• Julie Kurtz

Are Rewards, Bribes, and Punishment Harming My Child?

Updated: Sep 3

A child’s brain is like an iceberg. Most of what we observe with children’s challenging behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. That's often what we see and what we react to. But underneath that iceberg tip are depths of what's happening inside of that child. Let’s dive deeper…


As an adult caregiver, parent, educator, teacher, counselor or resource parent, it is our responsibility to proactively practice and teach children 4 steps to develop long term skills to help them become healthy humans socially and emotionally.


Step #1 Teach children about their sensations and emotions.

Step #2 Help children identify when their sensations and emotions are calm, small, medium, or large.

Step #3 Promote the building of a self-regulation toolkit where children have access to tools to feel safe, calm, regulate and buffer big emotions.

Step #4 Once children recognize that they have moved from reactivity to calm/feeling safe, the final step is to help them "think" through and solve problems for the "greater good" or to re-engage with what they were doing.


The Adult is a Brain Architect

For every adult helping to raise a child, I add a new job description that includes the word “brain architect”. A brain architect is a caregiver or educator who directly influences the growth of a child's brain with each interaction. Your job description is critical. One of the ways that you can be a brain architect is to cultivate this inner mantra, "challenging behavior is merely communicating a story or a need". Dysregulated and challenging behavior is generally communicating one or more of the following:

  • I am trying to gain someone or something

  • I am trying to avoid someone or something

  • I am expressing a sensation/emotion

  • I feel unsafe

Children have immature sensory systems. It takes 25 years on average to grow a human to be humane with a fully integrated brain, where all the parts of the brain are talking to one another. When all the parts talk to one another, we can expect a child to make good choices, have healthy interactions and solve problems for the greater good. If it is takes 25 years of learning how to develop the 4 steps listed above, then we can conclude it is the child's job description to have challenging behavior. The adult job description as a brain architect growing humans is to teach, not to punish. It is the job of the adult to decode the meaning of challenging behavior and help them figure out how to solve their problems without hurting others, themself or the things around them. Giving consequences, punishment or bribing is a fast way to make a behavior stop but not a long-term sustainable strategy for teaching new coping or problem-solving skills.


Every time a child has a challenging behavior, I rejoice. I tell myself that this is one in a million opportunities to teach new a new life skill, a new way to handle their emotions or to find a healthy solution to a problem.


In summary, as a brain architect, we need to determine what is behind the meaning of a child's dysregulated behavior. The tip of the iceberg is the behavior and underneath the iceberg, the child is trying to gain someone or something, avoid someone or something, express a sensation/ emotion or conveying to you they feel unsafe.


When my kids were little, I just wanted to push their belly button, have a printout that would tell me what their behavior is communicating, “Are they trying to avoid doing this chore”, “Are they trying to avoid circle time”, “Are they trying to gain a connection with me because I have been so busy”, or “Are they angry because someone took something that belonged to them”. Then I wanted this printout to tell me the best strategy to use as a parent or caregiver to raise a humane being.


The easiest strategy to do in the moment is to give consequences, punish or bribe with rewards. Don't! This might push your emotional buttons a little bit to hear this, but I ask you to just sit with it and think why. When you punish, bribe, yell at a child, or criticize them when you are witnessing their challenging behavior, it causes them to be more scared, more terrified, maybe even stop the behavior BUT it doesn't teach new skills, problem solving, self-regulation, emotional regulation, etc.


Now, let's pause for a moment. Growing up in California (USA), we had earthquake and fire drills when I was a child. Some of you may have had other emergency drills, such as hurricane or tornado, based on what types of emergencies you have in your region. The reason why we practice an emergency drill when the child is calm, is because with practice, we can aid in wiring one neuron to the next neuron into a habit. Did you know the brain doesn't know the difference between practice and real life? When you practice a skill with a child, you're wiring the brain to develop a pathway called a habit. With practice, the wiring becomes stronger. Dr. Daniel Siegel says that "neurons that fire together wire together". So, the more we practice with children and teach them social-emotional skills when they are calm, the more they'll default to that healthy habit in a real life emotional emergency.


Four Steps to Teach Children

Let's explore the 4 key steps a brain architect practices with children to TEACH, so that they grow up to become adults who are healthy socially and emotionally.


