Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

Use of Rewards

Toddler girl portrait

The way you respond right after your child’s behaviors makes the behavior more or less likely to happen again. Behaviors are more likely to happen again when followed by a positive consequence like a reward. This is true for all behaviors, even those you don’t want to happen again. Rewards are things like attention, going to the park, small toys, or other things your child likes such as hugs and kisses.

Rewards can be used to encourage your child’s good behaviors. They also help get your child to do more of the things you want her to do. Rewards that happen right after a behavior are best. Sometimes rewards can’t be given right away but should be given as soon as possible. Rewards don’t work as well when they are given long after a behavior. This is true especially for toddlers and preschoolers. Their memory is not as good as it is for older children.

When you first start using rewards, reward the behavior you like every time it occurs. Tell your child exactly what she did that you liked and why she is getting the reward. If you don’t tell her what you liked, she will not know what to do next time to be rewarded. You could say, “I am so happy you put your toys away without being asked. Now we get to read two extra books before sleepy time!”

Why are Rewards Important?

Rewards are important for many reasons. First, rewards can be used to increase self-esteem. Toddlers and preschoolers hear the words “no,” “don’t,” “stop,” and “quit” many times during the day. This is normal and one of the ways they learn right from wrong. But when children hear these things over and over, their self-esteem can begin to suffer. They may begin to believe they cannot do anything correctly. Rewards can be used to increase self-esteem. When a child earns a reward, he knows he has done something good and something you like.

Rewards can also help improve your relationship with your child. When you give a reward to your child, you and your child are both happy. You are happy because your child has done something you like. Your child is also happy because she is getting something she likes.

Types of Rewards

There are several types of rewards. Most people think of toys, candy, or other things that cost money as rewards. These are called material rewards. Another type of reward is a social reward. Social rewards are cheap or free and can be even more powerful than material rewards. They also can be given more often and immediately after behaviors you like. Affection, praise, or attention from you are examples of social rewards.

Examples of Social Rewards

  1. Affection – Rewarding your child with your affection lets her know you approve of what she did. This includes hugs, kisses, a high five, a smile, a pat on the back, or an arm around the shoulder.
  2. Praise – Praise happens when parents say things like “Great job,” “Way to go,” or “Good boy/girl.” These words show approval, but they do not tell children exactly what behavior you liked. Specific (or labeled) praise tells a child exactly what behavior you liked. Examples of labeled praise are:
    1. “Great job playing quietly while I was on the telephone!”
    2. “You were a great helper when you put all your toys in the closet today!”
    3. “Thank you for using your inside voice.”
  3. Attention and Activities – Extra time with you or a special activity can be a powerful reward for young children. Some examples include playing a favorite game, reading a story, going to the park, and helping with dinner. Other activities such as going to the movies, the zoo, or skating can also be used, but these activities may not always be available or affordable.

Tips for Using Rewards

Using social and material rewards together may increase how quickly your child’s behavior changes. You can decrease the use of rewards after your child is doing what you want regularly and consistently.

When using material rewards, the rewards must be items your child likes or really enjoys. If your child doesn’t like or enjoy the reward, he will not be interested in earning it. Praise and attention should always be used with material rewards. Praise and attention play an important role in making the parent-child relationship positive.

When picking rewards be creative and come up with a variety of rewards to use with each of your children. Remember that all children are different and like different things. What may be rewarding for one child may not be for another. Children will also get bored easily. If they receive the same rewards each time, that reward will be less powerful over time.

When children are younger, small rewards go a long way. A sticker or smiley face and parental attention are usually all that is required to encourage good behaviors. This changes as children get older and other rewards become more important.

Reward Programs

A rewards program is a way to keep track of how often your child does what you like. For young children, a chart is often used. Social and material rewards can be used as part of the reward program. You watch your child’s behavior and when you catch him doing what you like, you provide a reward. Rewards could be a sticker, a smiley face, a check mark, or an ink stamp. Praise and attention from you can also be used as the reward. The rewards need to be specific to your child’s age, ability level, and preferences. Click here for the steps for developing a reward program.