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This is, by far, the easiest and most effective reward system for kids that I have done.  I shared this a few years ago, and I still use it to this day, so I wanted to reshare it with you.

As an elementary teacher, I tried many reward systems, but this is the one that works.   Here are some non-toy rewards that we like, too.

reward system for kidsThis post contains affiliate links to products that I love!

I had marbles, stickers, charts…  and then I tried Cotton Balls in our own home!  This worked great and I have used them for many years.  We started it when our kids were all very young and we still use it today!   

We have four kids and this works with ALL of them.   I have not had to stray from this easy reward system and it never fails me.   It sets a focus on the positive things that your children do.

Even their friends try to earn cotton balls to take home.  haha!

What is the Goal of the Reward System Jars?

Fill up your jar with cotton balls.  Easy enough, right?

What Reward Do We Give When They Reach the Goal? 

Their choice (within reason) – NOT AN OBJECT or money! They have their choice of DOING something fun.

Our boys usually pick to go bowling with Dad or to a movie with Mom or to have a sleepover in our room (on the floor in their sleeping bags.)    Movie night with pizza and popcorn is a popular choice!  Swimming is also a huge hit.

How is it set up?  

  • Each of our kids has a jar.   Each jar has a rubber band on it. The rubber band serves the purpose of a “fill line”.
  • Our oldest child has his rubber band higher on the jar because he has to get more cotton balls since he is older.
  • As they get older (each year), the rubber band moves higher up (with their increased age comes higher expectations), until around six years old, when I remove the rubber band and they simply have to fill the jar.

You can make them as I did or you could use chalkboard paint on your jar & draw on the fill line with chalk so that it is easily moveable as they get older.
Reward System for Kids

How does it work? 

  • It takes the kids about two weeks to a month to fill up the cotton ball jar because it is a special thing and is not given for every little thing that they do.
  • Although at first, you will want to make it fill up a little quicker so that they are able to get their first reward and understand it.  Once they do this, they will see what they are working towards.
  • Remind them when that first reward comes “This is because you filled up your cotton balls!  I’m so glad that you did because this is so much fun!”
  • Sometimes I will use cotton balls as an incentive: “If you ____, you will earn an extra cotton ball today.”  (Works great for this, but I don’t do this too often because I don’t want it to lose its real purpose.)
  • I don’t typically give them out for doing their chores (see age-appropriate chore list here).
    These cotton balls are special and come when they do something that was NOT asked of them.  Sometimes they will ask “Can I have a cotton ball for that?”  I judge that answer based on the situation.  For the most part, asking for one doesn’t get you one.     

How Do They Earn Cotton Balls? 

  • They earn one by doing something nice and unexpected.
  • A few examples include: 
    • If one child spills their food/drink and the other helps to clean it up (without being asked!)
    • If I need something from downstairs and they go to get it for me (without being asked)
    • If I catch them doing something or SAYING something kind to each other or to someone else.

It is easy and effective. 
It has not let me down yet.

When they are towards the end (with about 5 cotton balls to go), they will be REALLY trying hard!

An example of what I mean… 

Two of our kids had less than two cotton balls to go in their jars before they were filled and they were doing everything to earn them: cleaning their room, getting their brother and sister’s pajamas ready, telling each other how great they were.
It is so fun to watch them work towards the “finish line.”  It worked and they went bowling the next day.

What Happens After They Have Filled the Jar? 

When they have earned their reward, I empty the cotton balls from their jars and put them in their ziplock bag and back into the drawer in the kitchen right under where I keep the jars. 

I keep the jars on my counter, next to my refrigerator.  It’s not the prettiest placement, but it is pretty much hidden in the corner of the counter closest to the refrigerator, except that the kids can see it every time that they are in the kitchen and they are able to keep track of it.

Do You Take Cotton Balls Away

  • No & yes.  I RARELY take them away.   In many years, I can only remember doing this a handful of times.
    At times, when their behavior is very uncalled for (being rude and talking back), they will lose a cotton ball.
    This is a big deal and they are very upset about it. They work extra hard to ‘earn it back’, which can also be done.  If you start taking them away often, you are going to lose the ‘power’ that this has because it is going to take them too long to get their goal.
  • I don’t give out money or toys for doing well and filling their jar. I want it to be something special with “someone” (quality time) instead of with “something”


  • FILL YOUR JAR->> DO SOMETHING SPECIAL WITH MOM & DAD  (or even have a sleepover at their grandparent’s house or cousin’s house).

How do I make the actual jars?

Here are directions to make these DIY reward Jars (I made mine from Marinara Sauce Jars)

reward jars

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Hi there!

I’m Becky, a former elementary school teacher turned certified child development therapist and blogger. I work at home with my husband and together we are raising (and partially homeschooling) our four children in the Carolinas. I love diet coke, ice cream, and spending time with my family.

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  1. Thank you. Love this idea. Can’t wait to start in the new year. Hope it helps my oldest.
    Do you let the other kids go on the reward “adventure”?

    1. If the one getting the reward asks if they others can join along – I let them come. 🙂

  2. I was wondering the same as the previous commenter. We have 7 kids… we can’t afford to take all 7 to the movies regularly or even to ice cream. The rewards will need to be things that are free or very cheap.

    1. I was a teacher with a degree in elementary education & a focus on children’s development. I was able to use my degree to begin working towards a certification in child therapy. (The laws are different for each state.)