Who can’t use a little motivation from time to time?
Motivation systems can provide that little extra “oomph” to help kids focus on specific behaviors they need to improve. Even better, they help parents be more attuned to responding to behavior in constructive ways. But for motivation systems to be most effective, parents need to keep in mind some basic principles of reinforcement (which apply to both reinforcement and consequences). Following these principles make the difference between whether a motivation system works or not, and they apply to any motivation system, whether it is done with stars, stickers, points, candy, or anything else. Before you set up any token economy for your child, be sure you appropriately incorporate the following principles:
- Contingency. This is the most important principle of motivation systems. It is the idea that the reinforcer is contingent, or dependent, upon the behavior. In other words, the child doesn’t receive the reinforcer unless he/she has demonstrated the desired behavior.It is easy to violate this principle, and we parents do it all the time! Let’s say Johnny is supposed to earn ice cream on Friday night if he cleaned up his room each day on his own, Monday-Friday. He did well each day except for Friday morning. On Friday he was cranky, and it took 3 reminders to get him to clean it up, but he finally did. It’s easy for Mom to give in and go ahead and let Johnny have the ice cream, because he almost met the expectation. Besides, she doesn’t want to deal with the whining and complaining Johnny will likely give when he is told he doesn’t get the ice cream. But doing so makes the motivation system less effective for next week, when Johnny will likely again only clean his room after some reminders, since he was able to get his reward the first time without fully completing his obligations.
- Size. This is the idea that the size of the reinforcer should be appropriate to the behavior.The child shouldn’t earn a trip to Disney World for remembering to get out his school supplies in the morning. On the flip size, it’s important that the punishment fit the crime – consequences should be proportional to the offense. Often parents get frustrated with behavior and give consequences out of anger that are much too harsh for the infraction.
- Immediacy. This principle states that the reinforcement (or consequence) should follow as immediately, or closely to the behavior as possible for maximum effectiveness.If Sarah earns a smiley face for showing good manners to a neighbor, that smiley will be much more effective if she earns it right after she is respectful, instead of 2 days later. Similarly, time out for using unkind words to a sibling works best as soon as the child says the mean words; the effectiveness of the consequence is diminished significantly if it happens much later in the day once the child has begun being kind again.
- Availability. This principle states that reinforcers (and consequences) should only be included as part of a motivation system if they are available to be used. It seems obvious, but don’t promise something you can’t deliver!It’s not uncommon for parents to get overzealous in setting up a motivation system by putting wonderful reinforcers in place, only to discover that they don’t have the time, money, or energy to actually follow through with those reinforcers! If your schedule or pocketbook isn’t conducive to taking your child to the store each week to choose some toy as a prize, then don’t include that as part of your motivation system! Likewise, don’t threaten consequences on which you are not able or willing to follow through. If you know that you have to go to Aunt Hilda’s party this afternoon and there’s no way you can get out of it, don’t threaten to keep Sally home from the party if she doesn’t change her behavior!
- Satiation. This is the idea that children get satiated on, or sick of, the same reinforcers (or consequences) over and over again and they lose their effectiveness. In order to make reinforcers and consequences the most effective, parents should change them up periodically. Variety is good!Jimmy is using a motivation system to help him practice his violin, and he receives a reward at the end of the week if he has consistently practiced each day. That weekly reward should change periodically, so that one week he gets to go on a special outing with Dad, one week he gets to choose something from a prize box, and another week he gets to watch a special movie of his choice at home. Switching up motivators keeps kids interested and, well, motivated to continue working toward their goals!
Following these principles will set the foundation for a strong motivation system, whichever type you use. Stay tuned for some specific examples of motivation systems, and how to incorporate them for particular behaviors within the home!