Behavior that is rewarded increases. It's as simple as that, as long as you make it clear, make it fast, and link your system to the behavior you want to reward.

So here's how it works: Identify a small set of behaviors you want to see more of, and reward them. The tricky part, of course, is to (1) identify target behaviors in language that is specific and clear; (2) elicit your child's interest; and (3) work in small enough steps that your child is bound to succeed.

  1. Identify behaviors in clear, specific language. State your goals in the positive, highlighting what you want your child to do, not what you want her to stop doing. Target specific behaviors (skills), rather than outcomes. Let's say you want your child to stop biting her nails. Begin by finding behaviors incompatible with nail biting, behaviors that meet your child's needs in healthier ways (using a fiddle toy, keeping her nails neatly trimmed, finding other outlets for stress, etc.), then design a reward system around the use of these behaviors.
  2. Elicit your child's interest. Kids do best with a combination of internal and external rewards. Point out the various ways life will be better when your child succeeds with the behavior plan (less yelling, more time, etc.). Underline your child's sense of pride. Then, be creative with your carrots (external rewards). Activity- and privilege-rewards are appealing to kids: one-on-one time with a parent, family activities, special time with a friend, getting a pass on a hated chore.
  3. Make the system itself fun. Design a colorful chart, or use a jar, filling it with one marble at a time as your child succeeds with the targeted behavior. Once your child has earned a reward, let him have it as soon as possible. Kids ages 5 and older enjoy the immediate gratification of a check-mark (or marble) followed by a larger (delayed) reward.
  4. Keep expectations within your child's reach. With reasonable effort, your child should be able to earn rewards fairly quickly. Complex behaviors can be broken into parts in a process known as shaping. If, for example, you want your child to get ready for school without theatrics (refusal to get out of bed, angst about what to wear, need for multiple reminders about teeth, glacial-paced breakfast, etc.), you might start by re-vamping the wake-up plan, rewarding your child for setting her alarm and responding to it on her own. Then you might move to getting dressed, perhaps rewarding your child for laying out her clothes the night before and putting them on fuss-free. Identify and reward specific behaviors until they are firmly in place, gradually building on these behaviors with closer approximations to your goal. Older/more motivated kids can handle several new behaviors at once. Younger/less motivated children do better with one behavior at a time. Both benefit from clarity. Many a reward system has crashed and burned by targeting too many behaviors at once or (even worse) failing to define target behaviors (Note: 'being good' is not a target behavior).

Reward systems need to extend over time. It takes at least 3 weeks for new behaviors to become routine, so plan on following the reward system for a month or more. Tweak it slightly as you go, varying the prize (to keep interest high) and modifying what your child needs to do to earn it (moving, for example, from 5 points to 10 points to 15). If your child is not earning points, or is earning points without changes in behavior, re-examine your system. Are the behaviors you are striving for clear enough? Do you need to break them down into smaller parts? Keep the system simple and clear. You can add new, more sophisticated behaviors as your child becomes more skilled.