Behavior Modification, Incentive Systems, Positive Rewards

Pride not Prize: Moving Away from Material Based Incentive Systems

Behavior modification can be so tiresome. Ever heard someone say, “Today he’ll work for something out of the prize box, but tomorrow may be a different story. Sometimes I feel like after he’s earned his reward I start all over.”? This scenario is one that occurs every where – and over and over. And over. If you are feeling like you have to start over once a material incentive is earned, its because you are.

Kids today are significantly different than in years past. Shoot. Society is different. We are one that is now instant gratification based. We want things. All the time. Things. Smarter technology paired with faster connections and shipping options have helped us have the world at our fingertips and that has for sure enabled this mentality, but ultimately it begins and ends with us.

When children begin engaging in behavior that is negatively impacting their environment, we want it to stop. Obviously. What’s not so obvious is the “how” part. Incentives are great. I totally believe in them and their effectiveness IF they are used correctly. Some children, depending on the child, are not as intrinsically motivated as others. Things need to make sense and need to be meaningful. If incentives or positive reward systems are going to be implemented, the reward item(s) need to be carefully considered. Think back to the beginning. “Sometimes I feel like after he’s earned his reward I start all over.” This happens A LOT, and as I stated before, you ARE starting over.

Once the child has earned the material item he or she has been working so hard for, its over. They got what they were working for. They own it now. Why would they continue to be motivated? This process of rewarding will exhaust both you and your bank account. Kids only think material items are valuable because we do. When I help parents and teachers set up systems for positive behavior, I have two rules.

  1. Ask the child’s input.
  2. Pick incentives he or she will ultimately lose ownership over.

Often we put together these systems and never ask the child involved for his or her input. As parents and teachers we think we know what they like, what they’ll work for, and we may, but we are missing a real opportunity here. When a child feels like they have even the tiniest bit of control over his or her environment, he or she is more likely to take on the responsibility and buy in. Isn’t that what we want here?

Picking incentives the child will lose ownership over will keep him or her highly motivated to keep up the appropriate behavior. Choosing incentives that involve time are helpful here. A special lunch with the teacher or principal, going to the park or having a friend spend the night, a special outing with just mom or just dad, and time on the Kindle are just a few examples of time centered incentives. Once the allotted time is up, its up. The child will walk away from the experience thinking, “That was great! I want to do that again.” The likelihood their motivation will maintain until the next time centered activity is high. They will also walk away with a new sense of pride. You save money and restless nights of having to think of bigger and better “things”, and the child’s behavior will remain on a positive track.

Don’t get me wrong, there is significantly more to modifying behavior than incentive systems, but everyone needs a starting point.  While this was a very brief look into time centered incentives vs. material centered incentives, you might be surprised by that one little change.

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