Executive Function Tip: Rewards

Rewarding children for good behavior is a long-standing tradition. It can also be hotly debated whether external rewards teach kids to need external rewards instead of having intrinsic motivation. However, when you start talking about neurodiverse people, rewards and punishments both can just be ineffective. 

So, why are we talking about rewards if they don’t work? Because they can work, you just have to find the right ones. Rewards and punishments assigned by someone else are often not motivating. I mean, I don’t go vote because I get a sticker. Stickers aren’t motivating to me as an adult, and I honestly don’t remember being motivated by them as a child. But we persist in trying to give kids rewards that they don’t really want. 

Finding rewards that work for your neurodiverse kid means working with them to find what motivates them. What would they like to work for? And the answer to this is going to depend on your child and your family. The other part of this is figuring out when you need to give that reward. For some people, they need an immediate reward for tasks completed, as soon as possible after the task. Other people are motivated by cumulative rewards that add up and are received on a schedule. 

Let me give you some examples of ways you can reward your child for completing schoolwork. 

Candy

Yes, I said candy. For some kids, a small reward of a piece of chocolate, gum, or other treat is perfect for after each accomplishment. The key here is usually to have it be just a small item, like a Hershey kiss, so it doesn’t ruin their appetite. Chocolate specifically has been found to help you produce positive brain chemicals. It can also help a child feel better after a challenging task. 

If you are going to use candy, giving an individually wrapped candy after each subject or chore while homeschooling may help motivate kids to complete tasks and keep going. A little reward like this can help some kids focus for the short-term reward. It can be given many times a day, and also be easily withheld if the child doesn’t do a task. They can also know they could earn up to 5 candies a day, but miss out on 1 or more because of task refusal, but still get some candy. 

One thing to watch for is if the specific candy you try increases problem behaviors. For many kids, artificial colors and flavors can cause them to struggle more and increase inattention and hyperactivity. Natural candy without those is a better choice. But even then, food allergies and reactions can make it impossible for a child to focus. If your child’s behavior gets worse after trying this motivator, look carefully at the ingredients to determine what they may be reacting to. 

Screen Time

If your family regulates your child’s screen time, it often works very well as a reward at the end of a school day. Kids love watching shows or playing video games. In my experience, this is not a good choice of reward between activities. Too often, kids struggle to refocus on work after a screen break, so this reward needs to come late in the day. 

When my kids were small and we regulated screen time, I would allow them to all watch TV while I made dinner, if the day had gone well. This way, it was a once-a-day reward, and I would have to look at the whole day, not a single activity to decide if they did or did not get to watch something. 

For this reward, it is very important to have clear expectations that the kids understand. What do they have to do to earn screen time, and what will lose or shorten that time? There may be times when you have to negotiate. If the little sister earns her time, but the brother does not, can he watch her show/game? Personally, I said yes to that, as I wanted to build my children’s relationship as siblings, and letting them share their time was part of them building trust with each other. 

For teens or older kids, planning to watch a show with them each day when their school work is done can be a great chance to relax, connect, and reward them for doing their work. It is also a great chance to watch and discuss your values or how to make good decisions while watching together. 

Money

For some kids, working for a weekly reward of money is the best motivator. Keeping a tally of all of their chores or school work completed and paying them an amount per item done can help kids see that the more they do, the more they make. 

If your child needs extra motivation, you need to agree on a penalty for things that do not get done. One way to do this is to give a dollar per item completed but take away 50 cents per item not done. At the end of the week, it is also a math lesson to add up what they get.  I have done this method with one of my kids, and we tracked their payout with red, green, and yellow dots. Green is for done well, red is for not done, and yellow is for incomplete, which doesn’t do anything money-wise, and can be made up and done later if the student is inclined. 

For this one to work, the kid has to be mature enough to wait until the end of the week for their reward. They also need to find money motivating. While the entire adult world seems to be money-motivated, many kids are not. However, teens often want to save up for things they want and may be more motivated by this method than others. 

Positive Reinforcement is Always a Good Idea

I hope this gives you some ideas for how to motivate your kids. No matter which one you choose, using positive language and telling your children verbally when they have done a good job is important. Kids who struggle with executive function, need reinforcement to help them know that they did do a good job. The voice in their head is often unsure of what is good enough and needs you to validate their work. 

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About the Author

nimble_asset_Laura-in-floral-shirt-with-treesLaura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator, and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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