Sweet Rewards: Using Positive Reinforcement to Encourage Positive Behavior

Tantrums. Arguments. Meltdowns. Oh, the joys of having a 4 year-old daughter. Let’s be honest, these are the realities we face when we have a child of any age! Especially girls…they come with a lot of drama.  Lord, help me when she becomes a teenager! Anyhow, a few months ago I discovered that time-outs and taking away privileges were not really having much of an effect on her negative behavior. In fact, they were adding to our problems.  So I decided to take a new approach.

Every day when I picked her up from preschool I would hear how excited she was to have gotten tickets at school. As soon as she’d get in the car she would tell me all about how her teachers had given her tickets for good behavior and what she did to earn the tickets. The excitement was multiplied on Fridays if her name was drawn for the honor of going down to the office to pick out a prize for her good behavior.  A lightbulb went off in my head: why don’t we try this at home?

Now, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me this long to get a program like this started. Having a degree in Psychology, I know all about the benefits of using a reward program instead of using punishment. It’s called Positive Reinforcement (the technical term is operant conditioning), and the basic idea is that when a positive outcome or reward is presented after a desired behavior, that desired behavior is more likely to occur and be strengthened in the future. I used this method when I was potty-training my daughter. When she went on the big-girl potty (desired behavior), she would get a jelly bean (reward). She was very excited to get a jelly bean, so that made her want to go on the potty more often! Simple, yet effective!

Previously I had been using punishment to try to get my daughter to change her behavior. The result was that she became even angrier with me and it would always end up in an argument. No fun for anyone! So I decided to change my focus to rewarding her good behavior (like I did during potty-training), thereby hopefully increasing that good behavior and limiting the negative behaviors.  ( I need to clarify here that Kaia is generally a sweet girl by nature and is well-behaved much of the time. The “negative behaviors” I am referring to are generally age-appropriate behaviors that we all deal with: talking back, disobedience, defiance, testing limits, anger. Things I want to help her learn to control and shape in a more positive way.)  I decided to use tickets, to mimic the program she was already used to at school.  So I went to Wal-Mart and bought a roll of tickets for about $3. I told Kaia my plan, and she was very excited to get started! She helped me plan and this is what we decided on for our reward program:

  • Up to 4 tickets can be earned/day (sometimes there are bonus tickets if mom/dad deems it appropriate)
  • Tickets can be earned for many different behaviors: cleaning her room, helping with her sister, helping with chores, being a good listener, having a good attitude, etc.
  • Tickets may be cashed in for rewards at set levels, or may be saved to get a bigger reward. Our rewards are in 15 ticket increments:
    • 15 tickets: candy in the checkout lane
    • 30 tickets: playground date with mom or dad
    • 45 tickets: trip to the Children’s Museum
    • 60 tickets: dinner date with mom or dad
    • 90 tickets: trip to Build-A-Bear for an accessory for her animal

ticketsSo far the program is working really well! I have noticed a big change in the dynamic in our house. My daughter is much more willing to help and have a good attitude because she is excited at the prospect of earning a ticket! Oftentimes she is asking me what she can do to earn a ticket! Every day she takes the tickets out of the cup and counts them up (she’s saving for the trip to Build-A-Bear). We still have some incidents of disobedience and negative behavior, but it has decreased dramatically. Occasionally she still needs to take a time-out, but we always make a point to “start over” after these occurrences and try to focus on the fact that you can always make a choice to change your behavior and choose to act in a positive way. A good lesson for all of us, no matter what our age!

**Update: After receiving a few questions, I wanted to clarify that we have a goal of earning 4 tickets, but if she goes above and beyond, we give out more. For example,  the other day she cleaned up the toy area on her own without me asking: that earned 2 tickets. It’s great to get more than 4 tickets…we never say ‘”you’ve met your quota today…no more tickets.” Because of her age, we also give tickets “randomly” for desired behavior. What I mean is we encourage her to always be doing what we ask and be on her best behavior because she never knows when that will earn her a ticket. We do that because she is old enough to understand she should be doing these things anyway and tickets are a reward for that expected behavior. If you have a younger child or are really wanting to encourage a certain behavior, I would encourage you to reward that behavior every single time until it becomes a habit…then you can gradually stop giving tickets for that behavior. We also do a lot of other positive reinforcement besides using tickets: we use verbal positive reinforcement (“great job”…”I’m so proud of you” …”let’s show daddy what a good job you did”) as well as physical positive reinforcement (hugs, high-fives, etc.).  We always give the verbal and physical positive reinforcement, and use the tickets to reinforce “bigger” or more specific behaviors.

I’d love to hear what reward programs you use. What behaviors do you reward and what rewards are your children able to earn? How has it helped your family?

Kaitlyn Swaim
Kaitlyn is the owner of Cedar Rapids Moms Blog and is an Iowa girl who has been married to her husband, Joshua, since 2007! She’s a busy work-at-home mama to their 5 children: 3 girls and 2 boys! A true Hawkeye, she graduated from the University of Iowa with her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, something that comes in handy on a daily basis while trying to raise 5 kids! Her favorite things to do include spending time with her family, cheering on the Hawkeyes, reading a good book, shopping (of course!), and checking out all the activities the Corridor has to offer!


  1. I really like this as well and am going to keep it in my back pocket. Question for the psych major – how would taking tickets away for negative behavior factor into the positive reinforcement? Would that negate the purpose of the system? If my child has my attitude I could see him saying “Well, hit four tickets for the day, don’t have to listen to you anymore.” But if the prospect of losing tickets exists, maybe that might prevent that behavior.


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