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I have a 5 year old and a 2 year old. We have a basic reward system where you get a star for basically any behavior we want to reinforce (sharing, hygiene, trying new foods, etc). 5 stars gets you a magical trip to the toy bin, where you can pick from an amazing assortment of stickers, cars, or figures.

This system works great for our 5 year old, and until now the 2 year old has been too young to care. But now he's noticing that big brudda gets to get new toys, and there's some jealousy. I'd love to get the 2 year old involved but I'm worried the '5 stars gets a prize' concept is a little too abstract for him. Maybe I'm underestimating him.

Has anyone implemented a reward system with toddlers, and do you have any tips on what works and what doesn't? We have different expectations for each kid but I'd like to keep the system as simple and unified as possible. I'm less interested in getting the 2 year old to behave and more interested in getting him used to the idea of goals, earning rewards, and giving him the opportunity to be included in the fun.

  • I've read a couple related questions, but they say a lot of try something else so your mileage may vary. – user26011 Jan 27 '17 at 21:27
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I have slightly closer together children - 3 and 5 - and did something similar. Except we focused it just on chores ("jobs"); we did not focus on behavior as that didn't quite align with our goals in that area.

The three year old was quite able to handle the idea, and it was more effective with him than with the five year old (who hadn't had this chart before either). It made him excited about doing his jobs and he ended up getting significantly more mileage out of it than the five year old did.

What we found was that the five year old was more motivated by something he could work toward quickly: earning screen time is the main one for him, but also earning a piece of candy or something else trivial that he got directly. He wasn't motivated by the long-term reward (earned by getting some number of stars) nor by the star itself. The three year old, on the other hand, was motivated directly by the stars - and even though the reward might be a ways off, the stars themselves were great, and the reward toy was jut the icing on the cake.

But this isn't just because of age for our kids I think; this is also consistent with the personalities of the children more than anything else. My three year old is more likely to be taken with stickers than my five year old was at three - the older child is just a bit more strategic and independent, and gets more of his self-worth internally.

So, I would not assume it works or does not work for your 2 year old based on what your five year old did or didn't like - I would suggest trying it out and being prepared to change it as you go to fit your two year old's personality.

  • Have a plan, be prepared for the plan to change. Good general advice for kids. – Rob Elliott Jan 30 '17 at 19:42
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We bought a roll of generic tickets, (🎟 style like at arcades, fairs or small theaters).

Our oldest (nearly four), earns tickets by completing chores or being especially well-behaved.

He's able to exchange his tickets for various rewards, such as extra tablet time and toys. We keep some small prizes on hand (usually things we've bought on clearance), but also let him earn towards new toys from the store.

It's definitely more successful the more we use it. We started letting him save up towards larger and larger prizes, which sometimes limits our motivation for giving tickets, because it equates to us spending money.

To resolve this, we're going to be adding in a second color of tickets to be used for things like screen time, which can be earned for a larger variety of desirable behaviors. Then the other kind, for chores, will go towards purchases.

We switched to this system after we found earning money (with a sticker chart) to be too complicated for his. We still wanted him to be able to "budget" and save.

Now, if he sees something in the store he really wants we can tell him how many tickets it costs (usually at least 2 per dollar the item costs, but it's easy to change) and how many more he needs to earn it. Sometimes he has enough for a smaller item, but we remind him that X more will get the bigger item. It's interesting to see that sometimes he will save for a more expensive purchase, and sometimes he would rather spend them immediately.

In my opinion, I think he's become better at evaluating whether or not he really wants an item, or if he's just excited about something new. He's started to get that his currency is limited, and prioritizes his purchases.

He's very good about remembering what he's saving for. If we offer him a ticket-earning chore, he does it with enthusiasm and talks about what he's going to do with his tickets.

To make it more special for him, we bought a special jar (a mason jar, because it's see through) and have him count out his totals periodically (especially before going to the store). He also has to physically hand over the tickets in order to get his prize.

