How to Create an Effective Reward System for Kids

How to Create an Effective Reward System - Illustration by Theresa Chiechi

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Dealing with a child's misbehavior can feel overwhelming at times, especially if you have tried everything you can think of. But the good news is that reward systems can be highly effective at changing a child's behavior. Plus, almost all kids respond favorably to rewards.

So, whether your toddler is biting, your preschooler is throwing tantrums when it's time to leave the park, or your tween keeps forgetting to do their chores, a simple reward system can help them become more responsible for their behavior. Here is what you need to know about setting up an effective reward system based on your child's age.

What Is a Reward System?

A reward system is an approach to discipline and behavior modification that parents sometimes use to get their kids to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. Instead of disciplining a child for bad behavior, they reward them for positive behavior.

Kids learn to change their behaviors and make better choices through positive reinforcement. Ultimately, when a child receives positive feedback, encouragement, and rewards for making a good choice, they naturally gravitate toward those behaviors again instead of the negative behaviors.

"Reward systems can be helpful to encourage positive, healthy behaviors in children and may increase their self-esteem and self-image," says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Positive reinforcers like praise can also build trust as they help children learn to navigate healthy boundaries and expectations from their parent."

Benefits of Reward Systems

There are a number of benefits to implementing a reward system. Here are just a few things you can expect a reward system to do:

  • Encourage positive, healthy behaviors
  • Increase a child's self-esteem
  • Improve parent-child relationship
  • Encourage responsibility and independence
  • Develop new skills
  • Decrease parent stress levels
  • Allow both parent and child to focus on the positive

Keys to an Effective Reward System

When setting up a reward system, it is important to keep your child's age in mind. You don't want to place expectations on them that are not age-appropriate nor do you want to try to change too much at once—particularly with little kids.

"Rewards can be beneficial to help children achieve a specific behavior or goal," says Kate Eshleman, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children's. "It is a system to increase motivation for something the child may not be interested in or motivated for [themself].  Applying an external reward assists the child in working to complete, achieve, or master this task by making it meaningful to them."

It is also important that the reward is something your child wants, something you can be consistent with, and contains an attainable goal. The best way to ensure that is the case is to involve your child in developing the reward system. Ask them what they consider a good reward and begin there.

"The identified reward has to be something that is meaningful to the child, and thus the child’s engagement in developing the plan is important," says Dr. Eshelman. "It likely will not work if the parent identifies the reward without the child’s input. Feedback on earning the reward should be immediate and specific, and often times small approximations to earning the large reward are helpful."

Kate Eshleman, PsyD

It is important for parents to follow through on outlined plans, and thus only agree to rewards that they are willing and able to provide.

— Kate Eshleman, PsyD

For example, if your child wants to earn something specific like a Lego set or a trip for ice cream, it is likely not feasible or appropriate to provide this each time a specific task is completed, explains Dr. Eshleman. So, if the goal is for them to stay in bed all night or their finish homework in the evening, parents can use stickers for younger kids or tokens for older kids. Eventually, with enough tokens or stickers, they can "purchase" the bigger reward.

"It is important for parents to follow through on outlined plans, and thus only agree to rewards that they are willing and able to provide," Dr. Eshleman adds. "In order for the system to be effective, [you] must stick to the plan and follow-through, which can take a lot of time and energy."

When deciding what to work on first, Dr. Eshleman recommends picking one or two specific target behaviors. Make sure your child has a good understanding of what is expected and how the reward is achieved so they can understand their progress toward the goal. 

Tips for Effective Reward Systems

Brittany Schaffner, a crisis education supervisor for the Behavioral Health Pavilion at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, offers these tips for success.

  • Identify one behavior or task you would like to your child to learn.
  • Set realistic expectations.
  • Be patient as kids learn new skills.
  • Involve your child in choosing the reward.
  • Provide clear direction and guidance.
  • Offer specific praise and do it often.
  • Strive for consistency and follow through on your promises.

How to Implement a Reward System

The basics of implementing a reward system include determining the behavior you want your child to work on and coming up with a reward they are excited about. Here are additional tips on how to set up an effective reward system for your child based on their age.

Little Kids

Young kids are very responsive to sticker charts, specific labeled praise (i.e., "I like how fast you got your shoes on and stood by the door"), and positive attention from adults, Dr. Eshleman says. It is important for young kids to frequently receive this type of feedback.

"An example may be creating a sticker chart and each time the young child verbalizes needing to go to the bathroom, they earn a sticker," she says. "These stickers may be turned in for another reward, though the stickers themselves may be enough [at this age]."

