This is the fifth segment in a series about executive functioning (EF): our “5 R Solutions for Everyday Living.” In this episode, we discuss how and why “Rewards and Reinforcers” can alleviate problems with EF.
Rewards and reinforcers are an important and valuable component for supporting children practice and develop EF skills.
By definition, a “reinforcer” is something that increases the likelihood that a desired behavior will increase. Positive reinforcement is an extremely powerful tool—arguably the most powerful tool you have in your toolbox as a parent or teacher! And the research says positive reinforcement produces faster and longer-lasting results than punishment!
Rewards and reinforcers come in many forms, including “edibles,” experiences, tangibles, activities, and social interactions. Another powerful reinforcer is affirmations! Rewards and reinforcers do not have to be huge or cost money. They can be very simple. Examples include putting a marble in a jar, a sticker on a chart, or keeping a weekly log in a journal. The reward for a completed task or goal could be relaxing with a movie, or spending one-on-one time together with someone special.
When I bring up rewards and reinforcers, parents and teachers are sometimes resistant to the idea because they are not on board with “paying kids” to do things they should be doing anyway. I can totally understand how it might feel this way at first. However, it is human nature to seek what is pleasurable and avoid what hurts. We are wired this way! So, use this innate part of human nature to help your children and students learn skills, build strategies, and find success! And don’t worry, once a strategy or skills is established and integrated into daily living, the need for the reinforcer will fade away.
In addition to serving as an incentive, rewards and reinforcers also help a child self-monitor and mark progress. If you recall, self-monitoring and completing “the final lap” are both EF skills. Reinforcers help the child monitor and mark that a task is complete. For example, when the morning check list is finished, a marble is placed in the jar. Five days of morning checklist completion leads to five marbles. And five marbles might equal an hour of game time with Dad!
In summary, the importance of rewards and reinforcers cannot be overstated. They tap into a fundamental trait of human nature: the tendency to seek pleasure or happiness, while avoiding things that are less enjoyable or lead to suffering. Rewards and reinforcers motivate the behaviors that we want to see in others (rather than punish the behaviors that we don’t want). And, when used correctly, they help an individual monitor progress towards an end-goal. Give these a shot and see what a difference positive reinforcement can make in your child’s life!
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