Young children love praise and rewards. It never ceases to amaze me how easily you can change a young child’s attitude and behavior with sincere praise or a small reward. It also never ceases to amaze me how many parents forget this simple fact and get into arguments and power struggles with preschool aged children, myself included. As I raised my children their behavior seemed to go through phases. When my children were behaving things were great and I just assumed this behavior would continue, even though I often did nothing to help maintain it. Then one child would go through a difficult phase and start to question and defy my authority. This was not the usual behavior for this child, so at first I may just ignore the behavior or use a gentle reminder that this behavior was not okay. But my son or daughter was not just having a momentary lapse in judgment. My child was going through a normal developmental stage of testing me and/ or trying to separate from me. I hadn’t realized this yet, so I continued to ask my child for compliance, and as the asking failed to work the requests often turned into begging or threatening. As the other children in the family saw me lose control of one child they would often “jump on the bandwagon” and begin to misbehave also. Meanwhile, I had become so used to my children behaving well that I was totally out of the habit of praising my children for good behavior. At this point I was also out of the habit of implementing any reward system well or at all, so when the kids misbehaved I would forget to get busy and just get mad. When I realized that something was really wrong and changed my approach, it would take me a lot of time and effort to get everyone back on the right track. After a period of time things would be running smoothly again, and I would gradually put less and less effort into praising my children’s good behavior and become more lax with my current reward system. This was usually followed by a period of time of good behavior, but then the cycle would repeat.
There are several things that can be learned from my family’s cycle. First, try not to get out of the habit of praising your children. Look for times to catch your child being good, and complement him about it. We all love complements, and children are no different. This is especially true for small children. You can see a very big change in a small amount of time if you start giving your child authentic complements on a target behavior. Be careful with praise, however. Remember that praise does need to be authentic. Children can spot a phony a mile away, and if you start complementing your child for things that are not truly worthwhile or do not deserve praise she will not take your complements seriously. Praise should not be given so frequently that it becomes common place. Complements that are given too frequently can be just as bad as no complements at all as they lose their effectiveness.
The next lesson that can be learned from my family’s behavior cycle is to always look for the reason behind a child misbehaving. All human behavior is motivated by a “want” or a “need”. A child may misbehave because he wants a toy, something to eat or your attention or he may have an unmet need. Parents often have a difficult time determining their child’s unmet need as needs change when children grow and develop. The sooner you meet a child’s unmet need the sooner you will see improved behavior. The longer it takes to fill a need the more likely it is that your child will develop behavior patterns that will turn into bad habits, so it behooves parents to find and fill children’s needs as soon as possible. This is something that it took me many years to figure out as often this concept seemed counter-intuitive. My basic understanding of behavior modification as a young mother caused me to believe that if a child cried for more attention and I provided it, that my response would act as a reward and cause the child to whine more. My naïve understanding of behavior modification did not take into account the child’s deep need for more attention. When I did not respond to my child’s need she needed to try more and more sophisticated ways to try and fill that need. These ways would then turn into problem behaviors that were often difficult to extinguish.
To determine the reason for a child’s problem behavior you need to really get to know your child and then you need to look for the cause of the behavior by trial and error. Learn to watch your child at an early age for signs and signals of what she needs. Contrary to popular belief it is very difficult to spoil a baby. Recent research has shown that children come to this life with much of their personality predetermined. If you have a child that demands a lot of attention at a young age, that child needs a lot of attention, so provide it. If you really get to know your child early on you will understand his moods and needs and you will understand right away when things have changed for him and that he is going through a new stage. This will give you some clues as to what her new need may be. However, since children are constantly changing you cannot really be sure until you have tested your theory through trial and error. If your child is crabby, give her more hugs; if she is demanding, give her more control over her life; if she hits other children; give her some alone time; if she does not share, make sure she has a few toys that are hers alone. If you fulfill your child’s unmet need his behavior will improve. As behavior improves be sure to give plenty of praise so you can sustain the improved behavior. If behavior does not improve then you have not found your child’s unmet need, so keep looking. Children are very complex creatures so it may not be easy to pinpoint their needs.
Praise can be a good motivator for children, however adults and children alike often need something a little more concrete and systematic to shape behavior. My family’s behavior cycle clearly shows that when simple shaping of behavior and praise are not effective it is time to enlist a stronger motivator. There are two ways to provide concrete rewards. One is to simply provide a reward when you see appropriate behavior. This works well for very young children, however it is not always practical. With this method rewards need to be very small and something a child can collect, such as a sticker; or consume, such as food or candy. Young children love to put stickers on their clothes or hands, and they also enjoy putting together sticker books. There are special books you can buy with slick pages so stickers can be re-stuck, however just a small, inexpensive notebook can also be used to collect stickers. Food and candy can also be good motivators, however use these as rewards sparing. Children that are often rewarded with food and candy may learn inappropriate messages about food.
A second way to provide concrete rewards is through a simple token economy. In a token economy the child is given a small item when he performs a target behavior. The item, however, is not the reward. The items are collected to earn a reward. The items collected can be a sticker or stamp on a chart, small tokens or carnival tickets. This method has several advantages over the simple reward system. First, it is a bit more portable. When a child is working for a large reward it is easier to promise a ticket when you get home than the actual reward itself. Second, this method requires less actual rewards to be given, and it makes it possible for children to work for larger items. Of course you will need to come up with the reward, however this method allows you to reward appropriate behavior with non-tangible items such as a night out with Mom or Dad or an extra half-hour of TV viewing.
