How to Set Up a Reward System for Kids That Really Works

Published June 13, 2021
two little girls holding a chore chart

When children begin to exhibit unsavory behaviors, parents start grasping at straws, doing whatever they can to extinguish them. A common weapon used against meanness and meltdowns is a reward system. When implemented correctly, reward systems for kids can eliminate negative behaviors, replacing them with positive ones.

What Is a Rewards System for Kids?

A reward system is a system set up to help encourage children to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. They learn to do this via positive reinforcement. When kids receive positive feedback for desirable behaviors, they ultimately gravitate towards those opposed to negative behaviors previously displayed. Rewards are finally earned when children achieve a specific goal on their reward chart, further motivating them to shift from negative to positive ones.

Types of Common Reward Systems

There are several types of reward systems that parents, caregivers, or teachers can utilize to help children decreased negative behaviors and reinforce positive ones.

Sticker Chart

Sticker charts are often used in reward systems for younger children. When positive behavior is witnessed, a sticker is placed in a specific box noting success. Children earn stickers until they reach the desired number set, and then they earn a reward for the stickers earned.

girl pointing at sticker chart

Point System

Older kids can work off of point systems. Points are earned for positive behaviors stated on the behavior system chart. Points get traded in for rewards. Depending on the complexity of the chart and the child's development, one point can be earned for each positive behavior noted, or if more than one behavior is identified on the chart, different behaviors can be worth a different number of points.

Token Economy System

In token economies, kids earn points for positive behaviors throughout the day. Points can be cashed in at the end of the day or the week for different items. Items offered are all ones that kids would want to earn. Items in a token economy have different values. A funky new eraser might cost five points, but a small stuffed animal could be worth 25 points. Children learn that if they want bigger items, they have to perform more positive behaviors or tasks over a longer period, sometimes waiting to make a purchase.

Tangible Systems

One tangible and straightforward reward system set up for children is the timeless marbles in a jar. Each child in your family gets their own jar. One positive behavior is identified for each child. When an adult witnesses the behavior, a marble goes in the jar. When the desired number of marbles is reached, a reward is given. Another version of this system is blocks earned. Every time a positive behavior is noticed, a block gets added onto a growing tower. When the block tower has the noted number of blocks added to it, the previously agreed-upon reward is given.

Jar with old marbles

Types of Rewards

Nobody works for free in this world. Kids are more apt to continue doing what you ask of them when they are earning something for the work they put into their behavior modification. When it comes to rewards, the person establishing the reward system has to look at what is desirable to the child. What is it they want to earn? Reward systems crash and burn all too often when parents or teachers offer a reward that is not personally motivating to the child. Before implementing a reward system, dive into what items or activities kids want to work towards. Remember, children are as dynamic as a human being comes. Their interests change, and sometimes they no longer want to try to earn the reward decided on. When this happens, change the prize.

  • Tangible items- Some kids will want to aim to alter behavior to earn tangible items like small toys, clothing, or candy.
  • Activities - An activity-based reward could be an ice cream outing, extra free time before bed, or extended screen time.
  • Big-Ticket Items - Older children learn that they can extend rewards out, no longer needed instant gratification when a goal is reached. They can bank their earned points and put them towards a larger reward in systems like token economies.

Setting Up Reward Systems for Young Children

When setting up a reward system for young kids, there are some crucial elements to pay close attention to so that your system, and your child, are successful.

Reinforcement Should Be Immediate

When you spot those replacement behaviors that you long for so badly, make a verbal note of them. You want to catch kids being good, allowing them to capitalize on the warm and fuzzy feeling they get for being verbally praised over doing the right thing. If you see your child performing a desired task or behavior, put the sticker on the chart immediately and pair it with words of praise.

Only Focus on One Behavior at a Time

Young kids should only focus on one replacement behavior or new skill at a time. Adding too many tasks or behaviors to a reward system can be confusing and overwhelming to young children. Take some time before implementation and decide which task or behavior is an absolute priority. Focus on the behavior/skill and once it is achieved and maintained, move onto a new one.

Use Lots of Positive Praise

Kids love to hear how awesome they are, and positive praise works wonders for young children. Make sure that you're not simply popping a sticker on a chart when you notice the desired behavior take place. Often adults notice them, but kids do not. Make their progress visible with words.