It's also important to ensure that the expected behavior or task is achievable and based on the child’s age and ability, Dr. Eshleman adds. Explain the reward system in a way your child will understand and make sure the time frame to receive the award is short. If it takes too long to achieve a reward, your child will get discouraged and lose interest.

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

For younger children (under 3 years old), you don’t have to overthink rewards or break the bank buying them a new toy every time they fulfill a request.

— Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

"For younger children (under 3 years old), you don’t have to overthink rewards or break the bank buying them a new toy every time they fulfill a request," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "A great reward at this age is extra positive attention such as hugs, kisses, smiles, or praise from parents. Praise can be specific to their behavior to let them know exactly what they did right and why you liked it, for example, 'Great job helping me put all your toys away, you are such a good helper!'"

Behaviors that can work well with a sticker chart include things such as going to the bathroom on time, staying in their own bed at night, picking up their toys when asked, or leaving a fun place like the park without a tantrum. Provide a sticker immediately after you see the desired behavior and offer lots of praise.

Take time to count the stickers they already have and talk about how close they are to the big reward. This type of emphasis on the positive choices as well as the reward, keep your little one engaged and excited to continue making good choices.

School-Age Kids

As kids age, it is important that the task, the reward, and the time frame age with them, says Dr. Eshelman. School-age children are likely motivated by different things than younger kids, so a sticker chart might have to evolve to a chart with checkmarks or the use of tokens, play money, or "bucks" they can use toward a bigger reward. At this age, kids tend to respond to more tangible rewards.

"For school-aged children, creating some type of visual representation of what behaviors receive rewards can be encouraging, especially when first introducing a reward system," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "For example, if they get to pick their favorite dinner after five days of helping to clean up the house, giving them a checkmark [or a token] for each day can get them excited about reaching their goal."

Your reward system also should be developmentally appropriate as well as attainable. You don't want to set goals for your child that are impossible for them to achieve.

"Asking for them to do too much or to do things that are too challenging can increase their sense of frustration," explains Dr. Patel-Dunn. "For example, if you’re asking your child to be tidier, start with rewarding them when they make their own bed in the morning, and work up from there."

Kids this age can also handle more complex reward systems, so you can tackle bigger goals or two behaviors at a time if you want. Just make sure your child earns rewards on a regular basis. School-age kids still appreciate daily rewards and praise for their hard work and efforts.

"For a school-aged child, an example of a reward may be that for each evening a child completes [their] homework in entirety without being asked, [they] earn extra screen time," Dr. Eshleman explains. "Or they earn a 'buck' [or token] each time they do so in order to save for a desired reward like a new video game, a new book series, or another desired reward."

Tweens

Once your child is a tween, they might benefit from more complicated reward systems with bigger rewards or more freedoms. Just note that these rewards don’t have to cost money. Kids this age appreciate more screen time, later bedtimes on the weekends, a new game, or increased freedoms.

There is even some research that a token economy system, which allows them to earn tokens that can be exchanged for reward items, can be effective for kids this age. For example, two tokens may be equivalent to 30 minutes of screen time.

"For tweens, you can mix smaller rewards like an extra hour of TV with larger rewards for longer-term goals," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "For example, if your tween has been working on improving their grades from C’s to A’s and B’s, you can reward an improvement on report cards with a reward that feels like a bigger deal, like a sleepover with friends."

One of the most difficult things when starting a reward system is staying consistent, says Schaffner. Just as your kids are building skills by developing habits, you also have to get in the habit of being consistent with the reward system.

"Building new habits takes time," she adds. "It is unlikely to happen overnight or in a week. Watch for small wins and changes."

If you have consistently been using a reward system and have not seen a positive change over time, re-evaluate, says Schaffner. Check the following things: Is the reward something my child likes? Is the expectation appropriate? Is the task clear? Is the behavior stated positively? If not, make adjustments and try again.

A Word From Verywell

No matter their age, most kids enjoy receiving rewards and praise for their efforts. So, if there are some negative behaviors you are hoping to help your child modify, you may want to try implementing a reward system. The key to success, though, is to make sure you involve your child when setting it up.

After all, you want to be sure the rewards you pick are something that will motivate them enough to do the work of changing their behaviors. You also need to make sure you start with a small goal or two and that the goals are attainable. Your child should feel challenged but not to the point of discouragement. With a thoughtful and consistent approach to rewards, you both are likely to feel happy with the results.

Originally written by
Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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