Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.

The first two articles in this series focused on ways of interacting and communicating with children that promote effective behavior management. Another area essential to this process involves consequences for children's behavior: reinforcement and punishment. Here, we need to talk about some basic psychological principles of learning.


Behaviors are strengthened or diminished by consequences. For example, when a child cries for a toy or candy at the market and an adult purchases the desired product, the child experiences a pleasant consequence, a reward. As a result, he or she is MORE likely to cry for toys or candy when visiting the market in the future. Children learn associations between behaviors and consequences, and the types of consequences experienced by children affect their behavior directly. When attempting to manage children's behavior, careful attention must be paid to specific behaviors in children as well as to the consequences that follow the behaviors. There are generally two types of consequences: reinforcement and punishment.

Importance of Reinforcement

Generally, when adults think of consequences for children's behavior, we think of unpleasant things like spanking or restricting privileges. Research demonstrates, however, that reinforcement, or pleasant consequences, may actually be a more powerful motivator for children. The following sections suggest some ways to utilize consequences in managing children's behavior.


As you might expect, young children respond well to concrete rewards such as colorful stickers. These can be used individually to reward simple behaviors like washing hands or sharing toys. Stickers (or other small tokens) can also be collected by children and traded for bigger rewards. This kind of system is especially helpful with more complex behaviors. For example, when I was having trouble getting my daughter to go to sleep on her own (she called from her bed at least ten times per night!), I created a system in which she could earn a sticker each time she went to sleep without calling. After she had earned a certain number of stickers, she was awarded a trip to the local child-friendly-play-place-and-restaurant. This system was so effective that her calling behavior ceased on the very first night!

Keep in mind that this type of system should be simplified for young children. Parents should start small: require the child to earn only three to five tokens before earning the BIG reward. Additionally, a visual aid such as a chart for stickers with pictures of desired behaviors (e.g. a sleeping child in the above example) and rewards will help young children to better understand and remember the desired behaviors and potential rewards.


What many adults may not expect is that children thrive on adult attention. In fact, even when an adult "reprimands" a child for inappropriate behavior, the attention the child receives may actually serve as a reinforcer! Unfortunately, adults may overlook desired behaviors because they are not troublesome, and respond more vocally and more often to undesired behaviors. Children will continue to act out because their inappropriate actions are rewarded with adult attention. Knowing this, we can adjust our own behavior so that we provide children MORE attention for appropriate behavior than for inappropriate behavior.

Rewarding Behavior with Behavior

As would be expected, children enjoy some activities more than others. Adults can use activities that are enjoyable to children to reward children for completing less enjoyable activities. This is known as the Premack Principle. For example, most children enjoy helping their teacher in school. Thus, helping erase the chalkboard or distribute papers (more enjoyable) can be rewarding for children who complete all of their assignments (less enjoyable). Similarly, helping to wash the car or playing with friends might be rewarding for children who complete their regular chores or homework.

"Negative" Reinforcement - Providing Incentives

We can also reward children by eliminating unpleasant activities or events. For example, many high schools reward superior academic performance by exempting "A" students from final exams. Similarly, parents can reward children by eliminating (or offering to complete) children's household tasks for a period of time.

Clearly, there are many methods to reward appropriate behavior in children. Remember, rewards appear to be more effective than punishments in motivating children, and adult attention is very reinforcing for children. Thus, in order to manage children's behavior effectively, adults must be sure that the bulk of the attention paid to children is for desired behaviors rather than undesired behaviors.

Although reinforcement is effective, adults must sometimes use punishment in managing children's behavior. The next article in this series will complete the discussion of consequences by focusing on the use of punishment in managing children's behavior.

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Specializing in child development, Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D., is a full-time faculty member in the Psychology Department at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. Dr. Cartwright's research has focused on cognitive development, language, literacy, and gender issues.