Why You Should Pay Children To Be Emotionally Intelligent

Have you ever tried to tell a child to ‘Be nice, darling?’ It doesn’t work does it?

From the dawn of time, parents and teachers have been trying to corral kids into showing concern for their fellows. If I could gather all the energy that has been spent on this over the millennia, I could have traveled the universe and swooped back to earth several times without any problem at all.


But it doesn’t work because children are essentially ego-centric. They believe they are the be-all and end-all of the universe. And it is our job as their guides to becoming a grown-up to disabuse them of that notion. Preferably before they get to adulthood. :-)

To get a child’s attention when we want them to be kind and thoughtful, we have to employ a technique that appears, at first, to be counter-intuitive.

A child’s wage

What a child wants most of all is attention. That is his currency. So when we want her to be thoughtful of others, empathic and kind, we need to give her lots of attention when we see it happening.

And one way to do that successfully, over time, in our busy world is through tokens of our appreciation. Yes, that’s right, we have to pay them.


On taking a school trip to the East Coast this technique was emphatically reinforced for me. I initiated the idea of a ‘conscious act of kindness’ necklace.

Each student received a leather thong and was told that when an adult (one of 13 chaperones on the trip) saw a student performing a conscious act of kindness, the student would receive a bead for her or his necklace. The students rose to the challenge.

Soon, we all saw such things as:

  • Students carrying one another’s luggage.
  • Individuals picking up trash dropped absentmindedly by other students, or even by someone in another group.
  • Cameras, jackets, wallets, and such, were rescued from the bottomless ‘lost and found’ pits in museums and malls.
  • Candies and treats weren’t hoarded but lavishly shared.

You might be thinking that’s not being emotionally intelligent, that’s about being self-centered and in one sense you would be right. Except for the fact that after a while the behavior continues to occur even when the tangible reward isn’t in place.

Cause and effect

Instead, the reward becomes the good feeling that occurs when the kids respond in a kind and thoughtful manner. The child wants to keep feeling that good feeling. We teach that cause and effect relationship through the use of rewards.

On our trip, we found that students reported each other’s positive behaviors instead of complaining about negative ones. In other words, tattling vanished and all in all, over 700 conscious acts of kindness were noted.

It might appear that offering tokens to reward behaviors works universally but, in fact, there are certain things to keep in mind before deciding whether or not to implement a ‘token economy’ and how to do it successfully.

  1. Decide on the behavior you want to see and reward with a tangible token in each instance.
  2. After a certain period of time when the behavior has become consistent, reduce the rewards or give them intermittently,.
  3. Remember that ongoing rewarding of behavior modification reduces critical and creative thinking.
  4. Use behavior modification for instilling behaviors such as sharing, putting up a hand before asking a question or saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ – behaviors we want to be so internalized and ingrained that it becomes automatic even when external rewards are removed.
  5. Know that internal satisfaction is integral to ‘paying’ children to exhibit certain behavior and eventually the value of the feeling takes over.
  6. To be most successful the reward should be paired with a descriptive element – “I do appreciate your effort in putting up your hand to ask a question” so that the two actions are related in the child’s mind.

What do you think? Has this been successful for you? Or perhaps you disagree? What ideas do you have to reward and encourage behavior you want to see in your kids? Please tell us in the comments!

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STOP PRESS! The 7th International NexusEQ Conference is taking place at HARVARD UNIVERSITY in Boston, June 24-26, 2013. Please reserve the date, more details to follow. :-)

About the author - Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.

View more posts from Anabel Jensen

Comments for this article (12)

  • Dr. Susan Stillman says:

    HI Anabel: Thanks for this great post! People don’t always realize how carefully and intentionally we need to teach the skills of EQ–such as emotional literacy, recognizing patterns, apply consequential thinking, optimism, and empathy–to adults and kids alike. I love that you argued that, after a while, children internalize these competencies, and then no longer need the behavior modification rewards. I saw this recently in NYC, after the big Hurricane, where so many thousands of people contributed their time and efforts to those in need, fo no reason other than it felt good to help.

    While intrinsic motivation and empathy are involved when we want to help others, without expecting a reward in return, most of us also still like to recognized and acknowledged for our good actions. Let’s remember to share our gratitude and appreciation when our children, spouses, friends, or colleagues demonstrate acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, and empathy. Often a simple thank you will mean so much.

  • Arati Suryawanshi says:

    Hi! Thank you for posting, Enjoyed the write up and wonderful examples and discussion, I just would like to add in , when I work with youngers, I find that, they need their own respect, and when they get it they feel as if they are rewarded. The feelings on their face show “what more they want!”.

    • Sadhana says:

      Hi Anabel,
      I love this post. I like that you drew attention to the long standing attention to having “concern for their fellows”. This empathy and compassion are definitely pillars of many cultural and world views.

      From my perspective, most values are taught best by role modeling along with other models. In the past, these models included use of “fables” or “puranas” (in India). I am sure that each culture has such stories – thoughtfully written, interesting for kids, short and to the point. These tales reflect that “helping others” is a trait that benefits the individual greatly. In these models, rewards were the attention that parents/teachers gave to this value and in appreciating the value when they observed the behavior in the community, in media, etc. Kids could find role models in the famous, the community or the family, who they could relate to. Therefore, the association of reward to a tangible object for developing an empathetic and compassionate outlook has been hard for me to apply and so I tried not using such tangible rewards. (However, there is never only one way, so I am just sharing the other point of view!)

