Step Away From the Prize Box: Building Internal Motivation in Children

During my undergraduate and graduate training, I had whole lectures, book chapters, and seminars devoted to the topic of behavior management and reinforcement — how to use primary reinforcers (food), token economies (how many check marks should equal a sticker?  how many stickers to a lollipop?), prizes, rewards, and more.

How much of that knowledge do I use now?


Why?  Because it seems to me that, by providing these external (as opposed to internally-driven) models of behavior management and reward, we are robbing our children of something so much greater — the joy and accomplishment they feel at a job well done.  Sure, you can turn a child into an operantly conditioned lab rat who performs some “trick” (whatever therapy task you want them to do) for a cookie, but is that really preparing our children to function well in the world?  Here are my reasons and motivations behind taking one giant step away from the proverbial “Prize Box”:

  • Children are naturally curious and self-motivated.  Think about a toddler and some stacking cups.  He’ll sit there and work at the “problem” of how to build a tower for minutes and minutes.  The look on his face when he has that “aha!” moment and figures out how to make it work is priceless.  No one was sitting there, egging him on.  No one offered a sticker or M&M for each level he stacked.  The motivation for the task was an internal drive, a curiosity at how the world works, a quest to figure out some great unknown.  And just as soon as those cups are stacked, the toddler will knock them down, eager to begin the task again.  The reward for a job well done is the opportunity to try it again, to challenge yourself further, to keep pushing toward your final goal.  Why should we short-circuit this natural curiousity with a system of externally-imposed rewards?


  • A sticker (lollipop, toy, etc.) is NOT a natural consequence.  The natural consequence for asking for what you want (e.g., the therapy goal is that the child will make requests) is getting that item.  The natural consequence of correctly using the past tense -ed is that your listener understands you.  The “reward” of language is communication.  That should be enough.


  • Children work hard for people they love and respect.  If a child is well-bonded to a parent and/or therapist, the desire to please that adult, and the praise a child receives for working hard (note — this is working hard, not getting the answer right, they are two very different things) is far more valuable than any reward.  If the child isn’t working hard for you, maybe it’s time to put some work into the relationship.


  • Children work hard when learning is fun.  If you have to bribe the child to participate, maybe you aren’t having enough fun in therapy.  This is crucial.  Therapy should be FUN.


  • Children grow, and the demands grow with them.  An M&M a session might be enough to pacify a two-year-old, but what about a thirteen-year-old who, raised with this system of bribes and rewards, now demands an iPad for completing her homework on time?  When we begin down the road of, “Do this, and I’ll give you X,” we start down a very slippery slope of wheedling and negotiation.


  • Sometimes, the rewards are more for the adults than for the children.  Like many pitfalls in therapy, this mistake comes from the adults in the situation making therapy about US, not about the child.  I question how much a two-year-old with low verbal abilities truly understands the concept that ten stickers on his sticker chart will equal a new teddy bear.  My guess is that the child’s positive reaction to the sticker is more due to the smiles and praise and hugs he receives from the caregiver/therapist as the sticker is placed on the chart.  Toddlers have not yet developed the concept of delayed gratification and do not have the long-term prediction skills necessary to hold the concept of, “If I behave and receive ten stickers, then Mom will take me to the story to buy a new stuffed animal” in their heads over the length of time it will take to earn X number of stickers.  Adults get a lot out of this, because we can pat ourselves on the back for our beautiful charts and masterfully crafted “incentive plan” … but that is NOT the point of therapy, and takes the attention away from the true goal — coaching the caregiver to help the child develop listening and spoken language skills.  Is your reward system a just way to bribe the child for compliance for your own comfort?


  • Rewards with food send an unhealthy message.  It is my belief that food should never be given to a child based on his or her behavior.  Food is a basic need, and should not be contingent upon the child being “good.”  Food is not love, and we build an unhealthy relationship with food when we make it so by using it as a reward or punishment.  Additionally, loading children up with unhealthy treats impairs concentration, overall health and nutritional status, dental hygiene, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Children should NOT “work for food.”


