Stepping in to Spring! How to reward and shape new behaviours

The coming of Spring always gives us a feeling of a new start and I think that after the year we have all endured, it feels like it can’t come quickly enough! Now that lockdown is easing, many of us are thinking about new routines and habits for ourselves and our children. So, what’s the best way of encouraging children to learn a new skill or behaviour? I know many parents who have tried to encourage their child by using reward charts or other reward systems only to find they didn’t work and everyone ended up disappointed and frustrated. They can be a useful tool to support and shape new behaviours, but there are some important principles to follow to ensure success.

Often we try to use rewards for lots of different behaviours, but this can result in overwhelm and confusion for the child and difficulty in monitoring progress for adults. Choosing one clearly defined behaviour such as speaking quietly, brushing your teeth, putting your shoes away when you come in from school makes things much more manageable. Keeping the reward system simple and consistent is key, as well as ensuring that what you are trying to achieve is appropriate to your child’s age and development. For a reward system to work, a child must be able to associate the reward with the behaviour, otherwise it is unlikely to be repeated! Young children, especially, need rewards to be immediate for them to be able to connect it with a certain behaviour.

Rewards don’t need to be complicated and you don’t even need to use a chart. Little ones will often find a sticker on their t shirt or a hand stamp are enough to motivate them. It’s important though to keep control of the system- don’t let children take charge of sticker or reward charts or they will soon lose their impact! Remember too that you are only using a reward to reinforce a new behaviour or skill. If you are still using it after several weeks, it’s probably not working. You need to support a behaviour you want to see with positive reinforcers such as a thumbs up, hug or specific praise long after you have stopped giving a reward for it. Maybe it’s an opportunity for you to think too about how you’re going to reward yourself for any new behaviours you want to start as we step in to Spring!