USING BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION TECHNIQUES
Behavior Charts, Incentives, Stickers, and Tokens. Should I Use Them? If So, How?
Many professionals who dispense parenting advice tell parents to use rewards or create “behavior modification” token systems to teach children a skill, to get children to take on a responsibility, or to curb an unwanted behavior or habit. Often, however, using rewards for children’s good behavior with behavior charts has the same effect as bribery.
Long-term studies of work incentives, behavior management programs for children, weight loss and stop smoking plans have all found similar, revealing results:
- Performance and quality of work decline over time because people are thinking only about the incentive or reward, instead of the value of what they are doing.
- If there is a loss of interest in the reward, people become less motivated to do the task.
- The work becomes an unpleasant task that is endured strictly to get the reward.
- People try to take shortcuts to find the easiest way to finish the task, rather than challenging themselves to do the best job possible.
- Change is short-term. When the incentives are gone, so is the motivation for doing the task.
B.F. Skinner, the father of behavior modification sciences, made a name for himself with his scientific research in the 1950’s. He trained rats (and children later on), to repeat certain behavior by rewarding them for desired behavior and withholding rewards or applying punishment for poor behavior. His theories and practices have greatly influenced schools and psychologists for years. While positive and negative “reinforcements” work well on rats, humans have deeper motivations. Today, there are decades-worth of long-term research studies consistently showing these “conditioned responses” not only become ineffective over time but are counter-productive, bringing on negative long-term problems. *
After producing a generation of young adults who expect rewards for every little accomplishment, it is becoming obvious that creating such expectations and dependency is neither healthy nor realistic.
In the Cooperation Toolset of The Parent’s Toolshop® book and in several other articles (see list below), I share many ideas for motivating children to cooperate without resorting to bribes. However, you might choose to use a behavior chart anyway. If so, here are some suggestions for using behavior charts with fewer negative long-term consequences (although there will always be some) and will help with building self-esteem in children:
- Promote internal competitiveness (doing one’s best) rather than competing against others. Competition destroys teamwork and damages relationships. This especially applies to siblings.
- Make the tasks challenging, with a chance to learn new things. Explain the task in a way that makes it a meaningful contribution which will improve the family or person.
- Involve the people who will be using the charts in developing the charts. With children, use creative ideas, like gluing pictures of tasks, to make this a fun project.
- Have “rewards” be extra privileges or non-monetary bonuses, such as picking the place for a weekly family outing, having a friend overnight, extra time out on Friday night, choosing a family game or video, or choosing the dinner menu and helping cook it.
- Gradually phase out the chart as children learn new skills are reform habits. Wean children from rewards before they become addictive. Increase internal motivators through descriptive encouragement.
- Use the charts as reminders of agreements, not a record of rewards or payoffs. Focus on the child’s accomplishments instead of giving demerits for poor performance.
When children accomplish something new or improve their behavior voluntarily, they feel a sense of self-respect that no sticker, candy, money, or reward can give them. Help children understand the value behind the changes you ask them to make and help them take responsibility for making those changes — to feel better about themselves, not just to please you.
If you want more insights, information and practical tools, and tips about [not] using behavior charts and other forms of “behavior modification”:
- Opt-in for our free bonus resource. It’s a 5-page excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Parent’s Toolshop® book.
- Listen to a one-hour recording of a live teleseminar called, “Get Cooperation — Without Squeezing the Juice out of Kids!” .
- Get personalized support and learn tools and techniques you can apply to the challenges you face right away, attend one of our monthly webinars
For more information on the long-term research on the effects of behavior modification programs, go to www.AlfieKohn.com and check out the following articles and book:
- “Punished by Rewards?: A Conversation with Alfie Kohn,” Educational Leadership, Sept. 1995
- “The Case Against Gold Stars,” October 1993, Parenting Magazine
- Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/1999)
You may also want to check out what current (2020+) research says about external motivation vs internal:
- “Revitalizing Alfred Adler: An Echo for Equality,” by McCluskey, M.C. Clin Soc Work J (2021) supports present-day applications of his theory.
- “Revisiting the Organismic Valuing Process Theory of Personal Growth: A Theoretical Review of Rogers and Its Connection to Positive Psychology,” by Mia M. Maurer* and Daiva Daukantaitė, Department of Psychology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden. Published in Frontiers in Psycholology, July 21, 2020.
- “Themes and Theories Revisited: Perspectives on Processes in Family–Peer Relationships,” by Ladd, Gary W. and Ross D. Parke. Published in the MDPI Journal Children, 8, no. 6: 507. June 15, 2021.
- “Early relational experience: A foundation for the unfolding dynamics of parent-child socialization,” by Grazyna Kochanska, Lea J. Boldt, and Kathryn C. Goffin. Published in Child Dev Perspectives. March, 2019, 13(1): 41–47. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12308
- “Basic psychological need theory: Advancements, critical themes, and future directions,” by Vansteenkiste, M., Ryan, R.M. & Soenens, B. Published in Motivation and Emotion, Volume 44, pages 1–31 (Feb, 2020)
- “Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets”, by Alfie Kohn, published in the New York Times, October 28, 2018 and an expanded version of that published article, “Rewards Are Still Bad News (25 Years Later),” by Alfie Kohn are both update to the original citations to his work in this workshop.
- “Dewey, Piaget, and Frosted Mini Wheats,” by Alfie Kohn, Published March 8. 2021.
Some research has even found possibly harmful effects of using such techniques, fashionably called “ABA” today (Applied Behavioral Analysis), especially when used with children on the autism spectrum:
- “Autism and Behaviorism: New Research Adds to an Already Compelling Case Against ABA,” by Alfie Kohn, Article published January 21, 2020, cites several current research studies.
- “How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse?” by Sandoval-Norton, A. H. & Shkedy, G. Published in Cogent Psychology, 6(1) (2019).
- “Is long-term ABA therapy abusive: A response to Sandoval-Norton and Shkedy,” by Gorycki, K. A., Ruppel, P. R., & Zane, T. Published in Cogent Psychology, 7(1), 1823615 (2020).
- “Long-term ABA Therapy Is Abusive: A Response to Gorycki, Ruppel, and Zane,” by Aileen H. Sandoval-Norton, Gary Shkedy & Dalia Shkedy. Published in Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Volume 5, pages 126–134 (June, 2021)
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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