Rewards Systems: Why They Work and How to Start One

kid reaching for cookie

Whatever the goal, rewards are tremendously uplifting and motivating for anyone.

If you’re trying to get fit, for example, it’s a great strategy to reward your efforts along the way. You shouldn’t wait until you can run a marathon or lose X number of pounds. You will be more effective if you reward yourself for going to the gym every day for a week, or for jogging a mile without stopping. Or for saying “no” to a fudge brownie!

For your ADHD kid, rewards or incentives can make the difference between negative behaviors that strain relationships, and positive behaviors that lead to happier, healthier families.

Stop the Madness!

Do you ever feel like all you do is yell at your kids? I know, I’ve definitely been there. Sometimes, it seems like that is the only way they’ll do what you need them to do. But at the same time, it chips away at their self-esteem, and at your confidence in your parenting.

It feels like a failure: behavior is just not changing, and home isn’t the refuge you want it to be – for you or your kids.

ADHD is a challenge of regulation. The reality is that our kids have a difficult time managing their own behavior. Through no fault of their own – and through no fault of yours — their brains are just wired differently. That means they don’t have the internal controls to help them remember what they should or shouldn’t do, and when. They need external support.

How Do Behavior Management Systems Help Kids with ADHD?

Behavior management programs are the cornerstone of supporting kids with ADHD.

But they can be hard to do! Most of us are running on empty after unsuccessful attempts with systems and processes. Not to worry. Take a breath. Systems can help you and your family – and, the good news, there are steps you can take to set yourself, and your kid, up for success.

Why rewards, though, and not consequences? Most kids, most people, respond more favorably to rewards than to punishments. Threats, yelling, or taking away privileges can send ADHD kids into panic mode and make it difficult for them to access the problem-solving portion of their brain. It creates incredible stress, and, on top of that, the immediate results won’t last. They don’t  “learn” a lesson when you threaten to take away the tablet or the video game. They respond out of fear or anxiety.

To be honest, rewards are much more fun for parents, anyway. Would you rather yell at your kid or see a smile when they earn a reward? Would you rather take away something they love, or support them to achieve something they want? I know which makes me feel better as a parent!

Celebrating the “Wins”

Rewards recognize positive behaviors, and encourage more of them. They focus on what your kid is doing right, rather that what she’s doing wrong.

So, how do you put an effective reward system in place for your kid?

Start by Taking Aim. Ask yourself, “What is the biggest challenge my ADHD kid faces” or “What behavior is having the biggest impact on my kid and my family?” One of the challenges in my family, for instance, is getting from the pillow to the bus stop on time – and there are several places to take aim along the way. In your family, it could be hyper-focus on video games or television, homework battles, tantrums or meltdowns, or forgetting items needed for school.

Now, figure out something that will motivate your child to change behavior along the way. If, for instance, my child gets downstairs at 7:10, she can earn 30 minutes of screen time. If she makes it to the bus stop by 7:30, she can earn another 30 minutes. Find something that encourages your child and supports her in changing the targeted behavior. It really is that simple (even though it can be hard to manage consistently): cause and effect. If you do this, you get that. If you don’t know what will motivate your child – ask him or her.

ADHD kids need an external structure to help them manage their behavior. It doesn’t come naturally to them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll never learn. When you put a rewards system in place as part of your behavior management program, the results can be overwhelming –in a good way! Overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, that is.

Success breeds success, and even if your child’s “wins” are small, they count. Make sure she knows that! Rewards are a great way to show her, and yourself, that you’re making progress, that you’re doing something that’s making a difference. 

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