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Developing and Using a Reward Program

Toddler son holding a spoon sitting in mom's lap

Rewards can be helpful with young children. They can help get children to do things they are not already doing. They also encourage children to keep doing things they are already doing. A rewards program is a way to keep track of how often your child does something you like. For toddlers and preschoolers, a rewards program can be as simple as a sticker chart. Rewards work well for behaviors like staying in bed after being tucked in or putting the dishes on the counter after dinner. Using the potty or brushing one’s teeth are also good examples of things young children may need a little reward for doing before they become a habit.

Step 1: Identify the specific behaviors you want to reward.

The first step in setting up a reward program is to decide what behaviors you want to reward. The behaviors you pick should help your child clearly understand what you expect. Tips for picking specific behaviors are:

  • Avoid vague behaviors like “play nicely”. You and your child may have different ideas about what “playing nicely” means.
  • Pick a couple of specific behaviors. For example, “Use polite words” and “Keep your hands and feet to yourself” are specific behaviors that clearly define playing nicely.
  • Choose behaviors that are realistic and fit your child’s age and ability. For example, it’s realistic to expect a 2-year-old to help clean up toys but not realistic for him to make his bed each day on his own.
  • State exactly what you want to see your child do and avoid using words like “no,” “don’t,” “stop,” “quit,” and “not” when you identify behaviors to reward. Examples are:
    • “Share your toys with your sister” instead of “No hitting your sister.”
    • “Walk in the house” instead of “No running in the house.”
    • “Play with your toys on the floor” instead of “Don’t jump on the bed.”

Step 2: Decide on the reward.

The reward you use should be something your child wants to earn and will enjoy. He will not want to do the behavior if the reward isn’t something he wants or likes. Remember that rewards don’t have to cost a lot of money. A reward can be a sticker, hugs, kisses, an ink stamp, or any number of things. Whatever you choose, make sure the reward is given immediately after the child does the behavior. Giving a quick reward for doing the right thing is the most effective way to get young children to change their behavior.

Step 3: Create a chart.  

Create a chart that shows your child the behaviors and rewards you have picked. The chart should be made in a way your young child will understand, like with pictures and simple words. For example, if you want your child to brush her teeth every day, you may write “Brush teeth” on the chart and include a picture of a toothbrush so that your child understands. Click here for a sample chart and to create your own chart.

Step 4: Explain the reward program to your child.

For the reward program to work, your child needs to be told exactly what he needs to do to earn a reward. If you picked clear and specific behaviors in step 1, this will be easy to do. If you are using a chart that uses stickers, stamps, or check marks, you can show the chart to your child.  You can say what you expect from him and what you will do on the chart every time you see him do the behavior. Try to focus on the positives when explaining the chart to your child. For example, you may say, “I have noticed that you sometimes take your plate to the sink after you finish eating. I want to give you a sticker like this (show the child the sticker) on your chart (point to the chart) every time you take your plate to the sink after eating!”

Step 5: Use the reward program.

You are now ready to begin using the reward program. Make sure the reward program is clear to your child. When he receives a reward, tell him exactly (and enthusiastically) what he did to earn the reward. For example, you could tell your child, “Because you took your plate to the sink all by yourself, I am giving you a big, gold star!” Remember to give the rewards immediately after the behavior to make sure that your child knows what he did to earn the reward.

Place the chart somewhere that is easy for the child to see. The refrigerator is often a good place, but you can put it anywhere that works for your family. Some families like to have the charts by the front door. Other families like to have them in the child’s room. The goal is to have the chart where your child can see it and be reminded of what you want him to do.

When the child earns his first reward, you can praise him and let him watch you put the reward on the chart. Never take away rewards your child has earned. Rewards that your child has earned are his and should not be removed for misbehaviors. To earn new rewards, your child must do the right thing again.

Step 6: Slowly change the selected behavior or phase out the reward program.

When you first start using a reward program, reward your child often. Over time, you will notice that your child is doing the right thing more and more often. You can stop rewarding the behavior and move on to rewarding a different behavior you would like your child to do more often.

Reward programs that use stickers, ink stamps, or check marks are less effective as children get older. For older children, the items used as rewards can be changed to tokens, such as marbles and chips that can be collected and redeemed for other rewards your child wants. For instance, if your older child earns 5 marbles for doing the selected behavior, he can get a reward like a trip to the park.