Praise and Rewards to Motivate Behavior

Praise and rewards are wonderful tools to increase your child’s positive behavior. I can hear the skeptics now: “Do I really have to reward them for doing what they are supposed to be doing?”. Well, no, you don’t have to. You can rely on crossing your fingers and hope they do what they are supposed to, and give consequences when they don’t. However, based on basic behavior modification principles, reinforcing behavior with positive feedback, praise, and rewards will make it increase. (And make your life a bit easier!) We all operate on this principle; we go to work and get a paycheck. We do something nice for our spouse and get positive feedback. We all need and enjoy positive reinforcement.

Remember, any time you are tuned into your child, you are reinforcing what he or she is doing. Therefore, it’s best to give your full attention in response to a positive behavior on behalf of your child. When you see him or her doing something positive, name it. “I really like the way you ___________” or “You did a great job ____________.” Other ways of giving positive attention include eye contact, using your child’s name, and giving a positive physical reinforcement such as a hug or a high five.

In addition to the above positive reinforcement, rewards can also increase your child’s positive behavior. Rewards are particularly good for reinforcing behavior your child may be struggling to display. Start a sticker chart with one behavioral goal. Make sure it is stated in the positive, i.e. getting stickers for “Closing door quietly” instead of “Stop slamming doors”.  Think about what motivates your child. Rewards do NOT have to cost a lot of money, nor should it always be food or something sweet. Children are often motivated by these two things: time and power. Time with YOU is almost always motivating!  Giving your child 10-15 minutes of ONE ON ONE time is a wonderful reward, especially if you have other kids.  Since children are not usually the ones in control (even when they think they are ;)), they enjoy having power when possible. Therefore, having the power to choose something for themselves or the entire family can feel very good… and be very reinforcing!

Suggested Rewards:

  • Walk with parent
  • Board game with parent
  • Select game for whole family to play
  • 10-30 minutes extra TV/computer/video game time
  • 10-30 minutes later bedtime on Fri/Sat evenings
  • Read a book to/be read a book by parent
  • Choose where family goes out to eat
  • 10-15 minutes one-on-one activity of choice w/parent (coloring, playing with dolls, etc.)
  • 1 item from 99 cent store or dollar bins at Target
  • Pick out favorite cereal next time grocery shopping
  • Decide what family has for dinner for the evening
  • Special dessert
  • Pick movie to watch with family

I write about this so often because I truly believe in the power of praise. You might be amazed to watch your child’s behavior change if you commit yourself to praising positive behaviors consistently.

What behavior should you praise/reward?




Ignoring is a FABULOUS way of getting rid of behavior without paying any attention to it. If you ignore minor misbehavior, and praise/pay attention to good behavior, you will see your child’s behavior change a great deal.

Remember, this technique is for minor misbehaviors, and/or for behaviors that seem to be geared toward getting your attention. If you ignore them, you are teaching your child these behaviors don’t “work”. All the more important to pay attention again as soon as he or she is doing the right thing, to reinforce the more positive behavior.

The trick to ignoring is you have to be committed to it, or don’t attempt it. This is because the behavior will not just magically disappear when you ignore it; it will likely GET WORSE FIRST. This is called “upping the ante”, and it is something most people (and even animals) do!

Picture this: You give a light knock on someone’s front door. No answer. Would you just walk away immediately? Most of us wouldn’t. We’d knock again, this time a little louder. If it still didn’t work, we would probably walk away, because what we were doing wasn’t working.

Your dog scratches lightly at the door to be let outside. Nothing. He starts whining a little bit, scratching with more fervor. If still nothing, he’d probably go lay down (or possibly have an accident in the house :)).

These are examples of “upping the ante” with behavior, although the behaviors I’m referring to in regards to children and attention-getting are probably less benign than the above examples! First tries are hardly ever enough to convince us something isn’t going to work. Often we need a second, and sometimes third attempt to show us our behavior isn’t working. You have to remember this EVERY TIME you try ignoring your child, and be prepared for the increased intensity.

Picture this:Your child is trying to open a jar while sitting on the floor. Instead of asking for help, she begins making noises of frustration. It’s clear what she needs, but she’s not asking for it the right way. She keeps trying, getting louder and louder, and stomping her feet on the floor. When she realizes this method of asking for help isn’t working, she says, “Mom, can you open this for me?”. You respond immediately, saying, “Absolutely! All you have to do is ask!”.

Your teenager is muttering to himself over breakfast because you have told him he lost his computer privileges that day. You know to ignore, so you go about your business in the kitchen. You hear, “I have to have the strictest parents in the world. Lucky me!” Remind yourself, “he’s upping the ante, I have to keep ignoring”. He throws in one last jab… “I bet when Tom was my age you wouldn’t have taken away his computer!”. You feel the urge to respond… you hate it when he implies favoritism for his older brother, but you know it best to ignore all the way through. Sure enough, he gives up. After he’s been quietly eating his eggs for a few minutes, you strike up a conversation about last night’s ball game. Even if he’s not in the mood to chat, you did the right thing by not engaging in the argument.

Remember, you must be committed to ignoring all the way through. If you try ignoring for the first and second tries at getting your attention, and then you finally give on the third, you may have accidentally reinforced a more intense behavior. Don’t forget: kids learn what works! You just gave them a mental note, “It works when I get that loud”, “It works when I say that word”, or “It works when I slam my door”.

Picture this: You walk up to a window with the intention of opening it for some fresh air. You give it a gentle tug with one hand. Nothing. You give another gentle tug; still nothing.  You pull a little harder, this time using both hands. It won’t budge. You plant both feet on the ground, put both hands on the window and PULL as hard as you can. The window opens!

What did you learn from this? You learned that gently tugging on the window does not work, and so you must pull really hard to get it to open.  The next time you wanted to open it, you would probably walk up to the window, get a good grip, and yank on it with all your might. That’s because you learned what WORKS. When people learn what works, they want to do that the next time instead of wasting time trying things that DON’T work.  This is how you extinguish the minor misbehaviors of your child and reinforce the positive… show them the positive ones “work” to get your attention, and the negative ones don’t.

Picture this: Your child knows you hate it when he kicks the back of your seat in the car. He begins tapping his foot lightly on your seat. You ignore. You feel the kicking get harder, and more frequent. You feel like you can’t take it anymore, and so you say tersely, “STOP KICKING MY SEAT!”. Oops. You may have just accidentally reinforced some hard kicks on the back of your seat, because he learned that’s what works to get your attention in the car. Instead, wait it out, reminding yourself that behaviors extinguish when they aren’t working. As soon as he stops kicking for a full 30 seconds, engage him in conversation. Later, you can say, “I really like it when you sit still in the car” and praise him for the specific behavior.

Some behaviors cannot be ignored, and need to be addressed immediately. Stay tuned for a future blog on consequences! 🙂