Keep Vocabulary Simple

Little kids have limited vocabularies, and including advanced lingo on reward systems and behavioral charts can muddy the waters and thwart what you are trying to do. Keep your words simple and your goals clear and concise.

Involve Children in the Process

Let little kids learn that they are really in control of their own destinies. People tend to hold tighter to things that they feel strong ownership over. Ways to include little kids in reward systems might be:

  • Asking them what they want to work for
  • Have them physically put the sticker on their chart
  • Ask them if they want to keep completed charts or hang them on a wall
  • Discuss progress with them frequently
kids writing a list of chores

Stay Consistent

Consistency is king when it comes to reward systems. Children learn new skills and behaviors through repetition, so make sure that you stick with it should you go the reward system route. Children will develop expectations and trust while they acquire new skill sets and desirable behaviors.

Setting Up Reward Systems for Older Children

Older children can build on simple system concepts by integrating more behaviors into the system, replacing stickers with points, and including removal of points to the addition of them.

Include Several Behaviors, Skills or Tasks

As children grow older and develop more cognition, more than one task, chore, or behavior can be included in a reward system. Continue to prioritize what you want kids to work on and make sure that whatever gets included in the system is attainable for young and old kids.

Add and Remove Points

Younger children might use marbles in a jar or stickers to signify good behaviors or skills learned. Older kids can move to a point-based reward system. They earn points for the positive behaviors recognized. Different behaviors can be worth different quantities of points. Furthermore, older kids can earn points and have points taken away when they revert to negative behaviors.

Create a More Complex Reward System

While little kids work for a single reward once their goal is reached, older kids can utilize more complex reward systems. Children can learn to either use their points or bank them and save up for larger items. They might have more choices in rewards and learn the concept of delayed gratification.

Review System at the End of Each Day

It is still important to connect at the end of the day with kids working on reward systems. Discuss what worked well, what needs improvement, and how far they are from their goals.

Monitor for Satiation

It can be more challenging to know when an older child no longer cares about working towards a goal or reward; thus, monitoring for reward satiation is crucial to a reward system's success. If you see older kids no longer motivated to earn points and rewards, this could be because the reward has lost its shine. Discuss new rewards that kids might be more apt to work towards.

Behaviors Reward Systems Can Eliminate or Replace

Some behaviors work better with reward systems compared to others. Simple negative behaviors will be easier to focus on and replace using a behavior system, and simple positive behaviors will be easier to establish than more complex ones.

New Behaviors Learned

Reward systems often work well when children are trying to learn a new skill such as:

  • Using the potty
  • Sleeping in their room for the entire night
  • Taking turns
  • Putting toys away after playtime
  • Completing assignments
  • Getting dressed

Ceasing Negative Behaviors

If a child displays a negative behavior that you want to reduce or be rid of, reward systems prove helpful. In this manner, to utilize a reward system, offer stickers, points, or marbles for a more desirable behavior that replaces the negative one. For example, if you want to eliminate hitting, reward children for more gentle touches or use words instead of violence when they become agitated. Negative behaviors that can be reduced via reward systems are:

  • Acts of violence (hitting, kicking, biting, scratching)
  • Talking back
  • Screaming
  • Refusal to perform requested tasks
  • Running away from an adult

Achieving Daily Living Tasks and Chores

While reward systems are often used to replace negative behaviors with positive ones or teach new skills, they can also be used for everyday tasks and chores. If your children are touch and go with daily living tasks, reward systems can motivate them to perform desired tasks consistently. Tasks that can be increased via reward systems might include:

  • Making your bed
  • Cleaning your room
  • Taking out the trash
  • Feeding pets
  • Putting away laundry
  • Various aspects of hygiene (washing face, taking a shower, brushing hair or teeth)

The Benefits Reaped From Reward Systems

The benefits of a well-executed reward system are extensive. Children learn independence and develop self-confidence as they reduce negative behaviors and gain positive ones or acquire new skill sets. Emphasizing the good instead of focusing on the bad helps children develop better self-esteem. Parents who utilize reward systems find that they also benefit greatly. They see their children improving daily, and this can lessen anxieties surrounding negative behaviors. Parent-child relationships improve when reward systems are implemented as better behaviors are happening more often and arguing and stress levels decrease. Knowing what to do and how to do it remain key to a reward system's success. Once you have the concept down, you can conquer so many negative behaviors in your children.

How to Set Up a Reward System for Kids That Really Works