Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards

“If I use rewards to motivate my child, how will they develop their own drive?”

This is a great question from one of our software developers in Canada. Around the world, there are so many different beliefs and attitudes about motivation, where it should come from, and what it should look like.

Some psychologists claim that rewards are damaging and result in children who only perform to gain a reward. However, this outcome is a result of poor planning by adults. Rewards should be established when a new or difficult behavior is to be performed, then gradually phased out. A reward can be considered an encouragement or “bonus” for going the extra mile, doing the extra step, or taking on a challenging task.

Rewards (called “reinforcers” when they positively affect progress) take many different forms and aren’t designed to be sustainable. They vary based on the individual and can change day by day. There is no single reward that will work for everyone all the time.

Rewards do not have to be money, stickers, or gift cards – in fact, here are some examples of the many FREE things that can motivate us:

  • Choice: which game to play on game night, which variety of chips on that week’s grocery shop, which movie to watch with family or music to listen to in the car
  • Privileges: sitting in the front passenger seat, getting to go first, getting to be a special helper, special 1:1 time with a parent, going to the dollar store, extra bedtime story, 5-minute dance party, inviting a friend over, picking from a treasure chest
  • Acknowledgment: laughter or smiles from others, praise (can be physical/nonverbal (hugs, high fives, thumbs up, fist pump) or verbal, like “Thank you for ___”, “I like the way you ____”, “wow!”, “great job!”, “That was a big help for me”, “I’m very proud of you”), having their picture or name featured for a job well done, certificates, points

Extrinsic motivation gives way to intrinsic, self-driven motivation. Nobody is born with their own motivation to sit still, speak politely, or follow inconvenient rules. As we move away from using punishment to control behavior, we need to act to make doing the right thing more attractive and desirable.

Think of it this way: if your employer stopped paying you, would you keep that job? Intrinsic motivation alone is often not enough to keep us going.

Caitlin Ryan Marcus

Caitlin Ryan Marcus

is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who specializes in early intervention, caregiver education and training, preventing and treating severe challenging behaviors, and training staff to implement treatment plans with excellence. She has a wide spectrum of experience from clinical supervision, program development and in-home services. She enjoys watching children and their parents start to flourish as they learn to play, communicate, and set boundaries with one another.


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