April 21, 2014

This post is part of my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.

Rewards and BehaviorWhen I was in teacher school, I remember someone telling us that it’s best if students are intrinsically motivated do things. The idea was that children should just naturally want to improve for the sake of improving or gaining mastery, and that they should not require external forces or rewards to motivate them. We were even told that, as teachers, we should avoid phrases like, “I really like how Eric is sitting quietly,” or “Thank you, class, for beginning your work right away.” If we phrased things like that, students might start behaving well to please you, the teacher.

Oh dear.

Honestly, I never really figured out how to tap into the intrinsically-motivated angel in every child. True, most students entered my class with a strong personal desire to do their best and try hard at everything, from academics to behavior. Every year, though, I’ve had at least a couple of children who would probably rather eat dirt than write a paragraph, or who would wreak havoc at recess if there were no consequences. When attempts to appeal to the self-motivated child within failed, I resorted to the next best thing I could think of: offering rewards. I’m not gonna lie, it works like a charm.

I used to feel a little guilty for using rewards– class points, team points, raffle tickets, behavior charts– but I’m guessing we would all have felt a lot worse if I didn’t. My guilt subsided over the years as I saw that not only was this an effective way to shape behavior, but, done well, these externally motivated acts eventually morphed into internalized, habitual behavior for most of the students. By the end of the year, my students weren’t thinking, “Ooh if we get started on our work right away, we’ll get class points!” They just got started immediately because that’s how things were done. No one was expecting to get a raffle ticket for turning in homework before school started– that’s just what we did. Teammates didn’t put up each others’ chairs after school in hopes of earning team points– they just knew it was a kind thing to do. When appropriate, I used temporary external rewards to encourage and develop long-lasting internalized habits.

If your child normally responds well to your instruction and improves without requiring rewards, then by all means, continue what you’ve been doing! Don’t start offering rewards if you don’t need to. If, however, you feel like you haven’t been able to get through to your child to change a particular habit or behavior that needs to start (or stop), then you may find this helpful.

Maybe you have tried bribing your child with a reward before, but found that it only yielded short-term results. Perhaps you’ve started something like a behavior chart, but didn’t get the change you were hoping for. If that’s you, take a moment to read the rest of this piece and consider being more intentional and strategic about how you use rewards. Giving kids rewards is nothing new, but there are strategic ways to use them to develop enduring changes.

An Overview: 5 Steps for Using Rewards

Step 1: Choose one behavior to focus on.
Step 2: Have a discussion with your child beforehand when you’re both in a good mood:

Step 3: Be vigilant, especially in the beginning, to follow up on rewards and consequences.
Step 4: Wean the child off rewards as the desired behavior becomes the norm.
Step 5: Make it an expectation. When the child has shown the ability to continually exhibit the desired behavior (hooray!), then the behavior becomes an expectation. Rewards are no longer needed (and should no longer be given) to shape behavior. However, consequences still apply if the child deviates from expected behavior.

Rewards and Behavior


Step 4: Wean the child off rewards as the desired behavior becomes the norm

An Example from My Class

Now that you have the basic step-by-step, here’s an example of how I used this in my class to develop a desired behavior:

At the beginning of each year, there are a number of routines and procedures I want my students to master, such as our morning routine, how we correct homework, how we line up, and so on. The more well-versed students are in the procedures, the more smoothly everything goes and the easier it is to teach effectively. One year, I noticed that students were wasting precious minutes during the transition from the writing lesson at the rug to working independently at their seats. They would meander to their desks, chat as they took out their notebooks and pencils, and slowly turn to their work. Some students seemed to forget the lesson altogether by the time they had their materials ready, and would sit there, blank, waiting for further instruction. Others would raise their hands, asking what to do next. Some would gaze out the window, desks bare and work nowhere to be seen. I was constantly walking over to remind them to get started. While I understand the occasional memory lapse or off-day, I was not satisfied with how frequently students forgot the task at hand and how much time was wasted in transition. When we only had about 20 minutes to work on writing at our desks, those 3-10 minutes (depending on the student) really added up each day!

