Steps for Creating a Reward Program

steps for creating a reward program

A rewards program is a way to keep track of how often your child does something you like. Rewards work well for behaviors like staying in bed after being tucked in, putting the dishes on the counter after dinner, using the potty and other things young children may need a little reward for doing before they become a habit. Check out the six steps below to learn how to create your own reward program.

The behaviors you pick should help your child clearly understand what you expect. Tips for picking specific behaviors are:

  • Pick a couple of specific behaviors. For example, “Use polite words” and “Keep your hands and feet to yourself.”
  • 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.”
  • Choose behaviors that are realistic and fit your child’s age and ability.

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. 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.

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.

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!”

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 sink, 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 it and be reminded of what you want him to do. The refrigerator is often a good place, but you can put it anywhere that works for your family.

When your 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 behavior again.

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.

What if the Reward Program isn’t working?

It is important to remember that it takes time for behaviors to change. It will take time for reward programs to work. If you are patient and consistent in what you do, you will see an increase in your child’s good behavior and a decrease in misbehaviors. If the reward program is not working, there are three questions you can think about:

  1. Is your child able to do what you are expecting?
    Ask yourself: Can my child do the behavior I want her to do?  If you decide that you are expecting too much, you can make changes to the program. Be sure to explain the reason for the change to your child.
    For example, if you expected your child to make her bed but she cannot do that, you might say, “I realize that I should reward you for helping me make the bed. So from now on, you will get a prize when you help me make the bed.”
  2. Is the behavior specific, clear, and easy for your child to understand?
    If your child is not doing the behavior, it’s a sign she may not understand what you want. As your child gets older, you can see if she understands by asking her to tell you what she needs to do to get a reward. Remember that behaviors should be specific and easy for you to see. Keep behaviors simple for young children. Click here for information on selecting behaviors to reward.
  3. Are the rewards things your child is interested in earning?
    Remember that things you like may not be the same as what your child would like to earn. Children also become tired of some rewards and develop new likes and interests. Keep a running list of rewards your child would like. Change and add to the reward list over time to continue to make the rewards fun and exciting. Click here for information on the types of rewards.