A reward system is a system that is used to reward good behavior. Often, behavioral therapists, parents, teachers, and other people who care for or work with children who live with conditions such as ADHD use reward systems to promote behavior change in specific areas, help a child implement a new routine, or learn something else that is new to them.
That said, it’s not something that is specific to kids who experience ADHD symptoms; if you’ve been in a primary or elementary school classroom, you’ve probably seen a reward system in use before. One standard example of this might be a teacher who gives children stickers after they complete an assignment quietly or allows them to tally points for good behaviors until they want a prize.
If you want to create a reward system for your child, it’s essential to adjust it to their age group and personality. Let’s talk about how to create a reward system for all ages, the benefits of using a reward system, and how reward systems work.
Creating a Reward System for All Ages
The concept of a reward system can be useful for people of all ages. Some adults who live with ADHD even create a reward system for themselves. Here are some ideas for reward systems that you can use for your child, based on your child’s age:
Little kids (toddlers and preschoolers) benefit from simple, engaging reward systems. It’s common for parents of little kids to use sticker charts or immediate rewards for kids. A sticker chart is a physical chart with tasks or behaviors on it.
Once the child completes these tasks or behaviors successfully, they get a sticker to put on a square on the chart. A common goal for this age group is potty training - so, a child might receive a sticker to put on their chart every time they use the toilet. Stickers and other small objects or prizes as standalone rewards also work well for this age group. Chore apps for small children can reward children for common household tasks. You can help your child develop better habits and routines with games.
School-aged children between the ages of 5-9 or so will be able to understand more complex reward systems. The goals they work toward using a reward system may also advance. Sticker charts and similar types of behavior charts can still be used for this age group.
However, with kids of this age, it’s important that the reward is more motivating than a sticker alone, so these charts may function a bit differently. One common way this can look for kids of this age group is a sticker chart or a points chart where a child adds stickers or tallies “points” for good behavior and receives a larger prize or reward, also called a token economy.
In addition to being very rewarding, they can also teach kids practical skills like money management. The rewards don’t need to be expensive; rewards appropriate for this age group can look like a trip to the park, for example, or screen time. Rewards should be immediate or semi-immediate.
Routine charts, chores charts, and homework charts are often useful and successful for these age groups. You can find some free charts online to print out here: Free Printable Behavior Charts for Kids. On this website, you’ll find a wide range of charts for little kids, school-aged kids, and those aged 11+.
Those between the ages 8 to 12 or 9 to 12 are typically called tweens or preadolescents. The colorful, sticker-based charts used for younger kids and school-aged kids should be phased out at around this time, and the rewards you use will likely require adjustment, too. Behavior contracts or simple chores/routine charts that are designed specifically for kids of this age may be effective.
Rewards may look like getting to stay up an hour later, see friends, earning an allowance, or engage in screen time. Since kids develop at different rates, use your best judgment and tailor these changes to your system to your child as a unique individual. Listen if they say that something is “too young for them” or that it “makes them feel like a baby” - this respect for their growth is valuable, and it can help you understand if a particular reward, way of being spoken to, etc., is outdated.
If they express this in a way that doesn’t make you feel respected, you can say something like “I totally hear you; let’s adjust this and talk about what works for you now. I’ll brainstorm some ideas and run them by you. However, it isn’t okay to use that tone/raise your voice/etc. Another way to express that is ___.” Changes in attitude will typically occur in tweens and teens, as will an increased ability to form their own personal options.
Confidence and self-esteem are important for kids of all ages, but it may be particularly beneficial to highlight it among tweens and teens. Feeling respected and appreciated as they go through these changes matters. They’re growing into adults, and emotions will start to become more complex.
Teens aged 13+ require different rewards than individuals of younger ages. A teenager, generally, will have moved far beyond sticker charts. An alternative is behavior contracts that are suitable for a teenager or direct rewards for chores, self-care, tasks, and behaviors (going to therapy, personal hygiene, cleaning one’s room, washing the dishes, vacuuming, doing one’s homework, and putting effort into tutoring are common goals among this age group).
Examples of rewards for teenagers include but aren’t limited to being allowed to use the car, being allowed to go to a friend’s house, or screen time. Many parents also find success in using reward systems where a teenager can work toward a larger goal; they might collect coins in a jar for good behavior, or they might work toward a bigger prize, like a special experience.
Again, rewards don’t have to be expensive to work, but one thing that is relevant regardless of age is that the reward should be truly motivating for your child. For a reward system to work, the reward should be something your child wants. Sometimes, especially among teenagers and tweens, but even among school-aged kids, giving children a choice between a couple of different rewards that are reasonable and doable for you or your family, is an important piece in making a reward system most effective.
Benefits of a Reward System
Rewards systems can be used for a lot of different purposes, and it all depends on what your child needs. Some potential benefits of a reward system include but aren’t limited to:
- Increase in positive behaviors.
- Decrease in negative or maladaptive behaviors.
- Task execution and motivation.
- Improved emotional expression and regulation.
- Confidence and self-esteem.
- Learning to do new things.
It’s crucial that the goals you work toward using reward systems are developmentally possible for your child as a unique individual. The way that you explain a reward system to your child matters and its efficacy as well. You should explain goals clearly and in simple, respectful, positive language.
It’s recommended that you focus on the behavior you want to see rather than the one you don’t when you create a Reward system or implement something like a behavior chart for kids as part of your reward system.
So, for example, a chart might say, “I used an indoor voice,” “I used the potty,” or “I finished my homework,” rather than “I didn’t yell,” “I didn’t wet myself,” or “I didn’t ignore my responsibilities.” Explaining the reward system in positive terms can also help with boosting self-esteem.
If your child does seem to have a higher level of difficulty with a particular task, explore alternate methods or consider providing extra support when they engage in that task. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of not wanting to, but a matter of struggling with symptoms.
Do Reward Systems Work?
Reward systems work, and one of the reasons that they are so powerful for people who live with ADHD and other similar concerns is that anything that lights up the reward system in the brain of someone with ADHD is an incredible motivator. It’s something that people with ADHD are driven toward.
This is why we sometimes see higher levels of technology or internet dependency in kids with ADHD, binge eating disorder, and so on. However, this is not a bad thing in and of itself; one part of managing ADHD is learning to do things in a way that suits your brain. So, this difference can be a superpower if you let it be, and one example of this is the efficacy of a reward system for ADHD children.
What if My Child Needs More Help?
Reward systems are not a standalone treatment for ADHD, and they can be difficult to set up alone. Other methods, such as games for ADHD are used to add symptom management and therapy, medication, and lifestyle are also typically important.
Your child’s treatment will be unique to them and should support them as a whole person rather than focusing on their behavior alone. Emotional dysregulation and other concerns are common among kids, teens, and adults who live with ADHD. The good news is that there are many tools out there that one can use if this is the case.
If your child needs additional support emotionally or behaviorally, a mental health or behavioral therapist may be able to help. An inpatient psychiatric treatment program might be a better option for those who require a high level of support. It’s crucial that kids have a space to talk and learn the tools they need to express and manage their feelings. In any case, if there are additional concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional who can help.