Motivating Your Child: Smaller Rewards Yield Bigger Results

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If you are considering using a reward system to motivate your child, you’ve most likely heard arguments on how rewarding your child can weaken self-discipline or is “equivalent to bribery”. On the other hand, proponents of the reward system like Dr. Virginia Shiller, a psychologist and instructor at the Yale Child Study Center and coauthor of the book Rewards for Kids, argues that rewards encourage positive behavior if used correctly.

In this guide, we provide a step-by-step action plan for parents who want to learn how to motivate your child using rewards while ensuring your child maintains the right attitude toward rewards.

How The Reward System Changes a Child’s Behavior

It has been proven that for children above 2 years old, desirable behavior can be cultivated through positive reinforcements such as rewards. In the long run, this creates a behavior momentum that results in good habits.

This is how the system works:

  • Identify the behavior that you might want to change
  • Choose a behavior that you think is a better replacement for the current one
  • Develop your reward system. The rewards need not be expensive items. Read more below for some ideas on small rewards for children
  • Whenever the child displays the bad behavior, let him/her know about it
  • At the same time, explain the right behavior to the child and tell him/her that they will be rewarded if they display this behavior
  • If the child performs the right behavior afterwards, reward him or her
  • Be consistent and practice these steps for at least 2 months

Why Small Rewards Are Better Than Large Rewards

Experiments by social scientists have determined that large rewards can produce immediate compliance from your child, but does not help them to accept inner responsibility for and become committed to their behavior. Instead, a small reward is more likely to get your child to believe they have done something because it is right.

In addition, small rewards differ from big rewards in terms of their frequency. Rewards or praise must be handed out immediately after the desired behavior is exhibited. This is to quickly enforce what is acceptable and what is not. Such immediacy requires smaller rewards to balance out the cost of the rewards in terms of money and time.

How to Structure a Small Reward Programme

There are a couple of ways to structure a reward programme. Some are direct while others might require a point system. As a parent, you can mix and match different methods to find what works best for your child.

  • Direct approach: some rewards can be very direct. For example, you could say “Get to bed before 9 and I will read you a story.” These direct rewards work well when you are trying to cultivate a change in behavior revolving around time.
  • Using a point system: you can employ a chart system whereby positive behavior is rewarded with a star on the chart. Accumulating a number of stars will get the child the eventual reward. This approach works best for repetitive behavior such as cleaning the house, and teaches the concept of delayed gratification.

Small Rewards That Children Will Crave

A “small” reward does not simply refer to the monetary value of the reward. It also means that the reward should not be too exclusive, like the promise of unhealthy food or fancy stationery. Below are some small reward ideas that can yield learning benefits, in addition to being a motivating factor:

  • Read a book to the child
  • Make a trip to an educational place such as museum, national park or even the zoo
  • More computer time. You can give your child access to educational games sites like KooBits so that they are both playing and learning at the same time
  • Stickers. Children love stickers and this is what teachers often use in schools as well. Best of all, they are cheap – you can usually get a nice packet of stickers for less than $2.


Pitfalls to Avoid when Using the Reward System to Motivate Your Child

When implementing a reward system, there are a couple of things that a parent should watch out for.

Image by kodomut on Flickr

  • Avoid fussing over the child when they are trying to display the right behavior. Remember: a parent’s attention is also a form of reward. If you heap too much attention on the child when they are doing what is desired, the value of your actual reward should decline.
  • Be immediate: Rewards have to given out right after the behavior to enforce a stronger association between the two
  • Be consistent: Every positive behavior must be rewarded for at least 2 months. Failure to do will render the reward programme ineffective.
  • Be specific: When implementing the reward system, be sure to limit the desired behaviors to less than 3. Too many behavior changes will confuse your child.
  • Rewards must be easy to understand. Your child must know how to achieve the rewards. Having too complex a system reduces the child’s ability to connect their behavior with the reward.

Applying the Rewards System to Learning

What we have discussed above easily applies to learning. Some parents may have tried giving rewards for good grades but saw no improvements in the child’s motivation. This is probably because you are rewarding the wrong behavior at the wrong frequency.

Confused? Let me explain.

Mistake #1: The reward system works best when the reward is tied to behavior, not outcome. What we are trying to do is enforce positive behavior that will lead to the outcome of good grades. However, most parents reward based on the outcome of the test, which has nothing to do with behavioral change. (i.e. putting the cart before the horse). To see positive outcomes, we need to reward the right behavior – studying – through positive reinforcement.

Mistake #2: The rewards are too infrequent for any momentum to be built. For behaviors to become habits, they need to be sustained through smaller rewards that are given out at shorter intervals.

Bearing these two mistakes in mind, a parent can make changes in terms of their reward system if they want to motivate their child to study. This is how it can be done:

  • Identify a positive behavior that you think will help your child to learn more effectively. For example, if he or she is weak is Chinese character recognition, how do we get him or her to read more Chinese characters?
  • Use a suitable reward system. In this case, it probably has to be a point system as the child needs to repeat the task often.
  • Explain the behavior to the child and what is the expected reward.
  • Set up a fixed time to carry out the studying and reward them accordingly when they have done so.

In fact, we apply a reward system to our online assessment books as well:

  • We give small rewards such as points, badges and virtual credits whenever a child finishes an assessment book on KooBits EDU.
  • This encourages him/her to practice more books, thus creating a positive behavior momentum.
  • After sufficient practice, the behavior results in an actual improvement in grades.

(If you are interested to see how our assessment books work, here is a free trial of KooBits EDU.)


A reward system is a proven method to motivate a child to change his or her behavior and, if implemented correctly, will guide in your child learning to take responsibility for their behavior.

What are your experiences with using a reward system for your child? Do you disagree with the points above or have any tips of your own to share?


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