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Updated: Oct 31, 2023

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

Incentives are a really important part of parenting and behaviour management and modification.

This is currently a hot topic and there is a real split between those who staunchly believe that ANY form of ‘behaviour management’ is abusive, and those who believe that it is imperative.

The issue for me, is that arbitrary decision-making gives blanket outcomes. We’ve spent years advocating for children and young people to be seen, heard and treated as individuals, yet we concurrently refuse to accept that individual children won’t fit into a standardised system – ever!

So, here’s my thoughts on ‘Behaviour Management vs Behaviour Modification’ and the importance of incentives to both.

Bribes, Incentives and Rewards

First up:

Bribing a child is not the same as providing an incentive or reward.

“If you do something for me, then I will do something for you” a bribe. Bribes are not useful generally as they set precedents which cannot necessarily be met by everyone who tries to manage or support the child.

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

A bribe is a person-to-person arrangement, not a strategy for positive reinforcement. In fact, bribing a child can undermine any other strategies in place to support the child as it gives the child the opportunity to play the grown-ups off against each other. This shifts the power and control balance back in favour of the child and this does not reassure the child that we are providing consistent boundaries for them.


An incentive is not the same thing as a reward. A reward should be spontaneous and anyone should be able to give one,

“You did such a good job of sitting still in assembly today I’m going to give you a sticker.”

An incentive should be worked towards and anyone should be able to reinforce it,

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

“Don’t forget, if you do a good job of sitting still in assembly all week, you can earn a treat.”

Confusingly, we call incentives rewards all the time because it’s easy for the children (and us!) to understand. If we give a child a ‘reward chart’, the incentive is actually whatever the ‘reward’ is… It should be called an incentive chart really but if it ain’t broke…

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

Behaviour Management vs Behaviour Modification

There’s a WORLD of difference between Behaviour Management (Don’t do that again) and Behaviour Modification (Let’s learn to do it differently next time).

Behaviour Management happens in the classroom, it usually takes the form of a sliding-scale and relies on the child being fearful of the consequences. (Punitive Punishment)

Behaviour modification takes a behaviour that has been learnt in an inappropriate or unhelpful way and we work with the child / family to unlearn the unhelpful behaviour and re-learn a new, more helpful or desirable one to replace it. (Positive Reinforcement)

Fundamentally, behaviour management is punishment-reliant, whilst behaviour modification is a therapeutic child-centred practice which takes its essence from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

We use this method because we want to MODIFY behaviour rather than MANAGE it.

Punitive Punishment (Behaviour Management)

Punitive Punishment is where most of us go as a knee-jerk response to misbehaviour. We do so because for most children, IT WORKS. It’s the short, sharp shock approach, occasionally using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut in order to make a point.

You remember when you got caught smoking and your parents made you smoke a cigar?! Or when you came home late to find the front door locked after your mum had warned you she would do it?! Or when you got caught with an illicit boyfriend and got grounded for, like, FOREVER!!!!

All beautiful examples of punitive punishment!

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

For most of us, the cigar didn’t make us stop smoking, it made us work harder to not get caught smoking again. We didn’t suddenly start coming home on time, we got better at ringing in with a rubbish excuse for being late. The boyfriends probably got worse before they got better too….!

But this was all OK for us... Why? Because we were safe; we’d developed enough resilience to take some age-appropriate risks and follow the rite of passage that is parent-hating, super-dramatic, all-knowing adolescence. Resilience and the safety-net of our secure base ensure that we emerge from the other side relatively unscathed and as prepared as we can be for adulthood.

Punitive punishment does not work for chaotic children.

The punishment has no purpose for the chaotic child because they don’t understand the concept of ‘being cared for’ in the same way that securely attached children do. Often the punishment is misappropriated anyway as the behaviour that has been viewed as disobedient, defiant or disruptive, is actually the child ‘acting-out’ its internal chaos.

If the grown-up fails to recognise this and believes the child is misbehaving, the child learns that this grown-up is not empathic or sympathetic to their plight, they’re just interested in punishing them. The child grows a reputation and eventually begins to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

If you’re dealing with a seemingly persistently disobedient or defiant young person, then that young person might be chaotic; they might benefit from therapeutic support instead of punitive punishment. (See our E blog for more information about Chaotic Children).

Our chaotic children live permanently with the feeling that they are a raging disappointment to all those around them, so the ‘usual’ methods of management – “I’ll tell mummy, she’ll be very sad” have no effect.

We aim to modify behaviour for these children by growing their self-esteem and sense of self-worth in order to create an environment for them where they can feel safe and settled – we have to modify their belief that they AREN’T safe.

Positive Reinforcement (Behaviour Modification)

Is basically ignoring the bad and praising the good.

You need to be good at seeing the glass as half-full.

We will strive to ensure that all children receive only positive and constructive input, particularly in times of chaos.

As our wise old mothers will have told us,

“If you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing.”

