rewards stop working

Parenting tip: what to do When rewards stop working

I try not to bring up the trauma of the Jump Park Fiasco of 2019, but I learned some pretty great lessons about what happens when you think you have a great reward to encourage behavior, but it ends up not working AT ALL, so I am willing to share my trauma in hopes that it helps others. I learned what to do when rewards stop working, and how to ensure that never happens in the first place.

Rewards stop working unless reinforcers remain powerful

When we use reinforcement, we want to make sure it is as powerful as possible. There are some variables that will weaken the effectiveness of the reinforcer. In other words, rewards stop working for a reason. Why? Reinforcers can change and simply lose value, and there are certain features that have an impact on reinforcers. 


Yes, there can be too much of a good thing, especially in reinforcement. Think about the last time you overate and were stuffed to discomfort. If you had been offered your most favorite food at that moment, you likely would have turned it down. Reinforcement is the same. For reinforcement to be most valuable, there has to be a state of deprivation or need. It will be hard to convince even the diehard M&M lover to work for M&Ms if they have just had an entire bag. 


Instant Gratification. It’s a thing. And it’s a powerful thing in reinforcement, particularly for children. The longer a child has to wait to receive reinforcement the less likely it is to work. Receiving reinforcement immediately is especially important when learning a new skill or doing something extra hard. Delayed gratification will come later; it’s actually a skill you can teach by using a Token Board, but first immediate reinforcement has to be established. 


Here’s the truth: Size matters. If a reinforcer is too big, it will lose its power because the child will get tired of it more quickly. More often though, the reinforcer is not big enough. Would you do the same job you are doing now for half the pay? Probably not. When kids are learning new things, like how to behave, that is their work. We have to make sure we are paying them fairly with a reinforcer that has enough value to make it worth the work. 


In behavior science,  contingency simply means that the two events are dependently linked. When we talk about behavior, this means that the reinforcement does not occur unless the behavior occurs. The reinforcer is dependent upon the behavior. The scientific term for this is Premack’s Principle, but it’s easier to think of this as Grandma’s Law: as in, first your eat your peas, then you get your dessert. Contingency is very important because it teaches the learner that reinforcement is earned. Back to the job example, if you could get your paycheck without going to work, you would do that. If kids regularly get access to the things they love ‘for free’, it is going to be hard to get them to work for them. 

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What to do when rewards stop working for your child: here's how to flip the script and win the day as a parent!

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