Rewards for Positive Behaviors?

askateacherOur daughter is 4 years old, and she’s been having some trouble with friendships lately. She’s very social and loves playing with her friends, but she gets jealous when her friends play with other people, and she gets very angry. We’d look at it as just a normal part of being 4, but lately she’s pushing or grabbing the other children. Sometimes she hurts innocent bystanders, instead of the child she’s mad at! We know punishment doesn’t work for stuff like this, so we were thinking of starting some kind of reward system. For instance, if she goes a whole week without hurting anyone, she gets a toy—maybe keeping track of the days with stickers. Do you think that would work? —anonymous

I applaud your desire to avoid punishment! You’re right, punishment would probably not be very effective at solving this problem, and would probably create some of its own problems along the way. But the opposite of punishment isn’t necessarily rewards. I’ll talk about some of the pitfalls of reward systems, and offer some alternatives.

Long-term rewards (and by “long-term” I mean rewards that happen more than 10 seconds after the behavior) work best to change behaviors that aren’t associated with strong emotions and that happen at times of leisure—say, remembering to brush your teeth, or taking out the trash. Behaviors, in other words, that you can apply conscious thought to in order to make a decision. Long-term rewards are much less likely to work on behaviors that are strongly emotional and immediate, like lashing out at a friend who’s hurt your feelings. In that moment of anger, children are operating in a nearly involuntary way—they’re not thinking about a reward, they’re thinking about how mad they are. Even if they do happen to remember the reward, a toy on Friday seems awfully far away when they’re mad RIGHT NOW.

What that means is that, even if the child is trying very hard, they’re likely to fail at making it through the whole week. Instead of simply failing to stop herself from getting angry, she’d also be failing to get a toy and failing to please her parents. That’s a lot of failure for one child to be feeling at one time, and could build up into a larger, overall sense of shame, incompetence, and negative self-image. That wouldn’t necessarily happen—she might indeed be successful—but it’s a big risk to take.

The other problem with a reward schedule is that of extrinsic motivation. A behavior is extrinsically motivated if you do the behavior in order to get something else. For instance, most of us go to work every day because we get paid for it; if they stopped paying us, we’d stop going. The opposite situation is intrinsic motivation, which is when you do something simply because you like doing it. For instance, you don’t have to pay your daughter to hug you when you pick her up at school—she does it because it feels good.

You want treating other children kindly to be intrinsically motivated, of course—for it to come as naturally as giving you a hug. But if you offer extrinsic rewards for intrinsically motivated behaviors, they become extrinsically motivated. For instance, let’s say you started giving your daughter a jellybean every time she hugged you. “Here,” you’d say, “this is for hugging me.” After a few weeks if you stopped giving jellybeans, she’d stop hugging you! Sad, but well-supported by research: perversely, extrinsic motivation removes intrinsic motivation. In your situation, you want your daughter to treat other children kindly—but if you start paying her for it, she’ll be less likely to do it on her own later.

Don’t despair, though: you’ve got something very powerful working in your favor. Treating other children kindly is ALREADY intrinsically motivated! It naturally feels good to get along with your friends. You can tell, because (I’m willing to bet) your daughter feels terrible when she hurts other people. It doesn’t feel good to lose control, to scare other people, to hurt them. (Older children who’ve developed a long-standing habit of hurting others can find ways to make themselves feel good about it, as a method of avoiding the feelings of shame I mentioned above—but that takes awhile.) Your daughter’s problem isn’t that she wants to hurt other children; it’s that she gets so upset, she doesn’t know what else to do.

So you don’t need to offer payment for good behavior, because she already wants to get along with her friends. What she needs is help doing it. There are a bunch of things you can do to help. Offer empathy and understanding for her negative experiences (“Susie didn’t want to play with you? That must have been so frustrating! I bet you were feeling upset when that happened.”). Reinforce her positive self-identity (“I know how kind you usually are to your friends.”). Scaffold her through difficult moments (“You’re getting upset because Susie doesn’t want to play in the sand-box. Why don’t you try playing with her on the slide?”) or coach her with alternate behaviors (“Next time you feel that mad, try punching a pillow until you feel better.”). Finally, make sure you DO positively reinforce her successes, by offering your recognition and appreciation (“I saw you getting upset at Susie, but then you decided to play with Ava instead! I’m so proud of you for controlling your feelings!”).

If you’re really feeling good about your daughter’s suggestions, there’s no reason not to show her your appreciation with occasional unplanned celebrations. “Your teacher told me you played well with your friends all week! That makes me so happy to hear! How about we go get ice cream, to celebrate?” It’s not a payment for services rendered; it’s an expression of your love—which always helps.

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Having trouble motivating good behaviors and discouraging bad ones? I help families with this stuff all the time. Take a look at my services!

And if you’ve got a question to Ask a Preschool Teacher, send it in!


One thought on “Rewards for Positive Behaviors?

  1. Darla Myers April 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Brilliant! I need to figure out how to inbed a link so that I can refer parents and many other teachers I know to this post. It is so true! Thank you so much for posting on this subject! I am so glad to find your blog!

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