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Tips for Effectively Rewarding Children

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Tips for Effectively Using Rewards to Motivate Children


Natural and logical rewards are best.

A natural reward in the following example is that the child now has extra time in which to do or have their reward.

What if the reward for getting ready for school on time is an audiobook and the ride to school is shorter than the time needed to experience the reward? You could start the audiobook in the house after everything for school is loaded in the car and shoes and socks are on! If you think about it,  staying focused does usually mean that we naturally have more time to do what we want to after our work is finished.


Always Having Something To Lose

It is usually best to set things up so a child earns either a smaller or a larger reward rather than either getting a reward or not getting a reward at all.  If a child has already lost all hope of getting what they are wanting, why not just stop trying?

For example, if your child has significant trouble staying on track when completing a list of tasks you could have her earn 3 minutes of extra reward time for each item she completes by her time deadline. This is instead of setting it up that she earns points for completing the whole list on time.  She always has something TO GAIN because even if she does not successfully earn her first 3 minutes, she has several more items with which to try again.  If you start with a base amount of the reward, this works well because the child can earn extra…..Extra time is earned by completing each item on time. In this way, a child is never left with nothing left to lose; and just deciding to quit trying because “there is no use”. If they do give up and stop getting ready for school or have a temper tantrum, then they lose their “free amount.”  This works best with rewards a child really enjoys. Watch to see that the child demonstrates that a small amount of time is better than nothing, but they crave more and more time doing the activity.


More Important Tips for Effectively Rewarding Children

  •  It is important to provide a way for the child to keep track of time such as an egg timer, a watch with an alarm, or stopwatch (which is on almost every smart phone these days).
  • Make sure you only use rewards that you are willing to withhold if the list is not completed. For example, if the reward is allowing them to listen to a favorite radio station, be sure that you are willing to miss listening to it before you put it on the reward list.
  • Make sure the reward happens. Nothing ruins a child’s motivation than waiting for a reward that never seems to come. You don’t have to be perfect here, but not coming through needs to be rare enough that the child trusts he will get his reward.
  • The younger a child is the closer in time the reward has to be to the behavior it is rewarding. In other words, a kindergartener is not likely to be motivated by a reward they don’t receive until the weekend. It might be tough for a kindergartner to wait until afterschool. This will vary from child to child and depend on how enticing the reward is. If the child is very excited about the reward they may still be motivated if they have to wait longer for it.  This is something with which you may need to experiment. How long they can wait without losing motivation will vary from child to child and with age. Generally, the younger the child is the closer in time they need the reward to be.

This is a mistake I see parents make all the time. They try to entice a first grader with a reward that will not come for several days. When you are in first grade, several days are very very long.  This is a very important behavioral principle to always keep in mind as a parent. We will come back to this idea again and again!


One Final Extremely Important Tip

You also always want to provide opportunities to turn things around for the better at the last minute.  A child rallying in the eleventh hour should not be rewarded with the item they could have earned if they followed their routine correctly, but “rallying”, as my husband calls it,  should be rewarded.  He even gives out the biggest “rally” award.

An Example

If things have gone so badly getting ready for school in the morning that you are already going to be late for school; and, your child is having a melt down, think of some way he/she can salvage the situation (without giving them the rewards they truly didn’t earn).  Maybe they can’t listen to their favorite radio station; but, they could earn a less desired audiobook by getting in the car on time, or  they could bring dry cereal in a baggie to eat in the car while riding to school.

This can often solve other problems (like they haven’t eaten yet) and improve the situation enough to get them in the car and out the door.  Otherwise, you risk wanting to give rewards when they have not been earned and this is a big NO NO… Why do what you don’t really want to, if your mom or dad will take pity on you and give you the reward anyway?

Other possibilities for salvaging things when they are going south include offering other opportunities to earn points after school so they can have another chance to earn the activity later. In this case, you are not giving an unearned reward because they have to wait to receive it (instead of getting it earlier if they followed through).

Let me know how it is going…. I would love feedback, comments, ideas, suggestions…..


In my e course, Helping Your Elementary School Child with School Organization, I help participants set up effective behavioral interventions for their elementary school children. If you feel confused or feel like you need more study in this area. Sign up for my e course and you will get practice with these ideas and individualized help from me personally.


E Course Information




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