I decided I wanted my students to improve in their transition (Step 1) from Point A (our lessons at the rug) to Point B (working at their seats). Not only would we cut down the transition down to one minute, but students would know what they were supposed to do and get started.

So one morning, our “writing” lesson for the day was exactly this: transitioning well. I gathered my students at the rug, and told them that we needed to improve our transition from the rug to their desks in order to make the most of our independent work time. I painted the exact picture of what I wanted to see (Step 2):

“When I say ‘Go,’ I want to see you quietly stand up, walk straight to your desk, take out your writing notebook, and get your pencil moving. Even if you’re just writing the date or using your pencil to track as you re-read what you’ve written so far, I want to see it: pencils moving. If I see the entire class do this within two minutes, I’ll give you five class points!”

The students gasp– five points is a lot.

“Now, even though we’re moving quickly, remember to be safe with your classmates. Do you think it will be very safe or quiet if you’re running into people? No. Walk calmly to your desks, take out your work, and get your pencils moving. Turn to the person next to you, and review what I want you to do.”

The room is abuzz as students excitedly recite the instructions to each other. I have them mime it with me as I repeat the procedure twice more: they quietly swing their arms at their sides to “walk” to their desks, take out imaginary notebooks, and scribble in the air with their imaginary pencils. When I am satisfied that everyone understands my expectations, I quietly whisper, “Go!” and they’re off. As expected, every single child is seated with their notebooks and pencils moving within thirty seconds. I act amazed at their efficiency and immediately award 5 class points (Step 3). The students stifle gleeful giggles and excitedly try to look like they’re doing something useful at their seats as their pencils move along. Not long after, they all have their noses buried in their notebooks, re-reading, revising, writing, and actually working. Perfect.

All I really wanted them to focus on this day is how it feels and looks and sounds to transition quickly and quietly to their seats with their work out, looking like they’re working. If, day after day, they sit there moving their pencils long enough, then what may have started as looking like they’re working becomes actually working. Either way, it’s certainly more productive than having nothing on their desks and staring blankly out the window until I happen to notice.

The next day, I teach them a writing lesson. Before sending them back to their seats, I remind them about our goal of transitioning quickly to work. I offer 5 points again, but challenge them to transition in one minute this time. Their eyes grow wide with excitement– they know they can do this, and they are eager to get the easy five points. One minute later, I am awarding another easy 5 points to a class of delighted children.

The next day, I tell them the goal is the same– transition in under a minute– but this time, I am only offering 4 points. I point out that they have already shown me they can do this, so the reward is just extra now. Once again, they easily meet the goal. The next day, it’s three points. Then two points. Then one (Step 4). I leave it at one point for a few more days until it’s so habitual that the students almost forget this was ever unusual in the first place. Eventually, I thank them for continuing to transition quickly, but no longer offer points (Step 5). The students naturally transition quickly now. Excepting students with special challenges, it is rare that I have to remind a student to get started on work or take out their work. When I do, one simple reminder is enough to get them back on track.


This is one example of how to help students develop a desired behavior. As for eliminating undesired behaviors, it’s often just a matter of how you frame it:

Undesired Behavior Framing it as a Desired Behavior
Sitting around doing nothing Getting to work right away
Dirty clothes on the floor Keeping floor clear; putting dirty clothes into the hamper
Whining Exercising self-control; keeping whining in head
Rolling eyes Looking on respectfully when receiving instruction
Talking back Speaking respectfully, even when it’s hard

Start with something relatively simple to help your child first understand and grow comfortable with the new procedure of the reward system, then move on to other behaviors.

Tips for Using Rewards Strategically

Now that you get the gist of how this looks, here are a few key tips on implementing the rewards system more effectively:

Tip #1: Don’t start to reward a child for a behavior she is naturally doing well anyway. It can cause a child to go from doing something out of a natural desire, to only doing it when a reward is promised. Talk about taking two steps back (and no steps forward)! For example, if your daughter enjoys helping you wash the car, that’s great! Don’t suddenly start offering to pay her for helping you washing the car. You are turning an activity she was previously intrinsically motivated to do into a chore that she may begin to require extrinsic rewards/motivation to do. No, thank you.

