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Rewards!! How to motivate positive behaviors from kindergarten through high school.

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

“Why won’t they just behave?” This is a question I have heard too many times to count, from frustrated parents to talented teachers, about kids of all ages. Indeed it is a great question, and one that may have complex and different answers for different kids. Today we are going to go through some basics on how to build and strengthen positive behaviors at home and at school. As you read, keep in mind that these are general tools and concepts built on years of research and practice in the field. Individualized specific plans with professional guidance and input may be needed at times, and asking for this type of help when necessary may be of great benefit to kids, families, and teachers.

What are “positive behaviors”?

You may be wondering what I mean by building positive behaviors. When people ask about behavior problems, lots of times they are mainly focused on the things that are difficult to manage. This can include disrespectful language, lack of cooperation, backtalk, verbal outbursts, or full-on tantrums. The focus here is the behaviors we do not want to see. When I talk about building positive behaviors, I am talking about the behaviors we want to see more of – using respectful language, cooperating around the house or classroom, using good coping skills to manage frustration. Often, when we see the negative behaviors we respond to those wholeheartedly, but we can tend to let the positive behaviors go by unnoticed at times. Why would we do this? Because sometimes those positive behaviors basically meet our expectations, so we don’t notice them as much. But the negative behaviors? Those are hard to ignore.

So, how to I build positive behaviors?

It would be easy to say just pay attention to the behaviors you like and ignore the ones that you don’t like. But parents and teachers know it is not as easy as it sounds to do something like that. To build positive behaviors, it is important to be intentional about not only giving attention to the behaviors you like to see, but also by helping kids learn what to do when they are upset. For example, instead of talking back to you, what would you want your child or student to do instead? It may depend on the situation. Maybe you would want them to ask if they could finish what they’re doing before they start what is is you’re asking them to do. Maybe you would want them to let you know they want something by asking nicely, but then also using good coping skills if they can’t have what they want. To be intentional, you need to proactively teach what it is they can do during times of conflict.T his should not be done during the conflict, but should be a conversation you have when everyone is calm. It is then possible to prompt these positive behaviors when things are starting to become difficult. Respond to positive behaviors with verbal praise, and with other rewards when possible.

What if I want a reward system to help build positive behaviors?

There are many ways to set up positive reward systems at home and in the classroom. The best reward system is going to be tailored to the needs interests of the children, the parents, and the classroom. Just setting up a star chart and saying “You will get stars when you behave” might not be enough. Here are some suggestions for setting up a successful reward program.

  1. Choose the token you want to use. The token is anything that helps track positive behaviors. This can be stars or stickers on a chart, a penny jar, a marble jar, points, etc. You may want to talk to your children about what they would like – is a child is really into rockets, consider rocket stickers. If a child likes the idea of seeing a jar fill up with something to show progress, consider a marble jar or a penny jar.
  2. Attach the tokens to meaningful rewards. Rewards can be anything from staying up late, to a dish of ice cream, to a trip to a shop with a set amount of pocket money to spend. You can decide how many tokens are needed for different rewards but be sure to set your child up for success. If they need 150 tokens to get a reward they may lose interest, and if it is too easy they will not form better behavioral habits. You will need to find the right balance.
  3. Make sure the child knows what behaviors will earn stars. (Or stickers, or happy faces, or points, or pennies, etc). If you make a list of behaviors that will earn tokens, it will help your child process what the expectations are. If you see wonderful behaviors that are not on the list, you can always give a bonus token.
  4. Try to give positive feedback right away so children connect the reward specifically to what they just did. If you are not close to your star chart or marble jar, you can tell them they just did a great job with something and remind them that they will get a sticker or other token as soon as you get home.
  5. Keep rewards separate from consequences. Once a child has earned a reward (token), don’t take it away if they misbehave. You may want to use that opportunity to remind them of positive behaviors or possible coping skills when they are upset and prompt them to use good coping skills if they want to work towards their rewards.
  6. If you are struggling with significant behavioral challenges or you are overwhelmed with how to set up a good program in your home, consider finding a therapist with a behavioral background to help you get things set up.

What about teenagers?

Teens are probably, for the most part, too old for classic token systems. However, you may benefit from setting up guidelines and expectations for behavior at home. At this stage, you could consider making desired activities contingent on meeting expectations. For example, if your expectations include getting homework done and cleaning up after themselves, you may make weekend activities with friends or access to the car dependent on them having their responsibilities taken care of first.

Stay tuned!Over the next few weeks I will be posting weekly tips on building positive behaviors.

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