Importance of Rewarding Good Behavior

Children tend to repeat behavior that is consistently followed by positive consequences. Behavior modification programs use rewards to reinforce desirable behavior. There are two types of rewards: material rewards and social rewards.

Material rewards include toys, treats, outings, privileges, and permissions. Social rewards include hugs, smiles, congratulations, compliments, and kudos.

For a behavior modification program to succeed, you must reward your child step by small step for a few simple things he can readily accomplish. Then you must reward him every single time at first, though with care frequency of reward might be reduced later.


It is best to work with no more than one or two simple behaviors at a time. When the desired behavior is inculcated, then another one may be selected until he has thoroughly mastered them before presenting him with more challenging tasks.

Since you will be providing many rewards each day, material rewards must necessarily be inexpensive. Items such as stickers, marbles, or trading cards appeal to some children. Many parents give a piece of candy. This can be very effective, though it may not be wise to give too much candy to children.

It is important to use rewards the child actually wants, and it is generally a good idea to reserve those specific rewards for the behavior modification program so that the child does not become satiated with them by getting them in other ways. If a child loses interest in a reward, a new reward should be used.


“Chaining” is a technique for rewarding less pleasurable behavior with more pleasurable behavior. The most aversive behavior comes first. For some children it might be getting dressed in the morning. Using a chaining approach, dressing is the first thing the child would do.

Brushing her teeth might be less of an issue, and might come next. This would then be rewarded with breakfast. Getting herself out the door on time might be rewarded with a special treat to take along to school. Keep in mind though, that any one of these steps might need a specific reward as the program is being developed.


Small, immediate rewards should be tallied up for major and more distant rewards. Intermediate rewards might be getting to play a video game for twenty minutes, being allowed to choose the restaurant when the family eats out, or deciding which video the family rents. Outings such as a trip to the mall, city park, or library are popular, distant, and perhaps more expensive rewards.

Role of Social Rewards

Social rewards are interactions that your child enjoys and that are affirming. They can be smiles, hugs, pats on the back, the thumbs up sign, praise, expressions of appreciation, positive acknowledgment, overhearing glowing comments, and spending pleasant time with a parent.

Pleasant time can include wrestling, making brownies, planting a garden, turning off the car radio and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” reading a bedtime story together, etc. When asked, children usually choose material rewards over social rewards, but social rewards are powerful and important. They are more meaningful to most children in the long run. However, a reward is only effective if it is motivating. For this reason, material rewards are often effective, even when they are not considered to be ideal.

Role of Physical Rewards

Make it a habit to administer verbal or physical pats on the back whenever you give your youngster a material reward. Some children are indifferent to praise, smiles, and kudos because every other sentence their parent utters is “good job!” until it sounds like a verbal tic. Youngsters come to regard such glowing comments for what they are: meaningless and empty. At the same time, everyone needs unconditional positive regard. Children should not be deprived of generalized affection.

Importance of Immediate Rewards

Since rewards must be given immediately after a desired behavior occurs, it is usually more efficient to give tokens or other small prizes or treats, for example colorful stickers that can be traded for a bigger prize later.

As anyone who has tried to diet knows, it is hard to remain motivated to work toward a far-off goal. In most cases reward systems only work when children feel rewarded immediately. If you discover that your child is not motivated by certain rewards, change them. If she cannot readily earn rewards, make them easier to reach.

Your Child's Role in a Behavior Modification Program

Children should be involved in all phases of a behavior modification program, and their help determining what rewards they can earn and what they must do to get them is important.


Solicit your child's input before deciding how many stickers she needs to accumulate in order to earn a trip to the skating rink or to get a new toy. She must view the rewards as worthwhile and believe she can earn them for a behavior modification program to work.

Explain that you are going to begin rewarding her for good behavior and help her brainstorm a long list of the toys, treats, outings, privileges, and permissions that she would like. Record all of her wishes. You may not be willing to fulfill her heart's desire for a horse by moving Black Beauty into your backyard. But learning that horses mean that much to her may provide clues as to highly motivating rewards. You might consider providing stickers with pictures of horses for her to affix to a chart, renting the Black Stallion video, driving to the country so she can pet a horse, letting her take a riding lesson at a stable, going to see a rodeo or horse show, transferring a picture of a horse onto her T-shirt, riding a pony at an amusement park, and helping her arrange to work at a stable.

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