Tip #2: Apply positive reinforcement immediately and frequently when first teaching the desired behavior. The more immediately you give the child a tangible token of success, the more likely it will be for the child to link positive feelings with the desired behavior and continue striving towards it. As soon as you have discussed the desired behavior with your child, find as many opportunities as you can that first day/week to reward them for achieving it. The beginning is the most crucial period. If you forget, so will the child, and she will be more likely to revert to previous behavior. Consistency is key.

Tip #3: Help your child experience success. Notice that in my class example above, my original goal was to “transition in under one minute.” However, the first time I had my students try it, I gave them a goal of transitioning within two minutes. I wanted to make sure they felt like this was doable, and I wanted them to experience success and see their own improvement. Once they showed they could do this, I made it more challenging until we reached my ultimate goal of one minute.

Tip #4: Use points/stars/tokens that add up to a bigger prize. Instead of giving your child a stand-alone reward for every single instance of success (that’s a lot of little prizes to buy!), have them collect points towards a bigger reward. This is a practical, realistic, and sustainable way to “apply positive reinforcement immediately and frequently” (Tip #2, above). The important thing is for the child to receive or see something tangible to reinforce each positive movement toward the goal behavior. Here are some examples:

Behavior ChartTip #5: Make the reward something you would probably want to give them anyway. For example, you can offer to let your child invite a friend over for a sleepover if they earn a certain number of points/stars. A sleepover is something I would want my children to enjoy as part of their childhood and would probably do anyway. However, it’s still a privilege, and this makes it a nice reward to work towards. I would not choose something that I know they will get anyway, like going on a family trip. If you’ve already booked the hotel and paid for the tickets, you risk two things in making this the reward: 1) having to cancel the whole thing if the goal isn’t met, in which case the whole family gets punished, and 2) going on the trip anyway, even if the goal isn’t met. This teaches your child that their behavior doesn’t really matter, and that the reward will be given regardless of their behavior. This gives you much less credibility for any future attempts to use rewards. Choose the reward carefully.

So there it is: my method for using rewards to shape children’s behavior. I have found it to be very effective, even with some extremely behaviorally challenging children. As I always told my students, great behavior was simply expected from all of them. Sometimes they would just need a little help learning what that meant, and it was a lot more enjoyable getting rewards than receiving consequences!

You may find that sometimes rewards alone are not enough to make significant change. In those cases, it is important to understand how to use consequences meaningfully and effectively to shape behavior. Consequences are not the same as punishments, and it’s important to know the difference! Stay tuned for a future post to read more about it. The post is up! Read about it HERE.

Read more in my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.


Related Posts:

How to Shape Children’s Behavior

Preventing Misbehavior: What Every Parent Should Know

How to Use Consequences Effectively

The Heart of the Matter

A Better Way to Say Sorry

One Thing at a Time

Be Consistently Consistent

22 responses to “Using Rewards Strategically to Shape Behavior”

  1. Olwen Tam says:

    Thank you for sharing 🙂
    Can’t wait for the next post 🙂

  2. Micky Curtis says:

    You’re articles on modifying behavior are some of the best I have ever read. (And I am working on my Masters in mental health counseling so I read a lot of articles.) Thank you for sharing your insight and experience. Your suggestions are fantastic and your writing is easy to understand. Love it.

  3. Amy says:

    Love it, Jo! I wish I had this much time during well child checks to talk about discipline, but alas, there really is only so much time.

    • joellen says:

      It’s neat that you would even consider talking about it! 🙂 Thanks for reading, Amy!

  4. john chen says:

    I’m going to try this on my high school students!

    Also I’ve never been so excited to read a parenting blog before! Makes me almost want to have kids earlier…almost

    • joellen says:

      Ooh I have not tried this on high schoolers before, so let me know how that goes! And… YAY THANKS FOR READING! =D

  5. Dakota says:

    Oooh, this is awesome. I’ve used the sticker chart in the past, but I’m wanting to transition to a chore chart so that my oldest (4) can start to earn items that he really wants and to create habits. You’ve given me some food for thought here… thanks!