What are rewards, contracts, and response cost?
- A reward is a desired item or activity that is given to the child because they did a behavior that we want to see (e.g., cleaning their room, finishing homework). Reward systems give children rewards in a consistent and reliable manner to reinforce specific behaviors that we want to see.
- Contracts follow the same principles as reward systems, but are made for older children/adolescents.
- Response cost is a system in which children lose a reward because they did something undesirable. In other words, the child’s response (behavior) has cost them access to an item or activity they enjoy.
Why are rewards, contracts, and response cost important?
Rewards, contracts, and response cost teach children the connection between their behavior and an outcome. They also help increase the frequency of behaviors that you would like to see. For instance, they can help your child to share, complete chores, do homework, go to bed on time, follow directions, or anything else that you feel is important for them to do. As a parent, you may already use rewards, contracts, or response cost, and that’s great! The goal here is to make these approaches more intentional (for specific behaviors and consequences) and consistent (consequences are given every time the behavior occurs).
How can I do it?
- Make a list of rewards
Select rewards that:
- Are items/activities that your child enjoys (e.g., quality time, picking a movie)
- Are free or low cost
- Can be given easily and frequently if needed
- Already exist in your home and could be earned as part of a reward system moving forward (rather than automatically given)
- Make a list of behaviors
Focus on behaviors that you want to see more of. Try to choose a few (no more than three) behaviors. It’s best to start off with just one behavior, and then add behaviors over time. Define the behavior or the expectation clearly, so even a stranger would understand what is expected!
- Connect the behaviors to the rewards
It’s important to clearly decide what behavior(s) will result in what reward(s).
- Giving the reward
There are two ways to give the reward effectively. You could give the reward immediately after the behavior happens, which is usually the most effective method. Or, you could give a secondary reward (points, marbles, tokens, stickers, etc.) that can be traded in for a reward in the very near future (end of day or week).
- Decide on a response cost
After you have a reward system in place and it is working well, you may choose to identify a behavior that results in the loss of a secondary reward (points, marbles, tokens, stickers, etc.). Children can lose secondary rewards. However, we do not recommend that children lose primary rewards that they have already earned. For younger children in particular, losing something that has already been earned can be very discouraging, and it can also lead to more behavioral challenges as a result.
- Contracts for older children/adolescents
Contracts are essentially reward/response cost systems for older children. The same key steps are important to consider here. The main difference is the level of collaboration and responsibility that an older child/adolescent takes on with a contract. Contracts should be written out by the parent(s)/caregiver(s) and the child so there is a shared ownership of the contract.
SMART + C is a useful set of considerations when developing a contract:
- Specific – What is going to be accomplished
- Measurable – How will the parent/caregiver and child know that it is accomplished
- Attainable – The expectation/goal is reasonable based on the child’s age
- Relevant – The behavioral expectation is worthwhile to the child and parent/caregiver
- Timely – The expectation/goal should be completed over a defined period of time
- Consequences – Both positive and negative consequences are identified
For younger children, parents can use “When..Then” or “If…Then…” as a simplified version of a contract. Some examples: “When you throw out the garbage, then you can get to watch TV.” or “If you practice your violin three times this week, then I will take you to the mall.”
What types of behaviors would you like to see more often?
What are some rewards you can consider?
(Tip: It’s helpful to collaborate with your child to identify as many as possible. Though, the parent/caregiver will have the final say as to which rewards are “reasonable.”)
Define what rewards should be linked to which specific behaviors:
How will you give the reward?
(Some considerations: Will the reward be given immediately after the desired behavior happens? Or, will they be receiving their reward at a later, agreed upon time? Or, will you use a secondary reward like a sticker chart, where your child can trade in their stickers for a reward once they have enough stickers?):
What are some “If…Then” or “When…Then” agreements you could have for your younger child?
When will you talk to your child/family about this reward system/contract? How can you collaborate with them so that everyone understands the system?