Sample Reward-Rule-Consequence Scenarios

Now you have the tools to put into action for toddlers. The structure in a toddler's environment should be very positive and focused primarily on rewards, the “peanuts” that lead your child step by step in the desired direction.

How to Reward Good Behavior

There's a skeleton you can use for potty training, going to school, eating vegetables, and so on. Start with just one behavior, whichever is most important to you. (This doesn't mean all other rules are off, but put your focus on one you think will be difficult but doable for your toddler and is very important to you.) When your child is developmentally ready to begin working on the new skill, introduce it ahead of time in a gentle but firm way that makes the activity seem positive and fun: “Do you see that building? That's where you're going to take swimming lessons! Wow! Look at all the kids getting ready!” or “This is your potty. It's just for you! See how it's just your size?” Let the idea sink in, and come back to it once or twice. Build some excitement.


What if I need to elicit a good behavior that's totally unpleasant, like behaving during a medical procedure?

If it's a one-time procedure, don't build it into your rewards program. If your child must have the procedure repeatedly, you can use a rewards program, but don't deceive your child by saying it's going to be fun.

Then, cut a large sheet of paper or buy a piece of poster board and put the child's name on it. Take your child with you to a store with a nice selection of stickers, and ask her to pick out a sheet of reasonably priced stickers (you might select a few for her to pick from to narrow it down). Then say, “Every time you (whatever the skill is), you get to put one sticker on your rewards chart.” Let the child put the stickers up herself. Cheer her on.

When the skill is mastered and your child is “over” the reward chart, finalize the program by congratulating her again and taking a photo of her standing in front of the sticker-filled reward chart before you take it down. Place the photo on the refrigerator for a while.

How to Decrease Problem Behavior

First, try to reframe the behavior — instead of a rule against staying up too late, can you make a rule for going to bed on time? Those are actions you can reward, and rewards are much more effective than punishing problem behavior.

However, there are some behaviors, like hitting, that you can't ignore or reframe. Choose one or two definite no-no's that are a current problem, such as hitting or running into the street, and make a rule against them. Be prepared — your child will test you, so don't make a rule you can't enforce.

Announce the new rule just before there is an opportunity for the problem behavior. For example, announce a rule against hitting just before your child goes to play at someone's house. Say, “There is no hitting. Keep your hands to yourself.” Plan to be extremely vigilant on this day and on the next few days your child will have an opportunity to break the rule. When your child breaks the rule, react immediately by restating the rule, “No hitting,” and placing your child in time out for one to two minutes per year of the child's age. Do not react to screaming and tantrum-throwing. Do not engage in a dialogue or reason with your child. When the time is up and your child has been quiet for a moment or two, say, “Time out is over. You can get up now,” and repeat the rule, “No hitting.”

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