  • These rewards are based on being “good” or getting the answer “right,” not hard work.  Children should be rewarded for effort and attention, not their adherence to what adults deem to be “good” (a value statement about the child’s worth that can be quite damaging), or getting the answers right.  If the only goal is getting the right answer, a child working on a new or difficult skill might be tempted to give up (“If I can’t get it right, why even try?).  We need to give our children the courage and the space to try, fail, and try again.


  • External rewards kill internal motivation.  Children may indeed work very, very hard for the toy or treat at the end of the tunnel.  But what about when the threat of punishment or promise of a reward is removed?  Where is the child internal drive?  Where is his ability to persevere or her ability to stick to a difficult task?  Through our own meddling, we’ve killed it.  Let’s face it, as far as technology has come, our children with hearing loss will still face many challenges throughout their lives, and we won’t always be there promising a sticker at the end.  We must help them develop the self-motivation and grit to work through tough situations.


  • “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more” — Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine.  Listening and talking are lifelong processes.  The rewards — communication, relationships, connection to the world, are far more precious than anything else we could provide.

So what can you do if you, like thousands of other parents and therapists around the world, are currently using a reward system?  I suggest quitting cold turkey.  Your children can handle it, really, you’d be surprised.  If the child asks about the reward, tell her, “You know, I bet that you could do this without it?  Wanna try?”  Put the emphasis on the child’s internal capacity to perform the task.  Help show her that she is able — she doesn’t NEED the sticker.  Children are also very capable of understanding that different situations have different rules.  Some of your colleagues, or the child’s other teachers or therapists, may still use reward systems.  I just tell children, “Well, in here, we don’t do that.  We work hard to have fun,” and that’s usually enough.  Again, children are capable of much, much more than that for which we give them credit.


Step away from the prize box.  Step into real rewards, internal motivation, and the joy of a job well done.  

You — and your children — can do it!

2 thoughts on “Step Away From the Prize Box: Building Internal Motivation in Children

  1. Hi Elizabeth. Good thoughts here. One of the most valuable things I was taught in my first clinical practicum was to “make the activity the reward”. As simple as it sounds, it was a revolutionary moment for me. Initially just from the point of view of how much more efficient a therapy session can be if time does not have to be spent on the ongoing provision of rewards, not to mention the points you make above about the overall benefit to the child.

    That said, there is a place for well structured reward systems. There are very effective and well researched parenting/behaviour management strategies (such as TrIple P, that involve the use of rewards. But, as you have said, the objective is internal motivation and self-regulation. Any system of reward must be used in such a way as to promote this. For a parent, this might mean using a reward chart (that the child can understand and finds motivating) to help a child learn/establish a new behaviour skill, and quickly reducing and then removing the reward when they have done so. It is also important that the reward chart is part of a broader positive parenting approach, and used in conjunction with other strategies that promote self-regulation. In reality, the most rewarding aspect for the child is the parents’ involvement in the whole process (their praise of the child, and excitement about what the child has achieved). I will use a simple reward chart/system in a session if I feel a parent would benefit from guidance in how to use this technique to help the child improve their behaviour skills. Reward charts can be (often are) used in ineffective ways that don’t produce the desired result, so modelling the HOW TO is really important. I do find that, when it comes to behaviour management, where parents can sometimes become very frustrated, a simple system like this can help the parent remain calm and positive, simply because they have a strategy to use and they have been shown how to use it effectively.

    One question for you: Do you use rewards at all when administering assessments? Except in the case of the most internally-motivated of children, standardised assessments just aren’t fun.

  2. Good question about standardized assessments. I usually alternate test questions with playing a game or taking toy breaks during testing. I don’t directly tie them together (e.g. every five questions equals one turn at the game), though.

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