Get started

Choosing Rewards

January 4, 2014

It can often be a struggle when deciding how to “reward” children for good behavior. After going to great lengths to set up reinforcement (motivation) systems, it quickly becomes disappointing when the child’s excitement and performance wanes after week one. It can seem like “nothing motivates them for longer than a few days.” If you think about it, this is true of adults as well.

The sales agent will work tirelessly day after day to meet their quota, but once it is met you can bet that their efforts will decrease significantly. Understanding the factors that influence motivation (termed “establishing operations”) can greatly influence the effectiveness of the reinforcement system.

A reinforcer is anything (item or activity) that influences the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future. For example, bringing home an A+ on a test results in praise and attention. Thus, the likelihood of someone trying to earn an A+ on a future test is improved by the reinforcing consequence. Motivation is also influenced by quantity and quality of the items/activities as well as the conditions under which they are delivered.

The following example explains this concept: a sugar cookie will not be reinforcing to the child who only likes chocolate chip cookies, a favorite toy will be more reinforcing to the child who has stared at it on the shelf all day unable to play with it, a DVD may not be as reinforcing if the child has been allowed to watch television all day.

It is also important to make sure the items/activities chosen are actually reinforcing. Many times children request items, which parents assume means it will be motivating. However, when asked for to work for the item/activity, the same children often fail to follow through. Thus, the item/activity may not be as powerful as initially thought.

In addition you must make sure you can control access to the item/activity. Especially when working with a reward system to teach a student a new skill or behavior, it is important that the student receive immediate access to the reinforcer. It is important that this reward be consistently delivered as promised, so motivation for the item and thus the likelihood of engaging in the behavior remains high.

Remember, that outdoor activities are subject to weather and time. In addition, things such as sweets may not be reinforcing the child who has just come home from a birthday party. “Token stores” or prize closets can be an excellent solution to this problem. This way you can arrange a selection for the child to choose. Most importantly, caregivers should remember the power of “time spent.”

This could include playing a board game with mom or dad, reading a book with grandma, or being the teacher’s helper. “Time spent” will assist children in transferring external motivation to internal, creating what we refer to as our value system of expected behaviors.

Mrs. Charlotte Fudge, MSN, RN, CCM, BCBA

Father playing with his little girl at home Father playing with his little girl at home