention may encourage repeat performances.

6. Consider using a behavior chart.

Create a chart to track the behaviors you’d like to see in your child:

  • Across the top of the chart, list the days of the week. On the left side of the chart, create a column that lists which behaviors or tasks you’ll be looking at.

  • Each time your child demonstrates a behavior or completes a task, put a sticker in the appropriate day’s box.

  • For some children, stickers are enough reward. You could also try using stickers as “points” your child can redeem for outings, privileges, or toys.

7. Sync home and school systems.

Consider speaking with your child’s teachers to create a system to use at home and at school. Be as consistent as possible with both systems of rewards and consequences. This can increase your child’s likelihood of success.


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