You know some of the rewards they enjoy, but they know better. Ask them what incentives they would enjoy if they get an A on a test. Many children actually enjoy doing well in school and that is its own reward. They can tell you if they don’t need a specific reward.
People criticize behavior modification when they call it bribery. A bribe can be considered a financial incentive to do something you're not supposed to do in your job. When we reinforce good behavior we are not bribing children. We reward them for normal everyday activities. We are not giving them anything for doing something they are not supposed to do. A tip into the jar at the cash register for a Subway sandwich-maker is positive reinforcement for following instructions, but it's not a bribe. They are supposed to follow instructions. A tip can reinforce when it's done very well.
Whether or not you believe in giving money for good grades, praise, when it's real, authentic, is a great reward. It costs nothing to do it well and to do it often. Tell them you are proud of them for a job done well and they believe in themselves so much more than if you blame them for being lazy.
Children crave attention and they can get it whenever they want it. We give positive attention when they are "good" and negative attention when they are "bad." Nagging, screaming, and spanking can be negative attention. Asking them, “Why aren’t you doing your homework?” can also be negative attention. If they can’t get it by being good, and they can only get it by being bad, then they have more incentive for being bad, and less for being good. Positive or negative, attention often reinforces an attention-starved child. Adults don't realize they're rewarding “bad” behavior with negative critical attention. Although negative attention is unpleasant, it is, nonetheless, still considered reinforcement when it makes the “bad” behavior reoccur. Sometimes parents ignore children when they are quiet and yell at them when they fight with each other. This can actually cause them to fight more often in the future.
Watch carefully the next time you hear a child whining in the candy aisle, “I want a Hershey Bar!” as she pouts and stomps her feet. I bet you'll see the father giving her the candy to avoid a scene in the store. Unfortunately, the candy has strengthened her tendency to whine, and the next time at the store she’s going to whine for a piece of candy. You can graph it on a piece of paper and project the line out into the future. Then later on when they're alone, he might try to punish her.
There is no need to punish her for whining if he stops giving her the candy. He can extinguish the whining behavior by withholding the reinforcement. She may tantrum at the beginning of the extinction procedure, and they may get worse at first, but the whining and the tantrums can stop if he sticks to his guns and never gives candy to whiners. When she asks politely, however, he can give her some candy and say, “You’re such a good girl.” He reinforces asking nicely, and asking-nicely is a behavior that increases in strength and becomes more likely to reoccur. If we knew this centuries ago, think of all the grownups who wouldn’t be whining today!
Sometimes if a child misbehaves when told to do homework they create an opportunity to avoid homework. If a parent makes a demand and the children fuss and complain, the parent might stop making the demand. When misbehavior causes the demand to go away, the removal of the demand negatively reinforces the unwanted response. More and more disturbances may occur whenever parents make demands. These children are punishing their parent's unsuccessfully attempts to get them to do their work. The parent might might give up and let them do whatever they want. It's probably better to develop a good homework reward program as soon as the child enters, to develop good habits, and prevent this situation from occurring in the first place.
With a system of rewarding "good" behavior, there’s less time for unwanted behavior. Desirable behavior consumes more time each day. A boy cannot spray graffiti on a vacant building at the same time as he solves math problems at home. Improve the homework, and the mischief goes away, one behavior at a time.
Catch them being good more often and you catch them being bad less often. We often focus on the negatives and ignore the positives. Be on the lookout for good behavior, especially if it happens infrequently. If you look hard enough, you can always find something good to reward, even if it's a little thing. When you catch it, reward it. Then it will happen more often.
Shape the homework behavior. During shaping we reward successive approximations to the goal behavior. When they come home from school with some books, reward them for bringing home their books. Then reward them for setting the books down on a desk or a workspace. Then reward them for taking their books out of their bags. Reward them for sitting down at a workspace in front of their books. Reward them for locating pen and paper. Reward them for the first homework exercises they perform. Then reward them for doing half of it. Then reward them for finishing it. You can praise them for each of these steps or you can give them something tangible. Let them turn on the television after you've checked their work. You can play the radio while they are working and turn it off when they take a break.
When you give them a concrete reward, then praise them at the same time, but not in a stunted artificial manner. Keep it real. Subtle praise is good too. They will associate your praise with the reward. If you occasionally pair your praise with the delivery of food, for instance, your praise will become a conditioned reinforcer. Your presence itself will become a conditioned reinforcer. You don't want to be seen as a punisher. They will avoid you.
Parents should also be a good role models of the behavior they expect. It's hard to keep them from lying, cheating, gambling, drinking, smoking, and doing illegal drugs if you do them yourself. If you have paperwork to do, let them see you doing it. It's even better to do your paperwork in the same room at the same time. Not only does it set a good example for them to follow, it also makes your work more enjoyable or less of a drudgery when you have others there with you doing essentially the same thing.
Unfortunately, it's much easier to see the effects of punishment if compliance happens right away, so punishment is frequently used. You don't notice the effects of positive reinforcement until the next few times the behavior occurs, if you are aware of an increase in the rate of behavior. Behavior strengthens when rate increases. If they do their homework once a week and you praise them as soon as they do it, if everything else remains the same, and if you see the rate of doing homework increasing to twice a week, then you can conclude that your praise has caused the improvement.
If the teacher assigns busy work, workbook exercises that seem like a waste of time, if it's too hard or unchallenging, then ask the teacher to gear it to the individual needs of your children.
Sometimes children spend their precious time on worthwhile hobbies, such as downloading and collecting their favorite music, or healthy activities, such as a soccer league or informal bands playing in the basements of their homes. Be thankful. These acts are better than a waste of time with a big load of busy work that doesn't teach them much.
When you see the effects of your reinforcement, you are reinforced in return. It can make everyone feel better.
Photo used with permission from Wiki Commons.