Positive attention goes a long way towards encouraging cooperation in children and keeping good behavior going. But sometimes kids need a little extra support and encouragement from adults to follow expectations or practice a new skill. Like we have said in previous posts, we want to balance the amount of limit setting we need to do by setting children up to earn a reward for making good choices instead. When we ask our kids to try a new task or follow through on a behavior that is difficult for them (getting ready for bed when we say so, paying attention in class, using our words when we are frustrated instead of hitting), we support and encourage them by rewarding their hard work and effort. This approach also works to motivate children to keep working at the new skill or behavior next time. Think of it like scaffolding on a new building. The child attempting a difficult task or behavior is like the shaky new building with wet cement, and the reward acts as the support or scaffolding while the new skill is being built. Once they begin to be able to do the skill on their own, we begin to fade the scaffolding (rewards) until they no longer need the motivation or extra support from outside, and begin to be reinforced for doing the skill by other internal motivations (like getting along with friends and adults). We all want our children to be successful, and providing a reward for effort towards a difficult skill or behavior is a wonderful way to support and encourage these tiny humans in their growth and development.
Make sure the rewards are rewarding…
Just because you would love to earn some quiet time curled up with a book does not mean your 7-year-old will feel quite so motivated to work for this same reward. Be sure that the reward you are offering is something your child (or class) actually wants to earn. Involving them in the process of choosing possible rewards is a great way to learn more about what makes them ‘tick’, and is also motivating in itself. And remember the reward doesn’t have to cost anything, or even be a ‘thing’. Children are motivated to earn special time with mom or dad, earn a privilege like being able to stay up a bit late, or even being a teacher helper. (I distinctly remember competing with friends and being so excited to earn the job of cleaning the chalkboard erasers by smacking them together and seeing the dust fly.)
…and match the effort required to complete the skill or task
When we set children up to earn rewards we are doing this because what we are asking them to do to earn the reward is difficult or new for them. Rewards and incentives are teaching tools. If my 10-year-old has zero trouble getting herself dressed in the morning, I won’t suddenly start telling her, “I am so proud of how you put on your clothes and shoes all by yourself! You just earned ice cream!” Can you imagine what will happen when she no longer gets ice cream? “Well I would get dressed like you asked me to… but only when you give me ice cream for doing so.” We want to think about matching the intensity of the reward to the difficulty of the behavior for the child. If I am working on starting a teeth brushing routine for my child and it’s not too difficult, just a new behavior, he might earn an extra story at bedtime. But if we are working on something hard, like not having that tantrum that begins every night when I say, “it’s time for bed…”, I will need to find a reward that is motivating enough for my child that he will want to work hard on that difficult behavior to earn it.
Here are some creative ways you can reward your child, or class, for working to do something that is difficult or new for them.
Let kids earn rewards that include their friends or siblings in a social activity. Not only will they be rewarded for their own good behavior, they will be ‘earning’ social skills practice! This could include things like earning a picnic at the park, making your living room into a fort with sheets and pillows, earning a home spa day with mani-pedis, bringing a friend to play mini-golf or lazer tag, or a popcorn movie night with a friend. Some of these activities are a pretty big deal, so rewarding your child with a given number of smaller tokens like marbles or stickers to work up to one of these big rewards might be the way to go. If you choose to include a token system to earn a bigger reward, be sure to track their progress somewhere visible, choose a set number of tokens they need to earn and stick to it, and do not take away rewards or tokens once you’ve given them.
This is particularly wonderful for children who could use a boost in their social collateral. When you want to reward this child, have the class join in the recognition with a group gesture like a thumbs up, giving twinkle fives (everyone twinkles their fingers from where they are), or a group “Thank you!”
Children can also earn group rewards for the rest of the class, like a dance party for 60 seconds, points towards a prize box, or extra free time. “Wow, I just noticed Adam had his eyes on me and a quiet voice for the whole lesson. Way to go! He just earned us a brain break dance party! Let’s all say, ‘thank you, Adam!’”
Make coupons that say things like: “Get out of 1 chore for a day”, “Choose what the family will have for dinner”, “Stay up 30 minutes past bedtime”, “Earn 1 hour of alone time with mom or dad”, “Earn a popcorn movie night”. Be sure to include conditions to the coupons if necessary to avoid having to set limits when privileges are earned. (If I had ever earned a ‘choose what to have for dinner’ coupon, there’s a good chance I’d have said: pancakes and hot fudge sundaes, with a side of gummy worms.) Kids can earn a coupon from a grab bag when you catch them making good choices. The mystery of which coupon they will earn adds to the fun and motivation.
Brag buttons or badges say things like, “Ask me about the good choice I made today” or “Ask me about my grade on Mrs. Applebottom’s test”, and attach to a child’s shirt so their parent can see it easily. These can be such a great connection between home and what’s going on at school, and encourages the parent to ask their child about a specific accomplishment while avoiding the pit of despair that is: “How was school?” “…fine.”
This is a wonderful and supportive approach for any student, but especially if a parent is particularly hard on their child, or is used to hearing about all the not good things their kid is getting up to. Flip the script and start sending home Brag Buttons!
When you catch the class working together they get a piece to a puzzle, when the whole puzzle is together they earn a class reward. This is also a great approach to encourage siblings to work together and get along at home!
Mixing up the way you reward children for a job well done is part of what makes it fun for you and them, and keeps their motivation up to work hard on new behaviors. What are some of the creative ways you reward or recognize your child or class? We’d love to hear about them!
Image: © Syda Productions | Dreamstime.com