Anne arrives back from lunch five minutes early. You compliment her on making a special effort to be on time. Your verbal praise is Anne’s reward for her positive behavior, and it will likely encourage her to come on time again.

Making Rewards Work

Before a reward is a reward, children must want it. Although this seems basic, it is surprising how often we don’t stop to find out what children want. We assume they must like what any other child would like: a model plane, a bag of chocolate coins, a trip to the park–and scratch our heads when we don’t get the results we anticipated.

Ask them what they want!

The easiest way to find out what children want, what they will work for, is to ask them. They will give you more suggestions than you’ll ever need, and will probably surprise you at what they come up with. Be flexible in your choice of rewards, because children’s tastes change and they get tired of the same old prizes.

Whatever reward you and a child decide on, it should be paired with some type of social reinforcement: a “thank you,” pat on the shoulder, wink of the eye. The intention is eventually for you to phase out the reward, as your social reinforcement becomes a stronger motivator for the child. Finally, your social reinforcement is replaced by the child’s intrinsic feelings of satisfaction and worth.

Let’s say you have three children in your class on behavior modification programs, and each one could earn a reward every 15 minutes. That means you could be handing out one prize every five minutes or three prizes every 15 minutes–in addition to teaching 25 other children. Unless you have four arms or an assistant, forget it! One way of managing the prize overload is by handing out tokens, which children can trade in at the end of the day. You could set up a classroom store where children can buy items with their tokens.

Setting up Reward Schedules

How often you reward children depends on two factors: how long they can wait, and what type of behavior you are trying to change. If you’re trying to change a behavior which happens all the time, like a hyperactive child getting out of his seat, you might want to reinforce him after so many minutes of staying in his seat, rather than every time he stops himself from getting out of his seat. On the other hand, if it’s a behavior that does not happen often, lying for example, it is better to have a longer time interval or reinforce the child every time he tells the truth.

The interval you choose will also vary in relation to how patient a child is. Most hyperactive children need frequent reinforcement. This could mean every five, or even two minutes. Another, more patient child may be able to hold off for a day, week, or even month before receiving a reward. The goal is to start with an interval you know the child can wait, and you can follow through on, and gradually extend it. This process of gradual approximation towards a desired behavior is called shaping.

Give Immediate Rewards

If you decide to give reinforcers following a child’s behavior, you must do it immediately after he does what you want him to do. He must connect his behavior to your reward. This increases the chances of him doing it again. Waiting until school is out to tell Randy you liked the way he controlled his temper after striking out at baseball, loses its punch considerably. It’s the difference between telling your best friend right away or five days later, you won the lottery.

Set Realistic Goals

With many problem children you have to think in terms of small improvements rather than big achievements. If you expect too much from them, they’ll never earn your rewards, become frustrated, and lose interest in your program. You cannot, in one day, stop a hyperactive child from blurting out answers in class. In fact, chances are he’ll always be a blurter, even though you may noticeably reduce his blurting behavior. Find out what your children are capable of doing, and let that performance level determine your program goals. Make sure when you start out, children experience success. This means setting their first goals well within their ability levels.

One Behavior at a Time

When children have a number of problem behaviors, it is hard to know where to start. Try to resist the temptation of working on too many behaviors at the same time. It confuses and frustrates children, as well as saddling you with more work then you can deal with effectively. Pick the child’s worst behavior and focus on that first. Once it is under control, and you’ve started phasing out reinforcers, then go on to another behavior.