Step #1: Identify Sensations and Emotions


Sensory and emotional literacy is the ability to identify sensation and emotion words, identify sensations and emotions inside me, and to identify the sensations and emotions of those around me.

Figure 1. Grid explaining what is under the challenging behavior.


The far-left column is titled trigger. It's an event that triggers our emotions. The second column is about sensations. Sensations are when you have big emotions or feel worried and your body expresses that emotional trigger through physical sensations. Your stomach hurts. Your heart starts racing. Maybe your jaw clenches, or your palms are sweaty. The third column is about emotions, followed by the thoughts children may have when they are triggered by an event. As adults, we tend to see only the challenging behavior. When we only react to the challenging behavior, rather than the story that's happening underneath the child, we're missing a big opportunity to help children use their words, name what they're experiencing, and to co-regulate them so they can become calm and/or feel safe. One of the ways our body communicates is through sensations.


Feelings are the words that describe how we feel. For example, mad, angry, frustrated, or sad, and emotions can also be small, medium, or large.

Figure 2. Sensory language and feeling language. Figure 2 is from the book, Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators. It shows and explains sensory language versus feeling language.


Sensory language is in the left column and feeling language is in the right column. It is helpful to teach kids sensory language (noticing the sensations in their body) as well as feeling language so they can recognize these messages as a clue that they may feel calm or have big emotions.


One way we can encourage sensory recognition is to tune children into their body sensations. You might notice a child's face is all scrunched up, their fists are clenched, or they are rubbing their eyes. You might say, "I wonder if you might feel a big emotion as I see your fists are clenched." Sometimes it's important to read the sensory clues because that's all the data we're receiving to help us guess what the child is experiencing. But we can help tune children in by saying, “you are rubbing your eyes, it looks like your body may be tired.” “When that happened to you, I saw you holding your stomach. I'm wondering if it feels like a volcano or bumblebees in your stomach?”


We can also introduce children to emotions by using books about feelings, identifying the emotions of characters in books or by using feeling check-in charts and workbooks.




Figure 3. Early Childhood Feeling Check-In Chart (www.cainclusion.org)

Elementary School-Age Feeling Check-In Chart

Middle School-Age Feeling Workbook (free to download at www.optimalbrainintegration.com).


Another way to teach kids about emotions, is to be curious to what they are experiencing in the moment. For example, "I wonder if you feel sad right now." "It appears you might be frustrated." We want to try to stay away from telling them, "You're mad. You're frustrated." Instead, take a wondering and curious stance about how they are feeling. As an adult, many of us feel uncomfortable when a child has big emotions. We are pressed to jump in with solutions or give them something that will make them feel better. We can help children by listening, helping them express their emotions verbally (talking about it) or nonverbally (i.e., crying, drawing a picture). We don't want to teach them that one emotion is 'bad" and only happy emotions are good. Instead, we want to teach them how to feel, manage, tolerate big emotions, and to not hurt others, themselves or the things around them in the middle of big emotional storms.


Step #2: Identify if the Sensations and Emotions Inside of Me are Small (Green), Medium (Orange), or Large (Red)


Step #2 in the four-step process is to identify whether sensations and emotions inside of me are small (green), medium (orange), or large (red). Introducing a feelings thermometer like the one seen in Figure 4 can help kids identify whether they are in the green zone, the orange zone, or the red zone.

Figure 4. Feeling thermometer and arrow. Free and downloadable on www.optimalbrainintegration.com


Orange means “emotions are beginning to rise up inside of me” or “my emotions are moving from escalated toward the calmer zone.” Red, the highest zone of intensity, means “my emotions are heated up” and “my feelings are very big!” When you start to teach kids about the size of emotions, you may find it helpful to laminate a thermometer like the one shown in Figure 4 and add a laminated arrow with velcro so kids can place the arrow on the thermometer to represent the different levels of intensity of their emotions. You can help children read books, guess what the characters are feeling by pointing to the feelings chart, and then go to the sensory chart and have kids point to the sensations and then the thermometer to identify whether their feelings and sensations are calm, small, medium, or large emotions.


