Good Immediate Rewards for Positive Behavior

By Alice Drinkworth
Praise for good behavior motivates a child to keep it up.
Praise for good behavior motivates a child to keep it up.

Discipline is not just for correcting unwanted behavior from a child; it can also be used to reinforce positive behaviors. A 2008 brain imaging study reported in "The Journal of Neuroscience" showed that children under 12 learn better from positive feedback. While teens and adults learn from their mistakes, children learn from knowing what they are doing right. By noticing a child being good and rewarding the behavior with praise, points or gifts, parents can enforce the rules and encourage more positive behaviors from their children.

What to Reward

Reward a child for doing something right, and the child is likely to repeat the behavior. Showing appreciation when he cleans his room, picks up his coat or plays nicely with his sister sends a message that these behaviors make others happy. Parents may worry about spoiling a child by rewarding him for doing something he should already do. That is not likely, according to Purdue University, unless the child is rewarded for something he did not deserve. Positive parenting involves looking at desired behavior and encouraging more of it, while paying less attention to undesirable behavior. For example, a parent may ignore a child’s fidgeting while sitting in a waiting room, but notice when the child picks up a book and starts reading by saying, “I like how patient you are being right now.”


Praise is a quick way to let a child know he is doing something right, but phrasing is important. Empty praise, such as, “You are being such a good boy,” is less helpful to a child than a more specific phrase like, “It makes me happy to see you help your sister tie her shoes.” The more specific praise calls attention to the behavior, which makes it easier for the child to connect his actions with expectations for how he should behave. Well-phrased compliments for hanging up a coat, setting the table or sitting quietly in church are instant rewards that get a parent in the habit of catching a child being good.


The cheapest and easiest reward a parent can give a child is her attention. A smile and a nod can communicate that a parent is pleased. A hug or a pat on the back when a child holds hands crossing the street or uses her manners shows love and acknowledgement that a parent approves of the child’s behavior. Children want and need a parent’s approval and attention and will modify behavior to get it. Spending quality time together, as little as 10 to 15 minutes, can satisfy a child’s need for attention and keep him from using negative behavior to get a parent’s attention, said Dr. Dennis Vickers of Sinai Children’s Hospital in Chicago.


A toy, sticker or candy can be an effective reward for positive behavior. It gives a child something tangible to connect with the desired behavior and can be a strong motivator to repeat that behavior. The reward should fit the feat, with small rewards for small actions and bigger rewards for more challenging positive behaviors. Charts keep track of positive behaviors, giving instant acknowledgement while accumulating points toward bigger rewards. Children earn stickers or points for setting the table, doing homework or practicing piano. They earn bigger rewards -- a toy, a sweet treat or a trip to the zoo – when they get 10 points, for example.

About the Author

Alice Drinkworth has been a writer and journalist since 1995. She has written for community newspapers, college magazines and Drinkworth earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and won a media award for her in-depth coverage of local politics. She is also a certified master gardener.