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Using Rewards to Boost School Performance

By Virginia M. Shiller

Eight-year-old Christopher has never been a gifted speller, and he finds the weekly assignment of mastering spelling words both frustrating and boring. Like many kids, even though he receives the spelling assignment at the beginning of the week, Christopher waits until the last minute and then crams for the Friday quiz. Thursday evenings bring misery to the home, as Christopher's mother, Laura, nags him to study and Christopher alternates between moaning "These are too hard!" and snapping at his mother to leave him alone. Christopher's quiz grades reflect his limited, last-minute effort.

Laura has tried to reason with Christopher about developing better habits, but he has stubbornly and angrily resisted her suggestions. She feels that her son puts little effort into studying not only because he finds it boring but also because he lacks conviction that he can be successful, even with effort.

In situations like this, parents often start thinking about offering incentives to help improve their children's performance. Many parents are uncertain, however, whether it is okay to "bribe" their children to do schoolwork. Common questions include "Should I offer my child cash for good report card grades?" and "What kind of success should I expect?" Based on the five tips given in the box below, here's the approach Laura takes in getting Christopher to perform better on his spelling tests.

Creating a reward plan
Laura designs a reward plan that aims to increase Christopher's motivation and help him see that his efforts will pay off. She decides a reasonable goal is for Christopher to divide his 10-word spelling list into three lists of three or four words each, then study a different "mini list" on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. Thursday, he will review the entire list. If Christopher follows this schedule, he can earn a pack of baseball cards.

Laura makes a chart that includes four weeks of the new study plan. She sits down with Christopher, empathizes with his frustration about the spelling assignments, and explains the reward plan. Christopher initially refuses, but then shows interest in receiving a set of baseball cards weekly and signs on.

Making it work
With support and encouragement from Laura, Christopher meets the first week's goals. The next Monday, he proudly shows his mother his quiz grade: He correctly spelled nine out of 10 words! Christopher continues with the plan for several more weeks, and while he slips occasionally, he generally meets the goals.

After about six weeks, Christopher loses interest in the baseball card reward, and Laura suggests he might work toward something else he has always wanted: a camping trip with his dad. They agree that four weeks of effort could earn the trip.

Thursday evenings are now calm, and Christopher seems proud of his ability to master the weekly spelling lists. Laura looks forward to Monday afternoons, when she and Christopher can together smile and add another paper to the quiz collection adorning the fridge.

Virginia M. Shiller, PhD, is author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting (American Psychological Association, 2003). She is a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center and has a private practice. Visit for more information.


 Five Tips for Using Rewards Wisely

1. Keep expectations and the timeline reasonable. It is better to evaluate your child's weekly progress than to provide rewards for long-term goals such as report card grades. Provide rewards for each step your child takes toward better study habits and discipline, not merely on seeing an A+.

2. Consider incentives other than cash. It's fine to offer a few material reward choices (fancy hair ribbons, comic books, a trip to the dollar store), but rewards can also be special personal incentives (e.g., an outing to a sports event, choosing the nightly dinner menu).

3. Track progress with a chart. A basic chart that records your child's work on a daily basis reminds everyone of the plan.

4. Give positive attention as well as rewards. Your child needs your regular interest in, and supervision of, school activities and homework. Studies have shown that parent involvement is more successful in helping kids become good students than simply offering rewards or punishment.

5. Rewards aren't forever. Applaud your child's achievements: The goal is for your child to fall into a consistent pattern of better work habits and to find that the results bring their own rewards.