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This is, by far, the easiest and most effective reward system for kids that I have done. I’ve shared this before but had to do so again because it is a reward system that works so well!   

As an elementary teacher, I tried so many classroom reward systems to encourage good behavior and lesson negative behavior, but this is the one that works. (Here are 5 reward charts that I’ve tried.)  It works so well for behavior management by rewarding students through positive reinforcement.

Easy and Effective Reward System for Kids

I love how this rewards the children for specific behaviors as the children are rewarded individually.   I have always wanted intrinsic motivation to be the reason that our children work hard, and this reward system is a way to highlight their positive behavior.
It goes beyond things like ‘rewarding them for completing age-appropriate chores’ and instead encourages the children to work at being kind, generous, grateful and helpful.

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I’ve tried many systems for rewards for kids.   This is the best one.  We’ve been doing this for more than 10 years.

The BEST Reward System for Kids

I had marbles, stickers, charts…and then I tried cotton balls in our own home!  This worked great and I have used this in our own home for many years.

We have four kids and this works with ALL of them. Even their friends try to earn cotton balls to take home – haha!

What is the goal of the reward system? 

The goal is simple:  Fill your jar with cotton balls.   They get a cotton ball for doing something nice or saying something kind, without prompting.  The child earns cotton balls for doing kind things.  Easy enough, right?

What is the reward for filling their jar? 

It is their choice (within reason).  They can pick to do something fun, go somewhere with us, stay up a little late… it’s up to them! They have their choice of DOING something fun.    
Note: We do not spend a lot of money on rewards.     See some examples below. 

Non-Toy Rewards

While there are so many types of rewards, we have decided not to use toys or money as a reward.  I want it to be something special with “someone” (quality time) instead of with “something.”   I’ve shared a list of non-toy rewards here, but I wanted to give you a few more examples to get give you some ideas to get started: 

  • Bowling
  • Bike Riding
  • Sleepover in mom/dad’s room with sleeping bags on our floor
  • Have a cousin sleepover
  • Pizza & movie night. (I do not encourage screen time as a reward, but sometimes we will rent a new movie and make a night of it.)
  • Go out for ice cream
  • Go swimming
  • Stay up a little later one night to play a game 
  • Go to a movie
  • Stay up late and play a board game

How do I set up the reward jar? 

Each of our kids has a jar with their first initial on it… You can see how to make them here. 

reward jars

  1. Each jar has a rubber band on it. The rubber band serves the purpose of a “fill line”. 
  2. Our oldest children have rubber bands higher on the jar because they are older & they need to get more cotton balls.
  3. As they get older (each year), the rubber band moves higher up as with their increased age comes higher expectations. This happens until they’re around six years old when I remove the rubber band and they simply have to fill the jar.
  4. OPTION: 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.Cotton Ball Jar Reward System for Kids

How do they earn a reward (cotton ball)? 

They earn one by doing something nice and unexpected. For example…

  • If one child spills something 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.
  • If they help a sibling without being asked. 

This reward system 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 to receive rewards (cotton balls)!  As an example, 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 and then cleaning their sibling’s room. 
  • Getting their brother and sister’s pajamas ready
  • Setting the kitchen table before dinner, before being asked.
  • Cleaning up the shoes in the garage. 
  • Making nice notes and hanging them on each other’s doors. 
  • Telling each other how great they were (it’s so fun to watch them work towards the “finish line”)

It worked!  They went bowling the next day.

What happens after the jar is filled and we’ve done the reward? 

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.

Where do we keep the reward 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.

Can they “Lose” Cotton Balls?  Do they get taken out for negative behavior? 

  • No, not anymore.  However, when they were younger, I did take it away on occasion.  This was very rare and only when they were being unkind to one another. I also always provided an opportunity to “earn it back” by being extra kind. 
  •  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.

a family of five walking in a field on a sunny day

Tips to make the reward system a success: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!”
  4. 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.)
  5. I do not give them out for doing their normal chores (see age-appropriate chore list here). These cotton balls are special and come when they do something that was NOT asked of them.  (see number 6)
  6. 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.
  7. If your kids need a little incentive for chores, check out our Swap Chores for Screentime Cards

The Main Idea:

  • FILL YOUR JAR->> DO SOMETHING SPECIAL WITH SOMEONE SPECIAL (Usually Mom or Dad, or even a sleepover at their grandparent’s house or cousin’s house).

How do I make the reward jars? 

The directions to make these DIY reward jars are pretty easy. 🙂  I made mine from marinara sauce jars. reward jars

This has been my favorite system that we’ve used in our house.  I haven’t had to stray from this easy reward system for kids yet and it never fails me.  It has been a long term setup in our home and has worked wonders!  It sets a focus on the positive things that your children do.
I know it will work for you too!

Looking for More Parenting Tips? Check Out the Following Articles!

link to chores by age

link to alternative to chore charts

link to stop doing that for your kids

lay with me


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. Hi I have a question. I think this is a great idea but Im afraid wouldn’t it give kids the notion that they should behave kindly only for obtaining rewards? Shouldn’t they be behaving well anyway?