      I draw on the comment by Dr. Stillman that people helped because “it because it felt good”. This ‘good feeling” state is described in the Yogasutras of Pathanjali, and it relates to the inner consciousness. This “feeling state” is in all of us and the child, along with the “It’s all about me” state – called Ego by Pathanjali. The latter however, does not “feel that good” or is a “temporary” and soon after it there is inevitably a “not so good feeling” state that follows. Pathanjali argues that all material objects are temporary sources of ‘happiness”. This may explain Anabel’s insight that the “value of the feeling takes over”, in that the real good internal feeling of peace and harmony are what we really seek. We do, however, have to learn to recognize them and look for them.

      So my point is really that, one must also help a child recognize when one is not “feeling so good about oneself”. It can be due to one’s relationship to another person and action. Perhaps some wrong thing is said. It is not to draw attention to bad feelings or make anyone feel worse. It has to be done so that it prompts and supports self-reflection and critical thinking, which is a big positive in itself. It has to be managed and done with care … it should be empowering not negative. “We learn from our marvelous mistakes!”; “We live to fight another day!” or “Sorry goes a long way!” are all sayings that allow us to seize a better future, and not be buried in past. I found that developing this thinking is a way to help the child be “robust” and they can handle the things that do go wrong inevitable and see that there is much value in being concerned for others since they have a lot to gain.

      As a final note, this is not to say that honesty and integrity are disregarded, these still stand in high regard, and that concern for others is an attitude and intention.

      • Arati Suryawanshi says:

        Hi! Sadhana, I do appreciate and respect your thoughts and feelings, concerns and sharing here. Thank you.

  • Charlene Pugh says:

    Thank you, Anabel. I am never sure when rewarding them is effective.

  • Maggie DeLoach says:

    Hey Anabel,
    You are so in tune with my way of thinking! Some of the classes I am taking in education make me worry that I have been somehow incompetent all these years, but so much of your work validates what I and my co-workers have done.

    One of the reward methods we used was a bead system where a student in the junior high or high school who showed repeated leadership/moral/work ethics got beads that eventually led to benefits:
    *being a student body spokesman
    *helping to choose pieces of curriculum: reading material, presentation method etc.
    *changing the dress code

    I will never go back to tossing jelly beans at people who raise their hands, (your class has taught me better) but I will always compliment and appluad children who use appropriate social methods for interacting.

  • Orrin says:

    Hi Anabel,

    This is a fantastic post. Your method is supported by what (little) I have learned about behavioral psychology. As you said, linking the behavior with the reward is critical. No doubt, you were establishing neural pathways that will develop into what we call habits. I might add that it will be more effective and less expensive if the practice is started when the children are very young. Once older, children are not much motivated by beads (though they will still very much appreciate the verbal praise). My only suggestion is to avoid the word “thong”. I made this mistake when writing a dress code referring to flip-flop sandals. People were suspicious as to why I cared about the type of underwear they wore.

  • Michele Royan says:

    Thank you, Annabel! Yesterday I was checking in with my class of 60 teachers on Developing Positive Teacher/Student Relationships. My suggestion for practice (aka homework) for the last week was to “catch students doing something right.” We have been hearing stories for the past two months from everyone about the more challenging students, and they were the ones who responded most quickly to having a teacher notice when they were doing something right, or even noticing something about them as a person, outside their academic performance. Acknowledgement and attention have huge currency with children, many of whom will modify their behavior in exchange from being “noticed” by adults. There are students who do not receive positive attention from adults outside the classroom. What a huge influence and source of nurturing teachers can be!

  • Gary Smith says:

    Hi Michelle,
    Nice to see your name on my screen. As you can see, I took your advice and contacted Six Seconds – eventually!
    I have found that positive responses to children’s behaviour don’t always have to be verbal. I often use a wink or a thumbs-up and usually this is only noticed by the intended child. While the positive vibe isn’t of a public nature, it does tend to create a special relationship between teacher and individual child. These small gestures of support can generate a collective sense of ‘good will’ in the class-room, which in turn is more likely to have the desired effect if the gesture has to be a frown, a shake of the head or a thumbs-down.
    Gary Smith, Brisbane, Australia

  • Tan Lin says:

    Sounds like Pavlov’s theory. Association of the behaviour with compliments leading to feel good, if repeated long enough would lead the association of behaviour with feel good factor (with removal of compliments). External motivation reinforcing a behaviour so that the behaviour becomes a habit which is internalised (internal motivation)!

  • Andrew says:

    It’s an interesting and great sharing! I suppose words of praise and encouragement does work very well too, as it gives a good feeling or sense of pride to the young that he/she has done a good thing.

  • Mariaelena says:

    I love your insights. What I find most compelling and valuable is the evolution that what once begins as extrinsic motivation for the child, eventually becomes intrinsic because they are given the opportunity to feel good about the choices they are making. Thank you.

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