Creating a Reward System for Children

Gold tokens

Tokens: Photo courtesy of Douglas Muth

One of the most effective ways to encourage good behavior is to set up a reward system with your child. When children learn that good behaviors are rewarded and bad behaviors are ignored or punished, they learn to change their behaviors in order to obtain good things. A reward system does not have to be complicated. It just needs to be developed with your child’s input so that it will work. There are 5 steps to creating an effective reward system. However, before we begin, let’s dispel a few arguments against using rewards.

I Object!

Some parents and teachers are opposed to using reward systems for several reasons. I have countered two main objections below.

“I want my child to behave because he wants to, not because I am rewarding him.”

While intrinsic motivation (wanting to do what is right just for the sake of doing right) is always the goal, some children aren’t there yet. Extrinsic motivation (rewards) provide the support they need in order to reach a point where they behave appropriately just for the satisfaction of a job well done. Extrinsic motivators are used every day, not just for children, but also for adults.

Example: Employers in every field know that bonuses are an effective means for increasing productivity. In 2009, there was a huge problem with employees calling in sick at a large business in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2010, the employer implemented a bonus program where employees received a bonus check for $200 if they only missed 3 days during the year. They received $300 for missing 2 or fewer days. The health of the employees miraculously improved during the year. Reward systems work.

“If I reward one child, I have to reward all of my children in order to be fair.”


There are two ways to tackle this objection. First, fair does not mean equal. Fair means giving each child what he needs in order to be successful. It is okay to do different things with your children because your children are different…and chances are…your children know that they have different needs. You can explain a reward system to a sibling by saying, “Tim is going to have a chart to earn privileges for doing things that are hard for him. These things are not difficult for you so you do not need a chart.” Another way to handle the situation is to go ahead and implement the same system with all your children. Here’s how it worked for me.

Example: I had an organized bedroom as a child. My brother did not. Trying to be fair, my mother implemented a reward system to keep our bedrooms clean. While my brother struggled to earn the stickers on his chart, my stickers were easy to earn. The stickers meant very little to me because I did not need them. It would have been perfectly okay for my mother to tell me, “Your brother is going to work very hard to keep his room clean. He will get stickers on a chart, but you don’t need a chart.” I knew I didn’t need the chart and that my mother was just trying to be fair. This didn’t scar me for life, nor my brother. I would venture to say that things would have also turned out just fine if I had not been included in the reward system. Either way works.

Steps to Create an Effective Reward System

Step 1: Identify the Problem Behavior

You should identify one particular behavior to address at a time. Trying to work on too many behaviors at the same time is difficult to manage and overwhelming for your child. Focus on the one behavior that is causing the most problems. For some children, it may be helpful to involve them in this process. The more involved that children are in formulating the plan, the more they tend to take ownership of it.

Step 2: Set Clear Expectations for the Replacement Behavior

What will your child need to do in order to earn the reward? The focus should be on the positive behavior that you want your child to exhibit, not on the negative behavior you want your child to avoid.

For example, state the expectation this way…

At 7:00 PM Jared will start his homework with no more than one reminder.

NOT…

Jared will stop arguing and whining when it is time to do homework.

The behaviors that you focus on are generally the behaviors you will get.

Step 3: Create the Plan

When creating the actual plan, there are two things to keep in mind. First, younger children need more frequent rewards than older children. Students in grades K-2 may need a daily reward while a high school student may be motivated to earn a monthly reward. Second, always set up the initial plan so that your child can experience immediate success. This will increase your child’s motivation and confidence that she can change her behavior.

There are a number of different games and ideas that you can use to create your child’s reward system. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Beat the Clock

This game works well for children who dawdle. Determine how much time it should take your child to complete a given activity. Set a timer and tell your child that if he finishes before the timer goes off, he will earn ___. The reward can be immediate or delayed. It depends on how you set up the system with your child.

Example of an immediate reward: “If you get ready for bed before the timer goes off, you can have an extra story at bedtime.”

Example of a delayed reward: “If you get ready for bed before the timer goes off, you can earn a sticker on your chart. Once you have 3 stickers (or 5 or 10, etc.), you can have an extra story at bedtime.”

If your child does not beat the clock, the punishment is that she does not get the reward or sticker for that day. It puts the responsibility of doing the task in a timely manner on the child, and takes it off of you. You can provide reminders for how much time is remaining, but should not give any other verbal direction. Often, this alleviates the feeling that you are constantly telling your child the same things over and over again without him listening to you.

