Positive reinforcement can be very powerful in the childcare setting and often one group reward that is commonly thought of is food. Earning sweets such as cake, ice cream or candy or possibly a pizza party can be a big motivator for children and can be a fairly easy or obvious choice. But relying primarily on food based reward systems is not a good idea for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, childhood obesity is on the rise and diseases such as Diabetes are becoming more and more prevalent in children. I viewed a documentary recently which discussed the fact that 3 out of 4 of youth today will become diabetic. While I’m sure the debate is still out as to whether this statistic is true or not, it was shocking to hear.  As a childcare provider it is in the best interest of the children in our programs to help minimize such risks as much as possible. And secondly, relying solely on food based rewards doesn’t really provide for a teaching opportunity. What values are you teaching if every time a child does something good they are rewarded with a Popsicle? Apply that notion to any size group of children and you get the same outcome.

So what are some ways this can be avoided? How can you still get a group excited and motivated about something without the use of food rewards or incentives? Sometimes I compare handing out a food reward with disciplining a toddler. It can be like nails running down a chalkboard to stand strong when your toddler is telling you no and throwing a temper tantrum. Sometimes you just feel like giving in. Food rewards can be the same way. You may be thinking, if I just give in and reward the child with a Popsicle they will be happy, satiated, and satisfied all at the same time and may even give you a few minutes of peace and quiet. Ahhh…sounds good right, I know it! But stand strong, you can do it. You can create a climate of change, even if it takes some time to do so!

1) Promote and teach core values: such as respect, honesty, responsibility and praise them or “catch them being good.” Use High Fives and positive language. Share positive feedback with their parents/family.

2) Create Group Goals: Use and “If ____ then ____” model. Use popular activities as incentives such as an outing to the Park or Skate Day. Poll the children, find out what activities they would like to do or find out if there is a certain toy they would like to have at the Childcare Center and give them a time line to reach their goal. TIP: You can still use food at a special event or Club rather than giving it out as a reward. It’s healthy to teach kids that special treats are ok in moderation. You can also try to choose healthier options as well. Frozen yogurt vs. ice cream or healthy pizzas vs. traditional pizzas. Also, preparing items that can be taken home is a good idea as well. That way their parent can decide if and when they can eat it.

3) Use special stamps: stickers, handmade awards or small prizes such as pencils or bracelets and hand them out for good behavior.

4) Have the kids earn “caught being good” dollars and provide a small store or raffle once a month or so where kids can purchase small items.

5) Prevent boredom ~ A bored child can become a defiant child. Offer a wide variety of activities throughout the day ~ keep things moving. Have new things happening at least every ½ hour to 45 minutes. Be mindful of different age groups and have different activities in place for them that are age appropriate.

Trying some of these tips can help you to provide a much healthier environment mentally and physically for children and help you to maintain an atmosphere of positive reinforcement without having to reward with food.

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