Rewards & Consequences

Parents will often come to counselling and say that “consequences just don’t work”, that their child “doesn’t care” when they lose privileges. That they have tried everything to get their child to: do their homework; clean their room; stop fighting or hitting; or to stop arguing etc.

Rewards and consequences programs can be a part of the answer with even the most stubborn child when they are used appropriately and can be a great way to help motivate your child to change their behaviour. This article explores the key areas to creating a rewards and consequences program, for children older than 6 years and discusses the most common pitfalls that get in the way of success.

Consequences versus punishment

The difference between consequences and punishment relates to the ability to create an environment in which your child learns from their behaviour. Natural or logical consequences allow your child to see that their behaviour is their choice. You are helping your child take responsibility for the choices they have made, and to face the consequences that follow. A consequence respects the child’s right to make a decision, even if it’s not a good one. It’s not a withdrawal of love, and does not shame or embarrass.

Children older than 6 years

For children older than 6 years of age, a simple sticker rewards chart loses its effectiveness. It’s at this age, that children better understand the impact of their behaviour, and the consequences that follow. I have found using two programs (or charts) that work together at the same time to be the most effective.

Two separate charts – a Consequences Chart provides negative consequences for unwanted behaviour and discourages your child from repeating that behaviour again. A Rewards Chart provides positive consequences for positive behaviours and motivates your child to continue doing that behaviour. The focus of both charts is on predictable logical consequences, that provide clear guidelines that highlight that there are two paths – the path that leads to a reward; and the path that leads to a consequence. It provides your child with a clearer understanding of the behaviours they can choose from and the consequences that follow their choices.

Develop the charts as a family – take the time as a family to develop the 2 charts. The program has to be implemented by all adults and children in the house, with all children placed on the rewards and consequences program. The more visual the charts are the better.

Agree on what behaviour choices earn a consequence as a family – and be as specific about the behaviours as possible (for eg: not keeping your hands to yourself (hitting); swearing; not completing house chores; not doing homework etc).

Agree on the consequences – work with your child to identify what negative consequences will be implemented to address unwanted behaviours. Be clear about what the consequences are and create a visual list.

Rewards Chart – relying just on negative consequences to teach children how to behave is only half the picture. The second chart offers an equally important path that helps children learn what behaviour is expected from them.

Rewarding the absence of a behaviour – this is the most difficult part of a rewards program and the reason why most rewards charts fail. It is easy to notice negative behaviours, for eg. a child swearing or hitting. It is a lot harder to notice when an behaviour has not happened (for example, your child has not sworn or has not hit). These are however the most important times you need to notice your child.

Breaking the day into smaller chunks can make it easier to remind yourself to notice these missing behaviours. By breaking the day into – before school; after school; and after dinner – you can use these times to identify if the unwanted behaviour has not occurred. For example, if your child has not hit during the morning period, then that would be recorded, and praised. This is the directional praise that shows your child the behaviour you want.

Keep a record – of the positive changes that your child is making by giving your child a  token or tick every time you see the behaviour you want, or for every period of time that they have stopped themselves from doing the unwanted behaviour.

Rewards List – work with your child to identify what they can earn with the tokens or ticks they have collected. The rewards list is something that you develop with your child and can include things like special time with mum and dad, movie night at home or a games night, sleepover etc. Time and activities with parents always works best.

Each rewards and consequences program will be unique to your children. The key is in identifying the rewards and consequences that are specific to your child – what consequences – positive or negative that will motivate them to change.

Keeping the two charts separate – is an important part of this process. Children can never lose their token/ticks or rewards for unwanted behaviour. For unwanted behaviour they would earn a consequence. In the same way that positive behaviour will not get them out of a consequence.

Rewards that are Short, Medium and Long term – Rewards are effective if you have rewards that children can earn in the short term, medium and then long term. This enhances motivation.

Troubleshooting a Behaviour Management Plan and avoiding the pitfalls

·         Be prepared for the behaviour to get worse before you start to see it improve

·         Implementing a behaviour change program is hard work, but can be well worth it.

·         Make sure that your child can experience some initial success so that his/her motivation  is maintained and enhanced – reward trying.

·         Try and use more positive rewards than negative consequence

Be as consistent as you can, and stick with the program even after your child has made the positive changes you wanted;

If you have said a reward or a consequence is going to happen – children need to see that you will follow through;

Link positive and negative consequences to behaviour in real time – consequences work best when they are linked closely in time with the behaviour, the same way food poisoning works. If you eat something and are sick a week later, you don’t really make the connection;

Time sensitive consequences assist with learning – consequences lost for long periods don’t work as effectively as consequences lost for short periods. For children between 6 – 12 years, a consequence that lasts from 10mins to 24 hrs allows the child to link the consequence to their behaviour. Longer consequences do not create the same learning.

A Healthy Relationship with your child is a necessary foundation for any rewards and consequences program. If your child loves and respects you, consequences will be much more effective. Giving your child positive attention and spending quality time together is the base to a positive relationship and a successful consequences program.

This article was written by Andrew Sozomenou, Senior Psychologist and co-director of The READ Clinic.

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