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This is, by far, the easiest and most effective reward system for kids that I have done.  I first wrote this post (and shared it) years ago, but it’s still my favorite reward system.

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

reward system for kids

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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 it has never failed us.

We have four kids, and this has worked 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. That’s why I love it so much. Even their friends have tried 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… kind of like the activities that we do on our “one on one time” evenings.

Some ideas that our kids have done in the past: Bowling with Dad, Movies with Mom, Movie Night with pizza and popcorn on the screened-in porch with the family, having a cousin spend the night, swimming at night, staying up late to watch a movie with mom and dad, etc…

How is it set up?  

  • Each of our kids has a jar.  
  • Each jar has a rubber band on it, which serves as a “fill line. “
  • The older the child, the higher the rubber band (as an older child, it takes more cotton balls to reach the fill line, which is when the reward happens.)
  • 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 completely and they simply have to fill the jar.
Reward System for Kids

You can make them as I did with the rubber band, 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.

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, they offer 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.
    • If they help someone (without being asked).

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

When they are towards the end (with about 5 cotton balls to earn before reaching the fill line), they will be REALLY trying hard!

An example of what I mean… 

A few years ago, two of our kids had less than two cotton balls to go in their jars before they were filled … 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, offering compliments to everyone in the family.
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… but Yes.  I very RARELY take them away.  In all of the years of doing this, I can only remember once or twice when they lost a cotton ball. (For example, when their behavior is very uncalled for, like being rude or talking back.)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.
  • I want this jar to be for positive things (rewarding), not for a punishment. Taking the cotton balls away makes it a punishment jar, not a reward jar. Keep the focus on the positive.
  • TAKE NOTE: 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 “something.”


  • FILL YOUR JAR->> DO SOMETHING SPECIAL WITH SOMEONE SPECIAL (or even have a sleepover at their grandparents’ 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.)