Using Rewards Without the Spooky Side Effects

Rewarding children for completing simple tasks can help them develop better habits, yet may have spooky unintended consequences. Learn 3 tips for using a reward system that works for both you and your child!

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Your doorstep on Halloween is the right time and place for your little ones to say “Trick or Treat” in exchange for candy—and your children know this! They see the clues: children and families dressed up in their favorite costumes, carrying bags of candy as they knock on doors in the neighborhood. They know it’s the perfect time to say “Trick or Treat!”

Just as saying “Trick or Treat” is reserved for the right time and place, so too is using rewards to change or transform children’s behavior. If you don’t use rewards correctly, there may be unwanted side effects that will haunt your dreams—much like if you attempt to trick-or-treat in July. 

Here are three simple ways to know if it’s the right time and place to consider using rewards to help your child improve their behavior.

Step 1: Go natural

On Halloween, it is natural to wear costumes and have no one think twice. That’s what makes natural rewards natural: they are the things that are likely to happen already.

So ask yourself, is it possible to support the change you need to make without adding something extra? If that’s possible, do just that. Or can you add something that is more natural than a toy or tasty treat? Check all of your options before you go to something extra.

Here are some examples of things you should consider trying before you consider moving to an added reward:

  • Think about what is most natural. If you clean up the dishes, what do you get? First you get some awesome bubbles at the end you can play with. When dishes are done, add some extra bubbles for playful fun before it’s time to wash them down the drain.
  • Talk about pride in oneself. Make sure that your child understands what it means to be proud of themselves and ask them if they are feeling proud of themselves after a job well done. Equate trying hard with pride to help them work through moments of winning and times when they may fall short. Soon they will begin to identify this feeling on their own!
  • Create an experience. When you are asked to do something hard but you know it’s working up to something, it can help increase motivation. For example, going to the potty successfully means you’re ready to get into the car and drive to the park!

If what you are providing your child for completing a task aligns with what would occur naturally, you’re in a good starting spot!

Step 2: Aim for the short-term

Just like Halloween is only one day a year, you want to be using rewards for as short a period of time as possible. There are times when we need a temporary boost, when all of the natural rewards haven’t been successful or when a skill is particularly hard to master. And rewards can help with this. Though keep in mind, these rewards should not be a crutch forever.

Often, you will use rewards for hygiene tasks like toileting, brushing teeth, bathing, brushing hair, and washing hands. These tasks are monotonous, hard, and full of sensory difficulties for many children. Your child may get cold getting out of the bath or when sitting on the potty, and they may have an “ouch” during hair brushing, or simply hate the feeling of the toothbrush in their mouth. This is a good time to use rewards for the short-term, to help build these habits for young children. Check out the next step for aiming for the short-term and learning how to fade out the rewards.

An important note: it’s always good to check with your pediatrician before considering rewards, especially around hygiene. First, your child may simply not be developmentally ready for the task at hand. Second, if your child has a sensory processing challenge, they may need additional support from an occupational therapist to work through it. Third, they may have a medical condition (like a UTI or ear infection) that is making the experience particularly unpleasant. It’s always best to check with your pediatrician first to clear these things up before moving forward.

Step 3: Fade out with style

When Halloween evening becomes Halloween night and the porch lights start to turn off, everyone knows that it’s time to head home. Rewards are the same. They can’t go on forever and everyone needs to know when they will end. There are several ways to discontinue the use of rewards. Below are three that I have found useful.

  • Fade into natural reinforcers with a choice. Let’s say you are using Skittles to support potty training. Great! Once you start seeing progress, it’s time to give you child an awesome natural choice that pulls them away from this unnatural reward. This could be playing outside, listening to music, or going to see a friend. These are all things that one does after going to the bathroom and staying dry! Present the choice between Skittles and the more natural choice, and respect their answer. Sometimes your child will choose Skittles, but expect the novelty of the Skittles to fade out, leaving your child to make a different choice in the future.
  • Fade on a schedule. Let’s say your child is not loving brushing their teeth every night before bed, and you have tried everything to help them consistently brush their teeth. You then tell your child that for every time they brush their teeth for 2 full minutes, they will get a token. And once they earn 20 tokens, together you will go for ice cream. After they earn their ice cream, let them choose the number of tokens they must earn next for their reward. Will it be 25? 30? Share the power!
  • Take it or leave it. As you start to gain momentum, let your child know when there are 10 rewards left. When they complete the task, let them decide if they want to use the reward or save it for later. This can help them develop tolerance for waiting and for weighing out short- and long-term benefits of their choices.
  • Bonus tip! To make fading out a reward speed up, start supplying the reward for no reason at other random times to decrease the novelty.

You may have some questions or concerns, such as being worried about fading out a reward system without a tantrum, or wanting additional tips for using rewards in a healthy way. Don’t be scared, help is available! Visit Applied Behavioral Happiness and subscribe to the listserv, through which I send out free tips and resources every week. And reach out at any time with your questions.

You are not alone. Many people find themselves stuck when their child won’t follow rules and complete tasks if there isn’t a reward. Getting the support you need can help you navigate your reward journey. And always remember: you are a good parent and you have a great child. 

Give these tips a try this Halloween season and enjoy all of the treats your children bring to your life!

Meet The Expert

Kellie Syfan

Kellie Syfan M.Ed., BCBA is the founder of Applied Behavioral Happiness based in Wake Forest North Carolina. Kellie is a leader in consent-first, deliberately creative behavior interventions and has worked with children and families to replace challenging behavior with co-regulation, communication, and tolerance skills for over a decade. Kellie regularly partners with parents and caregivers, therapists, teachers, medical professionals, and psychologists around the world to provide support around challenging behavior. You can see all of her media appearances by clicking here.