Effective and Ineffective Use of Incentives

This aticle describes how to best use incentives to improve your child's behavior.
Table of contents

Effective and Ineffective Use of Incentives

Delivery of an incentive is as important as its selection. One real difficulty is in follow-through by parents. Here are examples of some of the most common obstacles to incentives' effectiveness:

  • Insufficient or delayed follow-through by parents
    • Parent forgets to pay allowance.
    • Parent waits too long to rent the earned movie.
    • Parent can't find time to get to the park.
  • Promised incentive is too inconvenient
    • The fast-food restaurant the child likes best is too far away.
  • Promised incentive is too expensive
    • Disney World is really expensive.
  • Earned incentive is not delivered because a different negative behavior occurs
    • All week, child is in bed on time. But, because he talks back, parent takes away reward for going to bed on time.
  • Parent promises to do something as reward that parent absolutely hates and therefore spoils activity or doesn't follow through
    • Parent cuts short afternoon at video arcade.
  • Incentive is available someplace else, not just as reward for specified behavior
    • Dad shares his Klondike Bar with Susie--but she's supposed to earn it.
If the incentive is too inconvenient, you won't be consistent in providing the reward when your child earns it. If you delay, your child may do something that causes you to take away the privilege he's already earned--which you should not do. You have to find an incentive that you can--and will--deliver immediately.

Another problem arises when a parent agrees to a reinforcer that will be like nails across a blackboard to deliver. There are, for example, places I dread so much that I'm not going to agree to go there, no matter how well a child behaves. I like pizza and enjoy games but I am not going to sit and eat pizza with bells and whistles going off and a large rodent walking around.

If there are things parents hate to do they will often delay fulfilling their end of the deal or make the experience so unpleasant for the child that it's not a real reward. The choice is simple. If you absolutely loathe the racket of a video arcade, don't promise to take your child there (or find someone else who will).

It is also critically important that the selected incentive is not available at any other time, for any other reason, no matter what. You can't give it out as a treat because you're in a good mood. If allowance is the reinforcer, you have to talk to Grandma and ask her to refrain from slipping Sally five dollars on weekend visits. If you use a video rental as a reward, your child must do what's required before you rent one. He can win the Nobel Peace Prize, but no video rental unless he does that one behavior.

Making effective use of reinforcers is not easy. If there are only two things that motivate your child and six behaviors you want him to change, it's a challenge. Prioritize the behaviors, focusing on only one or two at a time. If the behaviors are serious enough, you will have to initially let some of the less disruptive behaviors slide. Chores take a backseat to physical aggression. Verbal abuse takes precedence over homework. As each improves, you can increase your expectations so that he must do more to earn more of that one reinforcer. If he goes for a day without aggression or threats, he earns his allowance, plus a bonus.

Provide separate opportunities to earn a reinforcer. For example, if money is the motivator, set up two accounts--one for discretionary spending and an activity budget for favorite pastimes. He may use his discretionary money to buy things, but activities such as movies, video rentals, and arcade trips depend on what's in the activity account. Keep the monies separate. Link a separate behavior to each (e.g., one behavior earns money for movies; another for video rentals; and a third for arcade trips).

Here are guidelines for using reinforcers (or rewards) to encourage your child's good behavior.

Rules for Reinforcement

  1. Select an appropriate reinforcer for the child.
  2. Give the reinforcer only when the desired behavior happens. To be effective, the reinforcer cannot be available at any other time for any other reason.
  3. Reinforce immediately after the desired behavior happens.
  4. When building new behavior or strengthening behaviors that occur infrequently, reinforce every time.
  5. Reinforce improvement. Do not expect perfect performance on the first try.
  6. To keep new behavior going, reinforce it every so often.
  7. When using food, objects, or activities as reinforcers, always present them with a social reinforcer. Example: "I like the way you put the toys on the shelf" (social reinforcer); "Now you may go out to play" (activity reinforcer).
  8. Reinforcer needs to be feasible to adult in terms of interest, time, and money.
Tip: Use an activity he likes to do and does all the time to reinforce a behavior or activity that is less desirable to him.