Phasing Out:

Once your child is successful beating the clock for at least a week, you can begin to phase out the reward. In the example above, if your child is earning an immediate reward, introduce a delayed reward system. If your child is earning a delayed reward, increase the number of stickers needed to earn the reward. It is important not to phase out the reward entirely, just make it slightly more difficult to achieve. Remember the goal is to teach your child to perform the desired behavior without the reward. However, this takes time.

Reward Jar

Write small rewards on slips of paper and put them in a jar. For every time your child demonstrates the desired behavior, he can pick out a slip of paper and earn the reward on it. Some rewards will be more favorable to your child than others. You may even want to include a paper that says, “No Reward.” This teaches your child that rewards vary and adds an element of suspense to the jar.

Connect-the-Dots

For every time your child demonstrates the desired behavior, she can connect a dot on a dot-to-dot page. Set a prize that she will earn once the page is completed. Keep the page in a visible location, such as on the refrigerator, so that she can see her progress.

Phasing Out:

You may want to start with a dot-to-dot page that has 5 or fewer dots. Once your child is consistently demonstrating the behavior, make the reward more difficult to earn by using a dot-to-dot page with more numbers.

Point System

For older children (grade 3 and above) you may want to implement a point system rather than a sticker chart. Create a menu of reward with your child and assign point values to each reward. It is always best to include your child in this process because you may not know the value that your child will place on each reward. Once the menu is created, let your child know that for every time he does ___ he can earn ___points. You can also use dice with your child to change the amount of points earned each time.


It is up to your child to determine how he spends his point. There should be small rewards worth fewer points and larger rewards worth more points. This teaches your child delayed gratification to save up points for larger rewards rather than to spend them immediately on small rewards. Remember, that rewards do not need to cost money; they just need to be things or activities that will motivate your child. Some children are motivated by staying up 10 minutes past their bedtime or playing a game with you. Be creative!

There are different opinions about how to use point systems. In my practice, I have found that point systems are most effective when children cannot lose points that they have previously earned. It is best to keep consequences for different behaviors separate from the point system. The consequence for not performing the desired behavior of the reward system is that your child does not earn any points. This puts responsibility on your child for his behavior rather than on you for correcting the behavior. Instead of yelling or arguing with your child, you can calmly state, “That’s too bad that you didn’t earn any points today for (state the desired behavior). I hope you’ll earn them tomorrow because I know how much you’re looking forward to (state the reward your child is working toward).”

There are many more ideas that can be used to create a reward system with your child. Have fun with this and involve your child in the process!

Step 4: Implement the Plan

Now that you have identified the problem behavior, determined the desired behavior, and developed the reward system, it is time to implement the plan. Sometimes parents are surprised to learn that behavior often gets worse before it gets better. When a new system is implemented, there is usually an immediate improvement in behavior followed by a sharp decline and then steady improvement thereafter. Even though your child may be highly motivated to earn the rewards you established together, it is difficult to change behaviors and takes time. This is completely normal and should be expected. It may take weeks before you notice any changes. Don’t give up!

It is also important to remember that reward systems must be implemented consistently in order to work. If your child earns the reward by not demonstrating the behavior, the reward system loses its effectiveness. Likewise, the system loses its effectiveness if your child demonstrates the desired behavior but does not earn the agreed upon reward.

Step 5: Reevaluate Progress and Phase Out the Reward

The goal of every reward system is to eventually phase out the reward so that the child is demonstrating the appropriate behavior on her own. This is done by increasing the time between earning rewards. Every few weeks, reevaluate how the system is working. Make obtaining the reward slightly more challenging for your child. You will also need to change the rewards often to continue to motivate your child.

The act of discipline involves correcting and changing your child’s behaviors. By rewarding desirable behaviors, you are teaching your child valuable life skills. Good behaviors bring good things. Reward systems take time, but they work!

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One Comment

  1. I just want to say thank you for these ideas, and advice. I have been researching for a while now, how to start some kind of reward system, and at the same time trying to teach my child to maintain good behavior w/out always expecting a reward… I have read so much from all different websites, and this one seems to be the most realistic and even the suggestions on how to phase out the rewards w/out phasing the good behavior out is awesome. Thanks again.

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