Child Behavior Modification Using a Reward & Punishment System

By Eliza Martinez
Change your child's behavior with consequences when he acts out.
Change your child's behavior with consequences when he acts out.

Children of all ages misbehave at times. Behaviors change with age and the poor behavior of your preschooler differs vastly from what he'll do when he hits his teen years. No matter his stage of life, using a behavior modification system that involves rewards and punishments is an effective way to get your child to do the things you want him to do and stop engaging in undesired behaviors.

How It Works

Behavior modification is a system that you employ to change how your child behaves by giving him props for good behavior and using a punishment as a way to stop him from acting out. When you catch your child doing something you want him to do, such as putting his puzzles away or getting his homework done on time, make a big deal out of it. Chances are he'll want to repeat the behavior because your reward made him feel good. On the flip side, when he acts up, like when he pulls his sister's hair or forgets to clear his dishes, an appropriate punishment helps deter him from doing it again. For example, forgetting to clear his dinner dishes would result in being on dish washing duty for a week.


It's important to use age-appropriate rewards since your toddler might go crazy for a sticker while a teenager would likely respond better to an extended curfew. According to a 2008 study conducted by Dutch neuroscientists studying learning strategies at Leiden University, children don't adequately process negative feedback until they reach their early teens. For this reason, rewarding children seems to have more impact on behavior than punishments. Match rewards to the behaviors you want to see and it probably won't take long to see a positive change. Putting away his toys before dinner means your child gets an extra bedtime story. If he gets his weekend chores done, he gets to see a movie with friends.


Just like rewards, punishments work best when they're age appropriate. A time-out might work well for your preschooler, but probably won't have much impact on your tween. Punishments fall into two categories: physical and non-physical. The Family Doctor website advises against using the former, such as with spanking, because it doesn't work long-term and can increase aggressive behavior in your child. (CE: see last paragraph of ref 4) Instead, match the punishment to the behavior. Your teen forgets to fill the car with gas so he doesn't get to drive for two days, or your preschooler doesn't put his crayons away so you put them up for a few days before he gets them back.


You might have the most luck using a combination of rewards and punishments as you attempt to change your child's behavior. However, some children will naturally respond better to one or the other, making it the best choice for your family. Go over the rules with your child so he is aware of your expectations. After all, it's a lot easier for him to do what you want him to if he knows what those guidelines are. Your rewards and punishments should change over time as your child gets older or he might quit responding to them in a positive way.

About the Author

Eliza Martinez has written for print and online publications. She covers a variety of topics, including parenting, nutrition, mental health, gardening, food and crafts. Martinez holds a master's degree in psychology.