The method discussed in this article may not be necessary for all children, although it can be used with any child.
These are suggestions that can help a child with challenging behavior. However, this is one strategy. As you know, many strategies work together to lead to positive changes in behavior. Check out our Behavior Strategies Section for more.
If you are looking for privilege ideas for the classroom, check out the article, 18 Break/Privilege Ideas to Increase Student Motivation and Participation.
When should we use rewards with children? Is ‘reward’ the right word?
If you have read my other behavior articles, you know I am a big fan of letting kids earn privileges for following rules and expectations, rather than taking their privileges away for not doing what is expected.
This is not the same as the idea of a reward (e.g., do this and I will buy you a toy, do that and I will give you a sticker). Rather, it is a built-in expectation (yes, you can watch TV for a half-an-hour every day, but you need to accomplish x, y, z each day in order for that to happen).
This is more about teaching self-discipline, and work, break, work, break skills, which are practical to real-life, than it is about teaching kids to get a prize for doing what you say.
For instance, a child’s schedule might say:
- pick up toys (5 minutes)
- read a book with mom (10 minutes)
- watch a show (30 minutes)
Similar to how an adult schedule might say:
- get kids ready for school (60 minutes)
- get ready for work (45 minutes)
- go grab a coffee from Dunkin (15 minutes)
When parents or others utilize this approach effectively, it is not about reward and punishment. It is about developing the skills and self-discipline to manage your time effectively, or teaching children to do the same.
Once a person develops those skills, they can take care of themselves and their responsibilities, and also do things they enjoy such as relaxing on the couch, hanging out with friends, or grabbing a coffee (rewards).
We can help children learn how to set up situations like this now, which will build towards their self-discipline and time management in the future.
Sometimes this approach can be used spontaneously. For instance, when my son says “mommy, can I get on the computer to play a game?” I say “yes but you need to pick up those crayons you left out first.” This is known as the pre-mack principle, a strategy supported by research, first you must do this, then you can do that.
How do schedules tie into rewards?
Some children do well with a schedule in which they complete one non-preferred activity (e.g., homework) and then get a preferred activity such as TV time.
Others need tasks like homework or cleaning their room chunked into manageable steps with some “fun breaks/privileges” in between work time.
It really depends on the child and how much they can handle at once, but the overall concept teaches them how to prioritize and make undesirable tasks feel manageable. It also cuts down on resistance.
What else does the research say about letting children earn privileges?
Research shows that children are much more likely to do what is expected when they have the power to earn something, than when being threatened that you will take something from them.
Want to read more about this research? Check out the following research studies: Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence and a Summary of the Effects of Reward Contingencies on Interest and Performance.
25 Ways to “Reward” Children for Good Behavior
Many of the ideas below are more appropriate for preschool to elementary school children, but some can be used for older children as well.
1. Watch a favorite show.
2. Wear a sticker of their choice on their shirt or hand.
3. Pick a game for the family to play.
4. Pick an activity for the family to do (e.g., arts and crafts activity, playing a sport outdoors, picking a movie to watch or go see).
5. Help mom or dad cook or bake something special.
6. Spend time on the computer, tablet, etc.
7. Do a special arts and crafts activity such as making sock or paper bag puppets or making paper plate masks.
8. Use sidewalk chalk.
9. Blow bubbles
10. Go to the airport to watch planes take off.
11. Got to the Store for a Snack/Drink
12. Pick the family meal for one night during the week.
13. Perform for the family (good for kids who like to act, sing, dance, tell jokes, etc).
14. Spend time with a friend or have a sleepover.
15. Take a scenic car ride, bus ride, or train ride.
16. Play video games.
17. Go to the pet store to see the animals.
18. Get toenails and fingernails polished by a family member.
19. Listen to music of choice (should be age-appropriate).
20. Put a model together (such as a model car).
21. Go to the park.
22. Feed the Family Pet.
23. Take pictures with a phone or camera.
24. Talk on the phone or text with a friend or family member.
25. Stay up 30 minutes past bed-time on the weekend (might be great after meeting a weekly goal).
- follow rules at school
- complete chores at home
- stay up 30 minutes late on weekend
When you first start a system like this make it so the child can easily reach their goal(s) so they are encouraged to keep going. As they build success and confidence, you can start to slowly increase the challenge. This will help your child build stamina and real-life skills, all while feeling a level of personal success!
When should we reward children for their behavior?
Here are some examples of when to allow a child to earn one of the privileges listed in this article:
- After completing one thing (e.g., homework, a chore, etc.).
- After successful completion of more than one thing in a row (e.g., complete homework, clean up plates after dinner, put on pajamas, brush teeth). See How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior for more on this concept.
- After following rules for a specified period of time, such as an hour, a day, or a week (e.g., using kind words, keeping hands to self, etc.).
- At the end of a successful week (for example, if your child completes their homework every night, they can earn a desired privilege on the weekend).
- After having a successful day or week in school (e.g., no negative phone calls or notes from the teacher or principal).
Maybe you can think of some other times when you may want your child to earn privileges for following rules and expectations. Feel free to use these in a way that works for you, your child, and your family.
Conclusions and Additional Information when Considering a “Reward” System for Children:
You may think of more privilege or reward ideas than the ones mentioned in this article. You can give your child a choice of two or three privileges to choose from. Try to pick things that would interest or motivate your child.
Remember to always stick with the earning concept. For example, if your child says “I’m not helping with the dishes” and goes to turn the TV on, remind them of what they are working towards in a calm but confident tone (e.g., “You need to complete the dishes first and then you can watch TV”) rather than threatening them (e.g., if you don’t do the dishes, you are not watching TV).
When you threaten to take away privileges, children often become defensive and challenge you (e.g., “Take the TV away, I don’t care!”), and often end up not doing what you want.
Keep in mind, that your child’s behavior may not improve right away, especially if what you are doing is a new concept to them. You also may have to try different scenarios to see which works best for your child.
For children who may have trouble understanding language (such as those with autism or a speech/language delay or impairment), showing a picture of the activity you want them to complete first, and then the activity they will earn, can be helpful. This is called a first/then board. See an example below:
For more ideas on this concept, such as how to make a first/then board, and how to create written and visual schedules, see, How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
For children who may have trouble moving on from a fun activity, let them know how long they can engage in the activity and give them reminders when the time is almost up (e.g., “You can watch TV for 30 minutes.” “In five minutes, you have to turn off the TV and get in your pajamas.“).
Some children benefit from having a timer set, to let them know how much time they have to do the fun activity. For more on this concept, see our article, 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion.
For more behavior strategies check out:
10 Simple Ways to Improve Children’s Behavior (Home and School)
How to Motivate Your Students and Get Them to Listen to You (great for parents too)
17 Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen To You and Show You Respect
How to Prevent Temper Tantrums
14 Strategies to Help Children with ADHD in the Classroom or at Home (great strategies for kids with and without ADHD)
15 Behavior Strategies for Children with Autism (great strategies for kids with and without autism)
Education and Behavior – A free online library of research-based strategies providing academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support for children. Keeping us all on the same page!
We listed 25 ways to “reward” kids for “good behavior.”
Comment below with your own fun privileges that you let your child earn for good behavior!
Fun Activities for Kids to Earn
Chore Charts and Goals Trackers
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