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Use of Rewards and Punishments to Motivate Children's Behavior

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

blurred clockIn a previous article concerned with disciplining younger children, we discussed various techniques that are useful for motivating children's behavior. Some of these techniques are aversive and punishing but not dangerous (e.g., "Time-outs"), while others are designed to motivate children's compliance by giving out pleasant and desirable rewards (e.g., "sticker charts"). These techniques continue to be useful with school-aged children with some adjustments.

Time-outs

Time outs continue to be a powerful and effective means of motivating children's compliance through about age 11 or 12. The point of the time-out is to give a child the time and space they need to calm themselves down, regain the ability to think clearly, and then come back to the situation and make better decisions. While on an enforced time-out, children have the opportunity to learn how to "self-sooth" which is an important coping skill.

Though still appropriate for use with older children, the manner in which time-outs are offered may need to be modified in order for them to be effective for older children.

The time out location may need to be different for older children vs. younger children. Rather than sending children to the corner of the room they happen to be in when the problem behavior occurs, older children might be better served being sent off to their bedrooms. Wherever children are sent should be devoid of distracting or interesting media so that children do experience the timeout as aversive.

Also, the duration of a time-out should be longer for older children than for younger children. Time outs should last about 1 minute for every year of the child's age; so, for instance, a 10-year-old boy would have time outs that are 10 minutes in duration.

At any age, a time-out should be followed by a brief but explicit conversation between parent and child making clear exactly what rule was broken, why following the rule is important, what the expectation is next time that situation arises, and an expression of the parent's love for the child.

Time-outs are not just for children; They offer the entire family a temporary break from conflict. Time-outs offers parents as well as children time to cool off, to dissolve their anger, and to regain the ability to think clearly about the situation.

Because school-aged children are now older and more mentally and physically mature, any consequences that parents offer to them for misbehavior will likely need to be more intense or longer lasting than consequences useful for motivating little kids. Nevertheless, whatever consequences are offered must be realistic, logical, and effective for this age group. For example, if 10-year-old Jerrod leaves his bicycle outside in the driveway for the third time after two warnings, he might lose access to his bike for an entire week. When he was younger, he might have lost access for an hour. Now that he is older, Jerrod is able to understand and remember over long periods of time why he lost access to his bike and be capable of trying to follow the rules again after the negative consequence. When he was younger, his attention span and ability to comprehend the larger perspective was more limited, and thus the punishment that made sense was more limited in duration too.