Motivating Children to Positive Change: Simple Steps to Using Incentives

bySara Markese, Ph.D.

The Difficulties of Discipline:

Most parents struggle with disciplining their children because of the conflict they face when their children do not listen or misbehave. Parents want to support and help their child to make the right choices, but often feel they are in the role of the “bad guy” when ‘good choices’ are not made.

Other articles in the Family Compass archives have addressed strategies to help parents practice “positive discipline,” and clear communication regarding expectations for behavior, but sometimes the nuts and bolts of motivating children are not discussed in great enough detail.

When it comes to getting children to do things they don’t like or want to do, or that are hard for them, parents often feel they must resort to either bribes or threats, neither of which make parents feel in control of the situation at hand. Providing consistent incentives is a positive option that can be easily and consistently practiced for kids of all ages.

Before describing the positive incentives plan, let’s go over why the other methods often do not work:

Many parents rely on the method of “taking away possessions or privileges” if bad behaviors are repeated, tasks are ignored, or bad choices are made by their children. The problem with this approach is that it puts things in a negative light right from the start. A child may feel threatened, or simply upset and angry thinking about his toys or privileges being hypothetically taken away from the beginning. Imagine your only reward for going to work every day was that your boss would not take away your iPad, your car or your weekend breaks. Yes, you would probably do your job, but it is unlikely that you would be very happy about doing it well.

Some families do not provide children with rewards for doing the things “they are supposed to do,” such as behaving well and contributing to family chores. Many parents feel that there are basic things that children need to learn to do to be a part of the family. In these cases, children may be rewarded by parents’ positive comments or encouragement, which works well when the job is not too difficult. But how about when your child is struggling to get ready in the morning, and simply can’t seem to pull it off? Imagine here that you were at your job, and your boss asked you to stay late hours and put together a very difficult project. The reward, you ask? Well, says your boss, “I will tell you that you did a good job.” Great, but maybe not quite enough to motivate us to put all of our effort into a very difficult and overwhelming task.

Other parents express concerns that their children will not respond to or care about rewards, or that the reward process will get out of control, leading to piles of unused toys scattered around and an empty wallet. When presented with a reward model of discipline, parents often worry, “Isn’t giving your child a reward for good behavior and doing chores a bribe?” Well, a bribe is something undeserved and secretive that happens when people are desperate to get their way. In contrast, the “positive incentive model” gives parents the power to use positive reinforcement to motivate children in a way that is reasonable and within parental control. This model allows parents to be positive allies to their children while still teaching them to make good choices, to follow the rules, and to learn to manage the negative emotions that come with having to do the many things that kids simply don’t want to do.

How Can the Positive Incentive Model be Applied?
While it is often negative behaviors that capture parents’ attention initially, focusing on positive behaviors, and using positive reinforcement and earned incentives to spotlight and increase the frequency of desired behaviors can be very effective.

So, what exactly are incentives? Incentives are rewards for good behaviors and actions that can help motivate children to do the things that they typically resist, and move children and parents our of ongoing family power struggles. The right incentive can be chosen with your child’s input, and the incentive will then be consistently offered to motivate “good choices, behaviors and actions”, and to motivate your child to leave a long standing power struggle.

Choosing and using incentives properly requires some knowledge of what they are and how they work. Incentives are “extras,” things that are not essential to your child, for your child’s development, or for your relationship with your child. Because incentives are not essential parts of life, they can be selectively withheld whereas things such as parental affection or time cannot be withheld as they are essential to the parent-child relationship. An incentive can be special time doing extra special activities with a parent, but time with a parent should never be “taken away.”

Incentives can be very powerful if they are chosen well and certain conditions are met in the way they are used in your family. These simple steps will help:

How to Choose an Incentive:
Most importantly, the incentive has to be something your child strongly desires to have or to do (a favorite toy, time playing video games etc.) The best way to determine this is to ask for your child’s input. You might say, “I’ve been noticing that getting your homework done has been really hard for you lately, and I want to help you to make some changes. What do you think you would like to earn after you get your homework done every day?”

