Nearly every parent has heard of reward systems and how they can be used to change or “correct” a child’s undesirable behavior. Most parents who have tried to implement these systems have also experienced a lack of success through using the system. They are sometimes heard to say, “We had a reward system, several systems, and they don’t work.” You may be one of these parents which has prompted you to read this article. In my work as a therapist working with children, and my experiences with my own daughter, I too have seen several of these reward systems succeed and fail.
As with any new system or behavior we are trying to develop, and our kids are no different, there will be difficult times and “bumps” in the road. With behavior change however we tend to quickly revert to our previous patterns of behavior and ways of doing things. In this process of behavior change I feel it is important to remember that doing things the same way, the way we are used to, will likely keep us right where we are now. If we want something, or many somethings, to be different we need to do things differently and that can be challenging to do. A well-developed reward system may be just what you and your family need.
In this three-part article series I will introduce 10 steps that can help make a reward system work for your child and you.
Why we use reward systems
First let’s review why parents use reward systems. At the base level we use them because our child is engaging in a behavior that we want stopped or changed. We hope a reward system will be the fix that we need and that the fix will be simple to use while simultaneously not costing use much time. Parents also often decide to use rewards systems because they want to encourage their children in a behavior change vs. providing consequences for undesirable behavior, and many have learned that consequences are not very effective in providing behavior change from past failed experiences with their own children. While all these reasons are true there is more to the story and full success with a reward system is very difficult if additional aspects of the behavior and behavior change are also examined.
Common pitfalls of reward systems
Secondly, I want to review the common pitfalls for why so many reward systems fail. Despite our best intentions many reward systems are too complicated, both for our kids to understand and for us to consistently implement. Another reason is our kid(s) were not involved in the creation of the system, so they do not feel a strong desire to follow it. Additionally, despite our best intentions the reward system doesn’t address the root of the behavior problem and address only secondary symptoms. Finally, something worth considering is if your child consistently is not able to meet or engage in the behavior you are desiring for them it may be a skill beyond their current ability level. This doesn’t mean a behavior change isn’t possible, but it does mean they may need additional support or task adjustment in order to succeed with the desired behavior/behavior change.
Now that we understand more of why parents use rewards systems to help their children with behavior change and why these systems sometimes fail despite our best intentions let’s explore the first step in how to make a reward system work.
10 Steps to make Reward Systems work
1) Gather Data: Before you try to implement a reward system you need data on what behaviors are occurring and when. The more specific your data is the more developed the reward system will be. Ex: are most of your child’s struggles occurring when they are asked to leave an activity or begin an activity, are they hungry or tired, is the environment over stimulating for them, or do they resist completing tasks give to them by others.
Written by Ka’lei Kendal