You could substitute tickets for any sort of token. We used tickets because they are cheap, and also because he's been to arcades and enjoys the ticket portion of the experience. The reasons for using tokens (and not stickers or money) are:

  • They're discrete, easily countable
  • There's a physicality in handling them, which engages young ones
  • They're not consumable/destructable (such as stickers)
  • They're not a reward in and of themselves (stickers can be, because they're so fun!)
  • We can adjust how many tokens it takes to earn things, so as he gets more used to earning them we can raise the "price" of
  • Thanks for the idea of tickets, I hadn't thought of that. Have you implemented this system with any kids younger than 4? My concern is how to get a 2 y/o involved in this abstract reward system in a way that makes sense to them. – Rob Elliott Jan 30 '17 at 19:34
  • @RobElliot He was pretty solidly 3 when we started this, but I think he would've handled the tickets = screen time during the tail-end of 2yo-hood. Younger 2yo children probably need more immediate, concrete rewards and/or discipline (time outs). I would adapt tickets for younger kids to trade in one-at-a-time, immediately after getting one, to reinforce that getting tickets earns rewards. Handing them the ticket, and making them give it to you for the candy, or small toy, whatever it is, reinforces the value of the ticket. There's a tangible trade happening that we prefer over charts. – user11394 Jan 30 '17 at 22:16
2

I taught developmentally challenged students who were at a 2 year level and they understood.

Reward systems are tricky because your child will not always be able to get a reward for being good or listening. Sometimes they have to obey or act in a particular way because it is an issue of safety or courtesy.

When I started teaching in 1979, we used candy or popcorn to reward behaviours. We'd show the child the prize and they'd listen. Until they wanted to run ahead more than they wanted the candy. Until we ran out of food they liked. I quickly learned that rewards are much more effective when they cover time as opposed to specific actions, and if they are not things that cost money and never food (boy that was a bad idea).

So with my own child, I had a reward chart with happy or frowny faces I drew myself or that when she was old enough, she could draw. (I had a specific pen and she had no access to it unless I gave it to her. She was never asked to draw a frowny face.) If she earned enough rewards she could earn an activity with me or her father. Rewards were things we chose together everyday -- like an extra trip to the park or library, pushes on the swing in the back garden, a game of hide and seek, a TV show, dancing to her music, a special craft, her dad playing guitar for her... If she earned enough, the special thing was earned. If we were having a bad day due to illness or bad weather or just because, I'd offer her a chance to do extras so that she could earn her special thing. If the child loses their reward at 10:00 am, you've 'bought' yourself a bad day.

In my classroom, we did the same thing but the rewards happened more often. "If you do your activity, then you may choose a freetime activity." Believe it or not even telling the child they could not do counting if they did not sit to hear the story worked. Kids love knowing what is happening next. It gives them control, in a world where they have little control. A schedule was a very positive and understandable way to help kids understand what happens and when. You can do it together and use pictures or drawings. Wake up. Use the bathroom. Wash hands. Eat breakfast. Brush teeth. Get dressed. After a while instead of 6 symbols you use one -- called morning routines and use a picture of your child when they've done everything on the list and explain them that photo means "all the things that need doing". Then they get the happy face. You may not need to go this far for the 5 year old, and perhaps not even for a two year old... but these methods do work.

I also think your little one will mature more quickly simply because he wants to be included.

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    I think you have a good answer there, but I'm not sure it's actually answering the question that's asked. There's too much information there not related to the question asked, and too little about how this system (which seems to work for the 5yo for OP) works for the 2yo? – Joe Jan 27 '17 at 22:09
  • @Joe My point, which I guess I did not make, was that reward systems like toys are not always a great idea, even if they've been working. So I made other suggestions. The answer was in the first line and the tips followed. I hope it helps the OP! – WRX Jan 27 '17 at 22:33
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    The caution against letting rewards become the goal not the means is wise. I hadn't thought of collecting a group of tasks as a single reward. – Rob Elliott Jan 30 '17 at 19:38

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