The first time I clapped my hands when Zoey (my almost 2-year old) finished singing the first line of 'Twinkle twinkle little star', she paused and looked at me, as if to say 'I've not heard that before...' then almost immediately started singing it again. Now, because I have psychology in my blood, I didn't clap at the end of her singing this time. I wanted to see her reaction. She looked at me again and said 'mmm' pointing at my hands, as if to say, 'Clap!'
Rewards can be very motivating for children, particularly when they are stuck on something or finding a challenge an uphill task. The question is: what are we using rewards for? Are we using them to affirm them, to ensure they repeat the same behaviour or to motivate?
Research has found that the use of rewards is not that straightforward. Use them too much, and your child gets attached to the reward and loses intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes naturally and from within). Don't use them and your child may not even be willing to try anything at all. The key is knowing where their levels of motivation are.
For example, when Sherrie was learning how to ride the bicycle, she fell many times. At one point she was about to give up, and we incentivized her with a small chocolate, so that she would press on and try again. Reward at that moment was critical as she was at the lowest point of motivation, not able to see herself being able to cycle at all.
When she finally was able to lift her feet off the ground and glided down the slope - sans training wheels - we no longer required giving her the chocolate. Instead, we cheered and clapped. That made her feel encouraged to move to the next stage - actually putting her feet on the pedals and cycling without support. We also praised her by focusing on the effort she had put in and the process she had taken e.g. "Well done for practicing gliding for the last half and hour, and learning to put down your feet to stop when you felt like you were falling." Focusing on the effort and process supports the development of intrinsic motivation.
Once she was able to ride freely, we sat down with her and asked, "What is the best part about about being able to ride the bicycle?" She grinned and said, "I can go anywhere I want to go!" In which case, the reward is already built in. To show her how proud we were of her accomplishment, we took her out for a small tea break, where we spent time recalling how far she had come along. At this point, you may be confused: is that not an example of an extrinsically-driven reward? The key here is how you position the reward - if you just give it without any form of tie to relationship, then they will attach the accomplishment directly to the reward. In this case, spending time with us satisfies a basic human need to be connected, and serves as an intrinsic motivation.
Tips for using rewards:
1. Use extrinsic rewards when your child has little or no motivation to do anything or the challenge seems insurmountable.
2. Break down difficult tasks into small achievable pieces so they experience success earlier. Once they are able to do the task, remove the extrinsic reward and replace it with an intrinsic reward (focus on relationships, time spent)
3. Praise them on the effort they've put in and the process they've taken. That way, they can modify either the process or effort when they are unable to do the task, or when replicate it when they want to experience success again.
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*Much of the research mentioned comes from the field of self determination theory. For more information, do visit selfdeterminationtheory.org