If I had a nickel for every time parents told me that they had already (without much lasting impact!) tried a reward system at home with their child—well, I would be a rich woman. Many of you who have a child with ADHD, an autism spectrum disorder, or executive functioning challenges have struggled with your child not listening or following directions at home, having frequent meltdowns, hitting peers or siblings, using disrespectful language, etc. So, you probably decided to try a rewards system to work on these skills. And–let me guess–your child’s behavior improved initially, but then a week later you were right back where you started.
Believe me, I know. I have been there, too, with my own kids. We start a cotton ball jar for following directions and showing kindness. A week into it, my kids are sharing well and following their morning and nighttime routines with ease. Another week later and I’m forgetting to give the cotton balls, my kids are taking 30 minutes to get dressed in the morning, and we are all kinds of frustrated with each other.
Why Rewards are Important
Before we get into the do’s and don’ts of using rewards at home, let’s start by discussing why they are important. The use of rewards to change behavior is based on the concept of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a strategy that falls under the umbrella of behavioral interventions or applied behavior analysis (ABA). Positive reinforcement simply means adding something desirable following a behavior in an effort to increase or teach a new skill. For example, you probably taught your child how to sit on the potty when they were young. You likely modeled the behavior for your child and then helped her sit on the seat. When your child was successful, you likely offered praise, stickers, and or tangible items (treats, toys). This is a common example of using positive reinforcement to teach a new skill.
So why is positive reinforcement so important? At a biological level, when your child learns a behavior, a neural connection is made in the brain. For instance, if you are at home and your child has a meltdown when you ask him to shut down the iPad and then you allow your child to continue playing, the meltdown behavior was reinforced. A neural connection was made in the brain that, “When I meltdown, I get extra iPad time.” Now maybe you don’t do that every time, but maybe it happens more often than you like, just out of sheer frustration and exhaustion. Believe me, I know because I have been there! The more your child gets access to the thing he wants, the more that neural connection in his brain is reinforced. Pretty soon, it is a strong and efficient connection and happens almost automatically. If we want our kids to learn new behaviors, we have to create new neural connections that become efficient and automatic. We can do this by teaching new desirable behaviors and providing positive reinforcement.
I want us to get away from thinking about this simply as a reward for behavior. This is a tool we use to teach our children new skills and how to get their needs met in socially appropriate ways.
Do’s and Don’ts of Rewards
So now that we know why rewards (positive reinforcement) are important, let’s talk about the do’s and don’ts of using it at home!
- Don’t just start giving out rewards. Do sit down and think about what specific behaviors you want to teach your child at home. Make sure you spend time reviewing these behavioral expectations with your child and modeling it for her. For instance, if you are teaching following directions, you might show your child examples of what that looks like and what it does not look like to follow directions. And remember to have realistic expectations. If you child has ADHD, then she may not be developmentally able to follow multi-step directions. You may need to start with simple one-step directions.
- Don’t use negative language for your expectations. Do create positive behavioral expectations. Most parents can easily rattle off all the problem behaviors in their child. But when we talk about what behavior you WANT to see, that is harder. Think about those behaviors that you are constantly frustrated with and then create a positive opposite. For instance, does your child constantly fight and hit others? Then a positive behavioral expectation might be, “Use nice hands” or “Be respectful to others.”
- Don’t make your system too complicated. Do create a system that is very easy to implement for your family and that your child finds fun and exciting. The more complicated you make it, the more likely you will be to quit it within a week. Make a system that your child agrees with and just try to be consistent.
- Don’t just say, “Great job!” Do give very specific praise and feedback to your child. Remember that positive reinforcement is used to teach your child a new behavior or skill. To do that, you need to tell your child exactly what she did right. For instance, you might say, “I loved how you listened really well and put your pajamas on the first time I asked you.” Do you see the difference? If you just say, “Great job,” your child might not know precisely what he did right.
- Don’t wait too long to offer your child reinforcement after the behavior. Do offer immediate and frequent feedback, especially when you are first teaching a new skill.This way, your child knows what she is doing well. Having things like a cotton ball jar, stickers, or points is a way to provide an immediate reminder that your child showed that new skill. Asking your child to wait until the end of the week to earn something fun is often fruitless. Most children with ADHD or executive functioning challenges have little ability to think in advance, delay gratification, or understand the concept of time. They require frequent and immediate feedback. Again though, the most important piece is offering that specific praise. Those cotton balls and points are nice tangible ways to remind us parents to give praise and catch our kids doing awesome things at home!
- Don’t just use candy, food, or toys as rewards. Do try to use things that are motivating and reinforcing for your child that are natural in your home. There are many fun activities at home that children can earn. In addition, many activities that our kids have accessible every day can also become privileges. For instance, screens, certain toys or games, or certain crafts that are motivating might become things that are earned at home. These things can be provided immediately and throughout the day.
- Don’t reward your child for things that they are internally motivated to do. Do provide rewards or external consequences for behaviors your child has not yet consistently demonstrated or are not internally motivating. There is some research that shows that if children are rewarded for tasks they already find interesting and fun, they will be less internally motivated to do those tasks in the future. So, if your child already enjoys reading books with you or doing homework, skip the rewards for those skills.
- Don’t use rewards only when your child is not complying with a request. Do establish a clear, positive behavioral expectation and offer the reward/praise contingent on following the expectation. This distinction is the primary difference between positive reinforcement and bribery. For example, a bribe might occur if we ask our child to get ready in the morning, she doesn’t comply, and then we offer candy as a reward for complying. In this example, we have now taught our child that they can receive a reward or something good after initially not complying. That is why it is important to create clear behavioral expectations and positive consequences, so your child knows that those only come with following expectations.
- Don’t get too frustrated by your child’s behavior. For those of you with children with ADHD, autism, or executive functioning challenges, do remember that your child has a neurobiological disorder and showing many of these desirable behaviors (controlling impulses, managing frustration, and listening/following directions) is much harder for him than his peers. Your child has biological differences in how he learns, so respect and acknowledge that. Be very patient in your child’s learning.
- Don’t expect perfection from yourself or your child. Do make mistakes. Mistakes are important in learning. Encourage your child to make mistakes and take time to celebrate those as well. When we make mistakes, those mistakes mean that we are learning. This goes for you mamas, too! It’s ok to make mistakes, to yell, to get frustrated, and to lose it. You are a human being. If any of you have seen me with my own kids, you will know child psychologists also lose it with our kids. Our parenting mistakes provide excellent opportunities to model apologizing to our kids. Embrace those mistakes because they mean you are trying, you are learning, and you are an awesome mama!
Sometimes, one of the hardest parts of a developing a reinforcement system is figuring out what really motivates your child. Will you let us know in the comments below what your go-to reward is, so other mamas can get some ideas?