Goals must be clearly set out to work, says Helen O’Callaghan.

MORNINGS are a disaster and getting them to school on time is a nightmare: the seven-year-old dawdles over cleaning her teeth, the five-year-old always finds something more interesting to do than put on his coat.

When you’re trying to establish a routine, a reward system can be a useful mechanism for managing children’s behaviour, says registered psychologist Niamh Hannan. But the goal has to be clear and succinct.

“Ideally, rewards should be used to just initially set up a new behaviour pattern. You do a chart, agree on the reward and be consistent with that for two to three weeks until the behaviour’s learned, established and practiced,” she says.

Once the habit’s formed, withdraw the reward for that behaviour and perhaps transfer it to something else you’d like your child to do — wash his hands properly rather than doing a quick dart under the tap or go to bed without endless calls for water, teddy or something that he ‘forgot to tell you’.

If possible, avoid rewarding with food treats. 

A star or sticker will likely make your toddler happy, while for older children it could be extra pocket money that week or more computer time. Or use of something they already have, says Hannan.

“If you get your happy face [for desired behaviour] every day this week, you can choose the family movie at the weekend or spend the voucher you got at Christmas,” she said.

Using rewards for behaviour-modification has its pitfalls. 

“You don’t want your child expecting rewards for everything. Children have to know they need to do certain things, behave in certain ways, without getting a handout. 

"All kids should be looking after their own stuff, tidying their toys and clearing their plates.”

Rewards can backfire, with your child turning it back on you, for example, “I’ll only brush my teeth if you let me have computer time.” 

At which point you need to remove rewards for a period.

Those who object to using rewards as a practical behaviour management tool say they’re behaviour focused, rather than focused on the child’s emotions and needs.

“It’s all very well to speak calmly to a child and appeal to their better nature — sometimes you have to be firm and you need consequences and rewards,” says Hannan.

She recommends parents don’t assume their child knows how to behave — give clear instructions. What’s vital, she says, is building connection with your child. 

“When you’re connected, you’ll need rewards and consequences less.”



* Be age appropriate – a seven-year-old won’t be motivated by a sticker; a three-year-old will.

* Don’t think ‘elaborate’ — rewards need only be small to work.

* If you’re trying to establish a routine, make the last step a reward: ‘get into your pyjamas, brush your teeth and then story time’.

* Be consistent — if you say you’re going to give them something, do so. Follow through on consequences.


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