Behavior Management: Bribes or Rewards – The Fundamental Question

This is a series of seven blogs to help teachers, parents and therapists bring students under instructional control so that teaching can occur. The components of the series are

  1. Behavior Management: An Overview
  2. Behavior Management: Bribes or Rewards – The Fundamental Question
  3. Behavior Management: Praise and Encouragement
  4. Behavior Management: Activities as Reinforcers
  5. Behavior Management: Point Systems
  6. Behavior Management: Behavior Contracts
  7. Behavior Management: Why it works

Bribes or Rewards: Which One Is It?

Parents and teachers often have issues with rewarding children for work “that they are supposed to do anyway.” They will often say to me “I don’t want to bribe him to do his work. He should just do it.” Let me ask you some questions.

  • Do you go to a job to work?
  • Do you expect to be paid for that work?
  • Is getting paid a reward for your work or is it a bribe to get you to come to work?
  • Would you show up at work if you were not getting paid?
  • Is a child working hard at school any different than you working hard at an office?

Using Reinforcers

At my learning centre, QLC Educational Services, we use rewards to change and strengthen appropriate behaviors of our students. The biggest single reward is praise and encouragement which almost all humans love. Sometimes we use activities like allowing the child to try to beat the tutor at tic, tac, toe or hangman for a minute or two at the end of a lesson. Sometimes we use stickers and pictures that child can collect and post on the “genius board” in the lobby. We also are happy to award points for work well done. These points, about 50 per session, can be earned, recorded and spent for things the student likes. Each point is worth a penny. They can be cashed for gift certificates at places like Dairy Queen. They can be saved for longer periods to earn a gift certificate for Chapters, Canadian Tire, Wal-Mart or some other store. We use rewards judiciously. This is a case where less is more. If the child will work for praise, there is no need for points. Don’t use the hammer to kill an ant. You can always tell when a reward is working because you will see the change in the child’s behavior. That is the only way to tell what a reinforcer actually is. If it does not change the behavior, it is not a reinforcer, even if you think a chocolate bar should be.

Keeping Track

Sometimes it is helpful to keep the record of rewards constantly in the child’s attention, like a thermometer that the United Way uses. Put a thermometer showing progress to the goal on the refrigerator door, or the door to the child’s bedroom. Every child has a list as long as your arm of things they want or want to do. Make a list. Have the child help. If you can’t think of anything, take the child to the mall. He or she will point out lots of things they want. Negotiate a price for getting something they want. Pick some smaller items to start with so they can earn them in a short period of time. Sleepovers, visits, making cookies, extra TV, are all free and easy rewards.

Grandma’s Rule

Use Grandma’s Rule: First you eat your spinach, then you get your cake. If you decide not to eat your spinach, Grandma will probably eat your cake for you. That means that you have to be consistent. Most behavior change programs fail because the parent or teacher is not consistent in enforcing the contact and in dispensing or withholding the rewards. That is the kiss of death for good behavior. Kids have all day to work the loopholes in the system. You might have a couple of minutes to deal with this before the next issue needs to be dealt with. Trust me, they will try to wear you down and get you to cave. If you do, especially after they whine for a while, you have just rewarded the wrong behavior at a more severe level. Which part of “No” don’t you understand?