Rewards systems are used to encourage good behaviour in toddlers, children, and teenagers, or to help them acquire a new skill (e.g., using the potty). Ultimately, rewards systems aim to boost children’s motivation. The question is: Do they work? 

Google “sticker chart” and you will find yourself looking at over 148,000,000 hits. The market for this rewards-based training system is huge. Using a reward system for kids has become the go-to for many parents and teachers. However, research is not entirely clear on whether using reward systems is a good idea. Even more, there is some research suggesting that using rewards may be detrimental because it does not promote intrinsic motivation (1).  

There are two types of motivation (2). Intrinsic motivation is doing an activity because of the satisfaction it brings you, rather than for an external reward. For example, reading a book because you are interested in its story, or learning to ride a bike because of the sense of achievement.  

In contrast, extrinsic motivation is pursuing an activity for an external reward, such as a material item or someone’s praise. For example, sharing with friends in exchange for more screen time or sweets.  

Ideally, we want our children to be intrinsically motivated. 

Why do parents use reward charts?

The most common reason that parents turn to rewards charts is to encourage good behavior or when they are in the throes of skill acquisition, such as potty learning. The problem is that while a sticker may work initially, at some point a child may say “I don’t care about a sticker”. This leaves parents with two choices: abandon and face the possibility of regression or offer bigger and better rewards. With something like toileting, the reward is not sitting in a wet or dirty nappy, the reward is learning to listen to your body and become autonomous and independent.

As a parent, I absolutely wanted to blow a trumpet when my son successfully used a potty but instead forced myself to simply say “What do you think?” “Good!” he replied to which I said something like “I always feel better when I’ve been to the loo too.” My desire for him to be intrinsically motivated underpins many of my parenting choices. 

The issue with reward systems is that they only motivate children to get rewards. This may result in a reward culture that may lead children to respond to any request with “What’s in it for me?” If we zoom forward to having teenagers, how are we going to motivate them not to smoke? Buy them a car?  

Why do schools use rewards systems?

Many schools use these systems. Stickers, point systems, stars of the day, or a rather sinister system or moving children from clouds up over rainbows or down into dark clouds, are common in many schools.   

The problem with these systems is that they deal with the symptoms, but not the cause. If a child is not able to sit still because they are inmature, neurodivergent, or undiagnosed, they are never going to reach their teacher’s goal. No matter what reward is offered.   

These children’s behaviour may become worse if they realise “If I can’t ever move over the rainbow, I may as well just sit in my dark cloud.” They may end up suppressing their inherent traits or feelings because they are not reward-worthy behaviors. 

When we look to motivate our children to learn, some research shows that if an initial interest is there, adding external rewards reduces motivation. This is called the overjustification phenomenon (3).  

In contrast, verbal feedback (4) increases motivation, but it must go beyond simply saying “Good job!”. Being specific in praising the effort and not the outcome or abilities leads to more resilient children who are better able to overcome obstacles. For example, saying “You’re so clever!” implies it is an inherent trait. Children labelled as clever tend to give up more easily when they inevitably face a challenge. However praising efforts with detail like “You concentrated so hard on that picture, look how carefully you chose your colours!” makes children feel seen and validated for their effort, motivating them to persist.  

If using rewards charts is not ideal, what do we do instead? Here are seven strategies to promote your child’s intrinsic motivation and good behaviour.  

  1. Support autonomy  

When we have a relationship based on “If you do x, I’ll give you y” we are creating a hierarchy which disempowers your child. Instead encourage their curiosity and exploration so that they have a sense of agency (5). We have moved beyond the time of “Because I said so” being a good enough response. It’s time now to explain why with respect. 

2. Encourage a positive mindset 

We have a negativity bias (6) which means we need to hear 5 good things to counterbalance every 1 negative thing we hear. If your child is calamitous in their outlook, start a practice of ending negative sentences with “But luckily…”. For example, if your child complains that “I didn’t have enough time to finish playing”, you can add “But luckily you have lovely friends who you’ll see again tomorrow!”  

3. Encourage a growth mindset 

Children find learning frustrating, when we jump in to save them, we send the message that they should avoid these feelings instead of accepting that they are part of the human experience (7). If your child gets frustrated trying to draw a circle, don’t jump in and draw it for them. Instead, say “What you’re feeling is exactly right, it is frustrating. Just because you can’t do it YET, doesn’t mean you won’t ever get it. You can do hard things.” 

4. Be specific with praise 

Focus on praising (8) the effort and not the outcome. Children feel seen when we acknowledge their journey and reflect on the details. Instead of “Wow, well done!” try “You have been concentrating for ages and even when it didn’t go as you’d expected, you kept trying.” 

5. Avoid labels 

Labelling (9) a child as artistic may prevent them exploring their sporty side. Labelling a child as lazy may mean you will do more for them and inhibit their acquisition of new skills. Labelling a child as smart may mean they will not realise that at some point they will have to work to achieve a goal. Nothing about your child is fixed: Stay open, and curious to see how they develop in the future.  

6. Set small goals 

We are all guilty of failing to notice our small successes. If your child is trying to master something, share your observations of the progress they are making. Encourage them to notice by asking what they think of their achievements.  

7. Mental time travel 

When things get tough it can help to travel into the future (10). If your child can’t ride their bike yet, ask them if they think they still won’t be able to, when they’re two years older, a teenager or grown-up. Time + practice = success. Children don’t naturally think far ahead so you may need to remind them that you have decades of practice under your belt! 

Final message  

I hope you’re not disappointed that these suggestions aren’t a quick fix. Parenting is a long-term investment and that means planting seeds and laying foundations. Children’s brains are immature and no matter how many stickers you offer, they may not be able to do what you’re asking. So, who’s binning the sticker chart? 

Zara Kadir

About the author

Zara Kadir is a child, adolescent, adult and family psychotherapist specialising in pre-school to primary aged children. She works 1-2-1 with clients using art and play therapy. Additionally, she supports and guides parents through the most common behavioural issues faced with an intentional parenting model at its core. She focuses on the idea that if you change your behaviour towards your child, your child’s behaviour will change. Her hope is to empower parents with the information they need to make considered decisions in how they respond and nurture their children.

Zara holds a MA in Counselling & Psychotherapy and MA in Child, Adolescent & Family Psychotherapy

She is registered and accredited by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)

You can find Zara in her super popular IG account @the.therapy.shed


(1) Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., & Koestner, R. (2001). The Pervasive Negative Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation: Response to. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 43-51. 

(2) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25 (1), 54-67. 

(3) Deci, E.L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journl of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105-115. 

(4) Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774–795. 

(5) Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., & Houlfort, N. (2003). Introducing uninteresting tasks to children: A comparison of tge effects oif rewards and autonomy and support. Journal of Personality, 72(1), 139-166. 

(6) Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2011). Looking up: Mindfulness increases positive judgments and reduces negativity bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science2(4), 425-431. 

(7) Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). What can be learned from growth mindset controversies?. American psychologist75(9), 1269. 

(8) Senn, L. P., Bayles, M. W., & Bruzek, J. L. (2020). An evaluation of praise as a reinforcer for preschoolers’ behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis53(1), 315-330. 

(9) Taylor, L. M., Hume, I. R., & Welsh, N. (2010). Labelling and self‐esteem: the impact of using specific vs. generic labels. Educational Psychology30(2), 191-202. 

(10) Payne, G., Taylor, R., Hayne, H., & Scarf, D. (2015). Mental time travel for self and other in three- and four-year-old children. Memory23(5), 675–682. 

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