Acknowledging your child’s positive behavior is the best way to keep that behavior going. Creating and keeping a behavior chart (a.k.a., “sticker chart” or “reward chart”) helps everyone in the family take the time to stop and recognize when the child is doing something right. Behavior charts also give the child clear goals, so that he or she can keep up the good work.?
Here are some basic principles to keep in mind when you begin using a behavior chart:
Make it fun and positive. Behavior charts are meant to focus on positive behaviors and should be fun. With young children, the chart can be introduced as a game. Whenever possible, it should focus on what the child should do, rather than what he or she should not do (For example, “Johnny will brush his teeth,” instead of getting docked points for “Johnny did not brush his teeth”).
Be firm and consistent. One of the best things about behavior charts is that when they are used correctly, they allow little room for negotiation. Either the child meets the goal or doesn’t. It is important to put the chart in a location where both children and parents can easily see it and to hang it where it might be most relevant (e.g., in the bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen). Parents must be models for consistency if they expect their children to learn consistency. Often, a behavior chart doesn’t work well right away. That can be a clue that adjustments need to be made or that the expectations were set too high. Try the chart for a full week before making any adjustments. Try it consistently for a full month before deciding to abandon the strategy completely.
Set realistic expectations (In fact, start with low expectations). If your child is consistently hitting his sibling daily, expecting him to suddenly go 7 out of 7 days with no hitting is not realistic. A reasonable goal for the first week might be “Johnny will use his words without hitting 1 out of 7 days a week.” If he successfully meets that goal, the goal can be upped to 2 out of 7 days, and so on. When a child successfully meets goals for 2 weeks in a row, it is a good sign that he is ready for more challenging goals. At the beginning, it is especially important to set goals that your child will meet (fairly) easily. That helps start off the activity on the right foot and helps the child feel good about his ability to meet goals.
Choose behaviors that are clear and easy to track. Probably the most common problem with many families’ behavior plans is that goals are too vague and are, in effect, meaningless to young children, whose abstract thinking skills are not as well developed as adults’. Goals like “behave,” “listen,” and “good attitude” are way too vague. Behaviors should be as specific as possible in order to help the child be successful. “Be at the bus stop on time by 7:45,” “Use 3 feeling words instead of hitting” and “Go upstairs for bath after no more than one reminder” are better goals because they are clear and specific and have less potential to confuse the child, and are easily tracked for parents.
Be creative with rewards. Different things work for different children. Most children respond well to positive attention and time with parents. Things like a trip to the park, baking cookies, or a weekend movie night usually work well. For small children, the chart itself (with stickers or happy faces) and lots of praise may in itself be reward enough. For other children, money and toys are appropriate rewards. Rewards are a fact of life, and as adults, we are reward-driven too. It is important to let go of the concern that rewarding your child will spoil them or that rewards are the same as bribes. Bribing happens in the moment and involves manipulation and desperation. It is not the same as a well thought-out reward system to teach your children to engage in positive behavior most parents want to see.
Keep it simple. Use simple and straightforward point systems and keep the math simple (e.g. 1 point earned per task, must earn 15 points/week to earn reward). For most children, waiting a month for a large reward is simply way too long (although some older children may prefer longer-term, larger goals with larger rewards). For young children, rewards should be given as soon as possible after the goal is met. So for some children, it may mean 15 minutes to snuggle or play a game, a cookie after dinner, or a special prize when the task is completed. If older children seem to be struggling to meet weekly goals, scale it back and consider daily goals/rewards.
Some great printable sample behavior charts can be found at http://www.freeprintablebehaviorcharts.com/behaviorcharts3-10.htm, or if you’re particularly crafty or feeling adventurous, create your own!
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist