Smiley Faces, Emojis, and Reward Systems: Another Perspective on Behavior

Building success upon “what already works” is the way to go when it comes to motivation, reward systems, and inspiring the best from our children.  They are no different than the larger, older forms of humanity; we all like positive feedback and respond accordingly. However, I am writing about the use of Smiley Faces within these reinforcement systems for I believe in certain circumstances, these little affirmations reinforce the wrong message: “I am a good person” or “I am a bad person” in the eyes of my teachers or my parents.  And in the context of behavior, where communication is transferred through one’s actions, the message of being “good” or “bad” takes away from the intent of these systems; which is all about reinforcing behaviors, rather than judging our children as “good” or “bad”.

I know this may sound so simplistic.  However, many of my clients with my education advocacy practice have children who’s sense of themselves is twindling due to the struggle they face every day within the school setting due to their response to the environment.  For kids who experience ADHD, Autism, or other Sensory-related symptoms, “fight or flight” responses are natural reactions when one feels over-whelmed.  Often, these kids internalize a poor sense of themselves as a result of the discipline process and typical intervention.  So when the school develops a reinforcement system, often within a behavior intervention plan (BIP), which features smiley faces as the form of feedback, it often is interpretted as follows:

“My teacher is happy with me; she likes me” when the smiley face is received. Or …

“My teacher does not like me, I just earned a frown face for my day at school”.

So what I am suggesting is a program that moves away from the Smiley Face and shifts to a behavior-focus reinforcement system.

Keep in mind, most behavior intervention plans (BIP) are more likely to lead to successful intervention when the focus is limited to ONE to THREE target behaviors at a time.

In addition, the targeted behavior, the preferred behavior, is best written in a positive affirmation of “what one expects from the student” rather than focusing on the behavior that needs to change.  For example: Instead of focusing on “During class, the number of call-outs will reduce from five every hour to one every hour”, the actual reward system developed with the child will highlight the following:


And this will be measured by the following rubric:

0= Never

1= Rarely

2= Sometimes

3= Often

4= Always

Now, some kids may not be able to work through the difference between RARELY and SOMETIMES or SOMETIMES and OFTEN … so you modify accordingly.  If you need to have a picture that goes along with this specific behavior, having the child draw a figure of a student raising their hand, or having the student cut out a picture from a magazine, showing a child with their hand raised, may work best rather than smiley faces alone.

Then these POINTS, 0-4,  transfer into a REWARD System.  Often a graduated reward program, highlighting specific rewards for each accumulated point level works best:

For example:

10 Points = First in line for the day

15 points = Game Tme with a buddy during independent free time

20 points = Lunch Buddy time in the class for one day

In addition to this being a progressive system, modified based upon the child’s development and interests, this system reinforces the idea of DELAYING PLEASURE for there is an opportunity for the child to bank these points toward higher level rewards.  So it affirms both the targeted behaviors but also supports the development of patience versus impulsivity.

Notably, it’s the child herself who internalizes “Happy Face” emotions and a developing sense of herself through an assessment of her own efforts rather than being dependent on an adult for this level of affirmation.  

Again, I know this may read rather simple, and somewhat obvious to some, however, ever day in this work, I come across behavior plans that fail to meet the needs of the children for three simple reasons:

  1. The expected targeted behavior may not be clear to the child.
  2. There may be too many targeted behaviors being reinforced at one time.
  3. The reward system may be implemented as a punishment as well; for the opportunity to work toward rewards may feel undaunting and unattainable by the child.

For more information and support, please contact us at  It would be my pleasure talking to you more about your son, daughter, or other concerns you may have.



Facebook Auto Publish Powered By :