Expert Opinion

Reward Chart Basics

Reward charts can be very helpful in assisting behaviour changes in children – particularly for ingrained habits that your child has an appropriate replacement skill for. Always make sure you are talking positively to your child about their behaviours and rewards so that their self-esteem is bolstered, and make sure that they actually have another way to handle the situation (i.e. they have been taught another strategy to manage getting angry with a sibling to replace hitting them).
When implementing rewards, consider the following factors:

  • Is your child developmentally ready to complete that behaviour?
  • What is the current behaviour and what do you want it to look like instead?

From here, you can implement a basic reward system using the following techniques:

Always positively phrase the desired behaviour. Tell your child what to do, rather than telling them what not to do. For example, say “we jump on the floor” rather than “don’t jump on the couch”

Consider what you need to teach your child so that they can show the desired behaviour. For example, do you need to teach relaxation strategies so that they can wait for their turn without being aggressive, or do they need to be taught problem-solving strategies so they can stay calm when things don’t go their way?

Consider how often they currently display problematic behaviour. Your rewards should be timed to fit this – i.e. if you currently see the ‘problem behaviour’ once a day, endeavor to help your child show a ‘preferred’ behaviour once a day, or reduce the occurrences of the problematic behaviour over time. For instance, if your child shows problematic behaviour five times a day, don’t expect them to be able to go for an entire day without showing that behaviour in order to earn a reward.

Make sure you find motivating items that your child doesn’t otherwise have access to. If you always have access to something, you have no motivation to change your behaviour in order to earn a reward. So, think about how you can either withhold what you will use for rewards (i.e. TV time is dependent on the preferred behaviour being displayed) or have extra privileges that only come out when the desired behaviour has occurred.

Use positive praise. Always ensure you pair giving the reward with positive praise, i.e. “Well done, you tried so hard today to keep your hands to yourself, so you earned your reward!”

Be sensible and fair. If you think your child has made a fair effort but it hasn’t been 100% what you would have liked, you can still give the reward. This is about reading your child and the situation and making an executive decision – and if appropriate, explaining this to your child. For instance, “today was extra hard for you because we had that unexpected visitor which makes it hard for you to stay calm. I know you had that little moment when they arrived, but you worked really hard to calm down and you managed to use your relaxation tools for the rest of the day when you needed to. You’ve still earned your reward because I can see how hard you tried”.

Set your child up for success. This ties in a bit with the time frame and making sure your child is developmentally able to engage in the preferred behaviour. But, it is also about thinking of ways you can ensure your child is successful with the reward system. While it can be tempting to use the lack of reward as a punishment or ‘teaching a lesson’ to your child, they will actually learn more quickly and positively if they actually get a chance to earn the rewards frequently – especially in the initial stages.

Use a visual reward chart. You can make your own visual reward chart on paper or a whiteboard to show your child the expected behaviour, how many times they need to show it/how long they need to go without the problematic behaviour, and what they will earn.
If your reward system isn’t working, it is usually because the rewards aren’t motivating, or you have set the bar too high for your child at this point. Try shifting those factors to set your child up for behaviour before the behaviour starts. It is only bribery if you are using a reward to entice your child to stop a behaviour in the moment once it has already begun.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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