Step #3: Self-Regulation: Learning Multiple Strategies to Manage Big Feelings


Over time and through practice, kids will be able to identify what zone they are in (green, orange or red). Awareness means we can next tackle step #3, strategies to regulate and buffer our stress. We can get good at this by practicing frequently when children are calm. When children are infants, we co-regulate them to calm. As they become toddlers, they use their adult caregiver but maybe also an object such as a teddy bear or blanket. As they grow, they must expand their tools to find calm and regulation, especially when their emotional buttons are pushed.


One of the ways we can help children regulate is through the breath. Let's look at this scientifically first. When you inhale, you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which makes your heart increase. It's called the accelerator. Take a deep breath in. When you do that, you're stimulating your sympathetic nervous system, which is the accelerator of your body. When you exhale, you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases, like the brakes, how fast your heart beats. We can teach kids to use their breath as a remote control for regulation. Here are a few breathing activities to use with children. For Breathing Cards, Practices, and Gratitude Activities: Create a Breathing Star Folder, or for how to make a Glitter (Relaxation) Jar or Gratitude Activity (Lotus of Gratitude): go to www.mindfulartssf.org


We can help children identify additional self-regulation strategies:


1. People or animals that help them feel safe and calm.

2. Activities that calm and regulate their body such as breathing, walking, talking, playing with an animal.

3. Words they can say to themselves such as “I can be safe” or “I will be okay”

4. Places they can go that help them calm their body and to feel safe.

5. Things they can bring to their imagination that give them a sense of calm (they can be real or pretend).


One activity I love to do with children of all ages is to help them build a self-regulation toolkit. This can be done in many ways depending on the age of the child. With some kids, I find a shoebox and have them decorate the outside with images that calm them externally (i.e., a safe place or person) and the inside with images that calm them internally (ie., breathing), make them happy or bring peace. Inside they place index cards where they write or draw people, places, activities, words, things or images that can regulate them when their emotions become big and overwhelming. For older children, you can use the Zones of Self-Awareness seen in Figure 5. The front side helps children cultivate awareness of their individual and unique cues that tell them what zone they are in. On the back side, children can practice by building their strategies that help them feel calm, regulated, safe and buffer their stress.

Figure 5. Zones of Self-Awareness is a Tool for Middle School-Age to Adult-Age to Learn and Develop Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation Strategies (free and downloadable at https://www.optimalbrainintegration.com/freeresources


Step #4: Problem-Solving and Self-Regulation Skills


When children become dysregulated, the top priority is to help calm/buffer stress/feel safe in their emotionally dysregulated body through a co-regulatory (adult calms child) or a self-regulatory (child finds an internal or external resource to find calm) strategy. Children and adults do not have access to their thinking or “executive” part of the brain when their emotional buttons are pushed. The first step is always to help children regulate by finding a strategy to calm, buffer their stress or to feel safe. Once they're emotionally dysregulated brain and body become calm, then you can help them think of a solution or return safely to what they were doing. When a child becomes dysregulated, their behavior is communicating. They want something or someone or they are trying to avoid something or someone or they are trying to express an emotion. Maybe they are telling you through their dysregulated behavior that they feel unsafe. But they can't solve their problem or re-engage or listen to instructions until they have found enough calm to access their thinking and reasoning part of the executive brain.


It is all about the adult mindset. Changing our mindset from the OLD “that child is bad and should be ignored or be given a consequence or punishment” to the NEW - that a challenging and dysregulated behavior is communicating and is an opportunity for me to TEACH.

Figure 6. Free and Downloadable 101 Ways to Teach Social Skills for Youth https://www.optimalbrainintegration.com/freeresources


Figure 7. Understanding My Brain: Becoming Human(E)! This book is a resource to teach young children about their brain, behavior and how to build strategies to help them feel safe and calm.

At the Center for Optimal Brain Integration®, we strive to give every child and adult a voice and to grow human(e) beings! We have so many book resources that we recommend for early childhood, elementary and middle/high school age children. Check out our free and downloadable book recommendations at https://www.optimalbrainintegration.com/children-s-books or join our email group list at https://www.optimalbrainintegration.com/ to stay in touch with additional future resources. Email us with questions or if you need additional support.





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