If you use a token economy make sure your child is old enough to understand how the system works. Before the age of 3 or 4 many children cannot understand that they will need to wait for a reward, so a direct reward may be preferable for children under 3. Make sure that the guidelines are clear to both you and your child as to exactly what behaviors will earn a token, who will decide to award the token, when it will be given, what the reward will be and how many tokens are needed for the reward. Be sure not to make it too difficult or too easy to earn the reward. If it is too easy you will have to be constantly providing rewards, and if it is too difficult your child may give up before the reward is earned. Generally it is best to start with a small reward and a small number of tokens needed to earn the reward, say five or ten. Once the child understand the system you can gradually increase the size of reward and the number of tokens needed to earn a reward. Remember, change is constant, so don’t be afraid to change your system if what you are doing does not work or loses its effectiveness.
One important consideration with young children and token economies is where the tokens will be kept. It is a good idea to have a specific place to put the tokens, especially if you have more than one child in the family that is using the system. This alleviates the problem of children losing their tokens or of the wrong child claiming them. Much of where to keep your tokens will be determined by what you use for tokens. Below is a list of ideas of possible containers that you can use to keep your child’s collection along with tokens that can be used. Children love cute and unique ideas, however remember that the focus should be to improve behavior. Do not develop a system so elaborate that the child looses focus on what he should be doing. Also, don’t overextend yourself. This should simplify your life not make it more difficult. Make sure the system you use fits your personality and time schedule.
- Charts– This can be as simple as a piece of paper stuck on the refrigerator or as complex as a graph or pocket chart mounted on the wall. Pocket charts can be purchased at teacher supply stores or made by folding and attaching paper or fabric to cardboard. Poster board with graphs drawn on them can also be purchased or they can be made. The advantage of a graph is that it makes it easy for children to see how their progress is coming toward their goal. Tokens for simple charts can include stickers, stamps or a happy face or star just drawn on the paper. For graphs small stickers or stamps can be purchased specifically to fit on the chart. If you use a pocket chart you can be a bit more imaginative with your tokens. You can use pictures cut from magazines or figures cut out of construction paper. You can also purchase pre-made cut-outs. Calendar cut-outs are available at teacher supply stores and die-cuts can be made or purchased at stores that carry scrapbook supplies. It is always a good idea to take steps to preserve any paper tokens that you use. Lamination is the most durable way to preserve your paper creations, however you can also use clear contact paper affixed to both sides for this purpose.
- Open Containers– An open container, such as a plastic cup or decorated can, can be used to store stick tokens. This type of container can be kept on a counter or table top where the child can easily see and handle their earned tokens. Young children especially enjoy tokens that they can handle and count over and over. You can make stick tokens with popsicles sticks, tongue depressors, straws or long strips of construction paper (laminate or cover paper with clear contact paper to prolong life). You or your child can decorate these tokens with markers or stickers or you can glue cutouts or odds and ends (small stones, pieces of broken jewelry, macaroni, etc.) to the sticks.
- Closed Containers– Closed containers should seal tight and provide plenty of room to collect enough tokens to earn a reward. Empty food containers with tight fitting lids work well for this as do empty baby wipe containers and zipper bags. If you have multiple children using this token system be sure to clearly label containers with each child’s name. Tokens that can be used with this container include carnival tickets, plastic counters or small toys or game pieces, juice lids (from frozen juice cans), milk lids (from gallon milk bottles) or pennies. The advantage of this system is that the container is small and portable, however this also makes it easier for your child to lose. Be careful with your choice of small tokens if you have children who put things in their mouths. Pennies and other small tokens can be choking hazards, and should only be used with children over 3 years.
To give you an idea of how a token reward system can work I will share with you one system that worked with my children when they were young using carnival tickets. I gave each child an empty margarine container with his or her name on it. My children loved to count and recount their tickets, so I allowed them to keep the containers in their rooms, however I found that this led to some conflicts over tickets. To alleviate this problem I began writing the first initial of each child’s name on the back of the ticket. This way the tickets could not be found, traded or taken; they had to be earned. I found that it worked best for me to only award tickets one time during the day, so each evening I would award tickets. During the day I would let the children know when and how many tickets they were earning, however they would only receive them just before bed. This is not the strongest way to reinforce behavior as behavior is best reinforced immediately, however a behavior system is only as strong as your ability to implement it. In order to be sure that I remembered to give tickets every night I worked it into our bedtime routine. As I gave out the tickets I would tell each child exactly why he or she had earned each ticket. If the children believed that I neglected to give an earned ticket I would always listen to their opinion, however I always retained control over ticket disbursement and did not allow negotiations. About once a week after tickets were distributed I would allow the children to pick prizes, if they had enough tickets.
Needs changed over time so tickets were given for different actions at different times, but actions such as how children treated their siblings, how chores were completed or how well they obeyed parental requests were considered when distributing tickets. Just as the reason for tickets being awarded changed, rewards to be earned also changed. When I first used tickets I had a box of small carnival-type prizes that my children could purchase with their tickets. At first all prizes were the same number of tickets, but eventually some prizes seemed to be more popular so I varied the value of some. The kids loved to plot and plan which prizes to save tickets for, however after a while I got tired of picking up all the little toys. Later, I added edible prizes and prizes such as a date night with Mom and Dad or a trip to the ice cream store. The ticket system was very effective and I was able to use it for some time with my children with just a few variations. It allowed me to reward a variety of positive behaviors and gear rewards to each child’s interests. As my children grew they eventually outgrew this system. As their rewards became more sophisticated and the number of tickets earned grew from the 10’s to the 100’s it became cumbersome and unwieldy to administer. At that point I moved to more sophisticated and complex token economies that more closely matched my children’s needs. For more on token economies see chapter five.