Positive Reinforcement: If You Don’t Do It Right, It Can Backfire!

I recently listened to a Hidden Brain podcast that covered the pros and cons of awards. In one discussion of how awards can backfire, the host described a study of 15,000 California students, where those students who received awards for perfect attendance quit working so hard and instead started to attend school less often! One of the study’s authors believes that the awards essentially let students know that the district’s expectations for attendance were lower than students realized: Prizes are typically given for outstanding performance, so if perfect attendance is exceptional, schools must expect the average, good-enough student to attend less. And the kids who received rewards were fine being good enough. (If you want to listen to this section, it’s a little over 13 minutes into the podcast.)

I’m not against positive reinforcement as a positive discipline tool – although I do believe grownups get into trouble if positive reinforcement is the only tool in their toolkit. But I found it interesting to hear of a study that resonates with a key approach I use in my practice, namely, Raising The Bar.

We need to expect a lot of our kids.

Basically, I tell the parents and teachers I work with that if they want lasting results, it’s not enough that their kids stop engaging in the problem behaviors that brought the grownups to me; instead, we must raise our expectations and ask kids to grow in additional ways as well – primarily by doing things that contribute to the family, or the classroom.

Because when we raise the bar, this signals to kids that the initial goal – say, listening to parents, or being angry without hitting – is basic. It isn’t a monumental accomplishment – instead, it’s expected as a matter of course. And along these lines, when we reward a child for performing a basic function, this tells them that the function is not basic but instead it’s exceptional – and, especially with strong-willed kids, it becomes more likely that the reward will actually demotivate them.

Do you insist on rewarding your kids?

I’m not a fan of rewarding kids for things they “should” be doing, like behaving at school or sharing in the housework. But rewards have occupied a key place in theories of behavior for a long time, and a lot of parents want to use rewards to change their kids’ behavior. So I tell the parents I work with, if you really want to use rewards, that’s fine, we can try it. Rewards can work. Often they don’t work with really strong-willed kids, but they might, so we can try.

If you want to use rewards to motivate your kids, here are some “best practices” that will increase your chances of success:

1. No rewards for stuff they’ve already mastered: If you feel your child would respond, use rewards to encourage the development of a new skill or function, but don’t give rewards for something he or she is already doing well.

2. Get really clear about what you want and make a plan: Make a plan with your child, and if the goal is complex, design the plan in steps and use just one reward throughout. For example: Let’s say my goal is for my child to get ready for school in an hour, by herself, and right now it takes two hours and I have to do everything for her. There’s a big gap between where she is and where I’d like her to be, so it might take us several weeks to reach this goal.

So first I need to be clear about what the goal entails: getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, putting shoes on… all within a certain time frame. Next, I’ll tell my girl what I want her to do – get ready for school in an hour by herself – and then she and I will decide what the reward will be. Let’s say she wants pancakes and strawberries. OK, fine. We need to break the getting-ready goal into smaller parts, so the first week she might get pancakes and strawberries if she gets dressed by herself in 15 minutes. Once she’s mastered that, we raise the bar: OK, you’re getting dressed! Awesome! Now I want you to keep doing that, plus finish breakfast, both in 30 minutes. And so on.

Although for multi-step goals we want to use one reward to encourage each step, and we want the child to continue to perform earlier steps while learning new ones, of course the two of you can change the reward if the original reward is no longer a source of motivation.

3. Smaller and social are best: Pancakes and strawberries is a good example of a good reward. Other examples are, maybe you read your child a book in the morning before school, or he gets to pick the music you listen to on the way to school. Or she gets 5 minutes’ snuggle time with you. Or he can choose the vegetable you have with dinner.

Rewards of this size are good, and it’s also good if rewards can include a positive social element. It’s good for kids to be identifying these smaller, social events as meaningful and rewarding. On the other hand, if you give a big reward for something basic, your child develops a distorted concept of how important it is to put his shoes on. Getting ready for school by yourself is not a meaningful accomplishment. It’s a basic expectation.

4. Reward now vs. in the future: Immediate, small rewards are better for motivating strong-willed kids. Sticker charts that pay off in the future quite often backfire with these kids, because they tend to be easily frustrated. Not only is it harder for them to wait for a future reward, it’s also harder for strong-willed kids to earn stickers in the first place!

Let’s say you have a system where your child has to get ready on time, talk to you without “tone” and feed the cat for a week in order to go to that party on Saturday. If she wakes up in a bad mood on Wednesday and doesn’t cooperate with you that day, she’s lost the party! And then she’s even more frustrated, and less willing to try. Be sure the rewards you give are more immediate.

But what do you do when your child doesn’t care about rewards?

In fact, chances are that at some point a “spirited” kid will decide that they don’t care: “I’m not going to get dressed, and I don’t care about the strawberries.” If this happens you can suggest other comparable rewards and maybe your child will accept one of these in lieu of strawberries.

But one main way strong-willed kids take control is to resist your plan. To them, you’re not really trying to encourage and reward them; you’re just trying to get them to do what you want them to do. Strong-willed, spirited kids have a high need for control – it’s part of their temperament – and they would rather have control than your nice reward. And make no mistake: this is true even with big rewards!

This is why reward systems often do not work with spirited kids. In turn, this is why many parents need an accountability system – one that’s easy to use consistently – that can be implemented when the reward system fails.

No rewards does not mean they won’t feel rewarded!

By now it’s probably clear that I’m not in love with rewards as a way to motivate kids to behave appropriately. On the other hand, if we want kids to really work with us, we do have to relate to them in a way that is rewarding for them.

For example, strong-willed kids need you to share control with them, and all kids find it rewarding and motivating when you speak to them in a way that makes them feel “taken seriously” and respected. A big part of my work with parents and teachers focuses on grownups speaking to and working with kids in positive ways that then make the kids more willing to do what the grownups are wanting.

So the absence of rewards for basic functioning does not mean an absence of positivity; and in fact, your interactions with your child can motivate him in ways that will surprise you. Given that rewards can backfire and they often don’t work with spirited kids in the first place, it’s good to have other tools you can use!