Obviously, some of what you hear will probably be unreasonably extravagant or simply impossible, but likely, you and your child can come to an agreement. If it is a new toy or tech device your child wants, he or she can earn daily access to the incentive by completing the chosen task, or by having a day with no problem behavior (i.e. tantrums, yelling, etc.).

Some ideas include:

  • Access to a new or favorite toy or game
  • Time with outdoor or sports equipment, or special craft materials
  • Time using electronics or access to digital media
  • Use of a new costume or special outfit
  • Special foods or dinners your child chooses
  • Money (allowance) or gift cards to be saved or used to purchase special
  • Choice of a grab bag special activity or prize

Now that you have chosen the incentive, it is important that you, the parent, maintains control of the reward process. This is where many families have experienced trouble before. The child gets the toy/device, and rather suddenly, poof, the child stops behaving in agreed upon ways.

How to Use Incentives:

Reward Your Child Immediately and Consistently; The incentive must be given as immediately after the goal is met as possible for the most reinforcing power. In some cases, such as when your goal is for your child to have a day without tantrums, the incentive should be given consistently at an agreed upon time, such as “every day after dinner.”

We all like to see positive results coming from our actions, behaviors and choices, and children are no exception. The more direct the correlation between their good behavior and a reward, the better, especially for younger children. This means that some type of incentive should be used daily for motivation, rather than limiting your use of incentives to having your child earn a big reward at the end of the week which may seem like waiting forever and lead to the child feeling overwhelmed or defeated. Small, manageable goals, and daily rewards ensure more successes.

Use a Consistent Schedule and a Time Limit; Your child’s access to the incentive must be time-limited for the incentive to maintain its power day to day. Typically, 30 to 60 minutes is an appropriate amount of time. When your child earns daily access to a possession or privilege, the incentive does not lose its motivating power like it would if the child had unlimited access and possession of the incentive (i.e. Your child has access to a new videogame for 30 minutes rather than getting a new game to keep and play anytime, or you having to take away the game as punishment).

Maintain Control of the Incentive; In order to be powerful, incentives must be under parental control. In order to be positive, it is important that the reward is not something you will end up giving to the child, and then taking away for bad behavior. This pattern may create mixed messages, resentments and further conflict in the family. If everyone in the family knows that electronic devices are earned and may be used after homework is done on a daily basis, fights over who gets what when are minimized. (i.e. After homework is done, your child earns game time for 30 minutes, then parents take game, or remove the game system until the incentive is earned again the next day).

Using Incentives to Address Difficult Behaviors:

Differential Incentives; Parents can vary the size of the reward or incentive (or the time allotted for the privilege) according to the child’s accomplishment to allow children a sense of success as they work towards more difficult goals. Larger incentives for more challenging or difficult tasks further motivate the child to accomplish things that he/she is more resistant to, or that are more challenging. So, for example, in addition to earning a daily incentive, you might offer your child a chance to earn a bigger reward for a week of days when the goal was accomplished.

Provide Incentives for Coping Behavior:
When a child is truly struggling with getting through the day without a tantrum or meltdown, you can offer a way for the child to succeed and to increase his/her confidence by rewarding the child for using coping skills after the fact. Often, children need to learn and practice skills to increase their capacity for self-regulation when negative feelings arise. So, being reinforced for using positive coping strategies encourages practice of the skills, which helps decrease problem behavior in the future. Using this technique, you are there to support and help your child as he/she calms down, and can even reward your child for using one of the coping strategies you chose together to manage negative behaviors and feelings.

The power of giving children predictable rewards for well-defined goals reminds us that for children, just as for adults, life can seem difficult and overwhelming, and positive motivation is needed. Remember the last time you practiced this principle on yourself, maybe you said, “I just finished a project at work and I rewarded myself with a _______.” We’ve all said something like this, probably many times, proving that we adults are very familiar with the power of well-deserved rewards to motivate hard work and to brighten the end of a tough day. Children are no different!