        1. yes, of course. I just want them to know that I’ve noticed. It’s just a way to let them know that it’s appreciated.

  1. This is a great idea, Becky! I’ll have to give it a whirl next time I pick up a bag of cotton balls. My 2.5 year-old is great about helping out around the house and I know she’d love this!

    1. Its easy & they love it. 🙂 We just started it with our 3 year old & he is so excited to fill them up & go bowling! 🙂

      1. My grandson lost his Mom. He is only 13. This is hard on a child to lose someone and go through puberty at the same time. His Mom spoiled him rotten. His auntt and I have custody of him. We are trying to unspoil him. But it’s hard with the situation. We are doing the reward thing. Some times he acts out. We try to be understanding but also firm. Any suggestions will help. Thank you

        1. I’m sorry. That is a very hard situation to be in. I will keep you & your family in my thoughts.

  2. I am definitely trying this. My 5 year old has been giving me a run for my money lately and I want to try something positive and this is a great idea! thanks!!

    1. 🙂 I hope it helps- it really works great for our kids.

        1. This always happens. That’s the best part- you do something special with just that child, so to them it is extra one on one time! 🙂

  3. This is a great idea. I love that it is focusing on affirming positive behavior and that the reward is time. I will definitely think about implementing this with my 4 yr old.

  4. Hello, I really like this idea. But I would like to know how do you encourage to make their own responsibilities (clean up toy, be ready to school, or bed?, and a extra work in home?

    1. I have a post on here about how I do that… for everything that I found laying around, they lose some time at night & have to go to bed earlier. Ex: leave pants on floor- go to bed 5 minutes sooner. Leave bed not made- go to bed 5 min. sooner. It works wonders!

  5. Becky,

    This is a FABULOUS idea! We’ve experimented with a similar reward system, using gold “tokens” in glass jars, but the kids have to take them out and count them to see how they’re doing and often it gets forgotten. Maybe the cotton ball system might be more meaningful. I might just have to try it! Thanks so much for the tip!


      1. Off topic but if that is your daughter in the picture, my daughter may her doppelganger. 🙂 I can’t post a picture because it doesn’t allow it but same dress, same hair, looks like close to the same age.

  6. Our kindergarten teacher used this system instead of those cheap toys. Students were able to pick a privilege like share and tell, lunch with the teacher, use teacher supplies, etc. We loved it and so did the students!

  7. We started this yesterday with our sons, 4 and 7. My youngest is naturally kind but refuses to do anything asked directly of him, to the extent that he is late getting ready for school because he spent time getting his big brother’s shoes out of the cupbiard. So, do we reward him for this kind act although he has been doing it for a while and is therefore, expected? My eldest cottoned onto this and got his younger brother’s shoes out yesterday and was rewarded accordingly. If he repeats the same act should be rewarded again, or is it now expected? Since my youngest refuses to cooperate with most simple requests, I.e. behaving in shops, is it acceptable to use the ‘kindness clouds’, as we call them, to encourage him to behave? For example, ‘if you sit still while I try on these boots you can have a kindness cloud?’ It would certainly be unexpected and kind! Thanks you x

    1. At first, we rewarded for anything nice. After a few weeks/months, you can cut back a little, but really you could still do it. Its up to you. If you see that the behavior increases, I’d keep up with it. 🙂
      I do use them for “If you are quiet during ____” you will get a cotton ball when we get home. Or “If you can clean up this whole room, I will give you a cotton ball because it is HELPING Mommy so much.” 🙂 I didn’t used to, but now I do.

      1. Do you think this sort of thing would work for almost 2.5 year olds? My twin daughters turned two in January and now are beginning to display typical toddler behavior, and I would love to reward them for good behavior. I’m not sure they would understand it, but with the right explanations, it could work–right?
        Thank you!

        1. Our daughter is almost 3 and she loves to get a cotton ball, but she doesn’t quite understand it. (She wants to do it because her brothers are doing it.) 🙂

  8. I do this with my 15 year old daughter as well as my 6 year old daughter. We use pom-poms (from the art section) instead of cotton balls. We call it their “Fuzzy Jar”. They earn a fuzzy for good behavior. Because the pom-poms are different colors I let them both choose which color they want. It’s not a big thing, but it does give a little instant reward for their good behavior.

    For REALLY good behavior – I will sometimes give them 2 fuzzies. I try to not do it often. I’ve also given 3 fuzzies for extreme situations – usually pertaining to safety issues. Example: A knock came at the door in the middle of the night. My youngest didn’t go to the door but rather came in and woke up us up. She knows not to answer the door, but I wanted to show extra special attention for her following that rule.

  9. This is so great! We are going to give this a try.. I love that the reward is not a “thing”. Thanks for sharing and for all of your insight!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Miranda. Hope it works well in your house. 🙂