This way, we’re not reinforcing any negative behaviour or sending any negative messages. As such we don’t run the risk of finding hidden triggers and we can’t escalate the situation any further. We are accepting the behaviour for what it is and not becoming angry with the child’s non-compliance. Our lack of anger and desire to understand the reason for the behaviour rather than react only to the behaviour sends a clear message to the child.

No behaviour or comment becomes an interaction until it is responded to; a conversation must involve two or more people otherwise it is just a person in a room talking to themselves!

A response generally validates or challenges the original behaviour or comment, giving it context and relevance and, most importantly in this context, it sets the tone for the rest of the interaction. It’s worth remembering at this point that you will get back from someone what you give to them – a smile should provoke a smile, anger will provoke anger etc, etc.

We will identify something positive to praise instead,

“Well done for calming down. Those were big feelings and you’ve done a good job being calm now.”

“Now you’re feeling a bit calmer, can we talk about tidying up the mess that’s been made please?”

“Good job with the tidying!”

We’ve completely shifted the focus from the negative mess-MAKING to the positive mess-TIDYING. While we’re tidying, we might have a chat about what would be a preferable behaviour if the child becomes upset again,

“It’s OK to be upset, everyone gets upset sometimes. It’s not OK to (insert undesirable behaviour) so, how can we help you to do something differently next time you feel upset”

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;


Back to Incentives; after all, that is the blog title!

Incentives are a really good tool to use for supporting and encouraging modification of behaviour.

We must acknowledge and accept that even though the behaviour we’re trying to modify is unhelpful – often even self-sabotaging, it’s still a behaviour that forms part of the child’s view of what’s ‘normal’ for them.

When we ask anyone to change their behaviour, we must accept that change is scary – even if it’s for the best. Using incentives and rewards is a very quick, visible and unequivocal way to communicate with a child that they’ve done the right thing…

Recognition of effort (or, usually, lack thereof) is often the thing that will send a child ‘back to square one’. The child has worked REALLY hard to do it differently but because the ‘new way’ is the baseline expectation of the adult, the adult fails to recognise the effort the child has made – their view usually is, “You should’ve been doing it like this anyway, why should we reward expected compliance?!” Also, as soon as the child doesn’t ‘stand out’ any more, the reason for the adult pursuing the intervention in the first place is gone.

The child is ‘fixed’ now so we’ll move on – if they’re not a problem any more, there can be no problem any more.

Wrong. Changing behaviour takes constant and consistent effort – if you’ve ever tried to give up smoking or drinking (say), you’ll know that even after 10 years as a ‘non-smoker / drinker’, there are still times when the urge to revert is hard to resist. This is why so many ‘ex-smokers’ appear to be so sanctimonious about their achievement; Yes, they’ve done well to give up the bad habit, but judging others for continuing to do it – coughing loudly when there’s a smoker near them, complaining about ‘the smell on their clothes’ etc, is just a ploy to hide the fact that the craving is still very real and actually, it’s as difficult to resist now as it was when they first started to give up.

Most people who’ve given something up have tried several times before they succeed and usually, they swap one ‘bad habit’ for another – smoking for chewing gum (for example). Usually, the motivation for change in adult habitual behaviour is intrinsic – smoking and drinking are bad for us but not dying of lung cancer or liver failure is a pretty good incentive too, wouldn’t you say?!

We expect children to get it right first time and stay that way though – we rarely appreciate their efforts to change because we ‘expected’ them to behave in a certain way to begin with. ‘Normal’ doesn’t get rewarded for anyone else, does it…?

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

Incentives are really important to children’s motivation for continued change. They’re very black and white thinkers and if they work out that doing the wrong thing gets more attention than doing the right thing, which do you think they’ll do when they need a little attention…? And we all need a little attention sometimes, don’t we?

If ‘expected’ behaviour gets no attention at all despite all the effort it takes to “be good” -and believe me, it takes kids A LOT of effort to be good if that’s not their default; as much effort as it takes the grown up to not light up that next cigarette, or go for that next drink… And we’re all quick enough to show our support and respect for the recovering drug user, alcoholic or smoker, aren’t we?

Because it’s hard.

It’s hard for adults who fully understand the implications of their decision-making. It’s so hard for adults in fact, most rehabilitation services provide access to extensive therapy and in some cases, a personal contact for 24/7 support.

We’re asking children to make changes of the same magnitude and for (usually) very little reward or recognition at all except our twisted view that it must be better for us, I mean them, if we’re not telling them off all the time.

We see their behaviour as being ‘normal now’ rather than ‘rehabilitated’. We see it as them having learnt their lesson rather than recognising that they’ve made real efforts to change parts of their core makeup.

If a grown up who gives up drinking gets a ceremony and coins as recognition of their ‘one day at a time’ life-changing journey, why wouldn’t we give a sticker to a child who’s done exactly the same?!

Incentives – whatever they look like – are what keep us ALL invested in our new behaviour.

incentives; behaviour-management; behaviour-modification; rewards;

JLTS offers consultations to Professionals to provide advice on how to support a child or family, as well as family services, including therapy, support and advice around understanding behaviour. Please get in touch to see how we can help.

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