Ah, reward charts: also known as sticker charts, star charts or behaviour charts. When I suggest using a reward chart, parents typically tell me that they have done this before and that, perhaps, it lasted for a little while and then stopped working, or that it never worked in the first place. As with many other strategies, reward charts are not a revolutionary concept; but it is a matter of how they are implemented that can make the difference between a really effective behaviour management tool or what can feel like yet another failed technique.
For those who have not used a reward chart before, this is a positive reinforcement tool in which a child can earn a sticker (or star or tick) for each time they demonstrate the desired behaviour. Once the child has earned a certain number of ticks, they get a back-up, larger reward (e.g., a play date, a small toy, etc.).
Below, my tips for using reward charts successfully.
1. Focus on one specific behaviour. Reward charts are most effective when they are used to target one behaviour that is very clear to the child. For example, when using a reward chart to improve a child’s compliance with instructions, she might earn a sticker for each time she does as she is told. When these charts are used to reward a wide variety of behaviours or for vague behaviours such as “being good”, they are far less effective.
2. Make it easy. One of the biggest mistakes people make is making it too difficult to earn the back-up reward from the start. Parents think about what their child “should” be able to do instead of what they are actually able to do. If your child rarely complies with instructions, then requiring him to earn 15 stickers for a back-up reward will be too difficult, and he will lose interest quickly. Meet your child where he is. A good rule of thumb is that you want your child to be able to earn the first reward within two or three days. This will motivate him to keep trying. Once he is earning the rewards easily, you can make it more challenging.
3. Give rewards as immediately as possible. When a reward is earned, the more immediately your child gets to experience it, the more effective it will be in shaping behaviour. If your child earns a play date on a Tuesday but has to wait until Saturday to have it, it will not be as effective as getting to do it immediately. Of course, sometimes this has to happen for one reason or another; however, this can often be avoided by thinking ahead, knowing how long it typically takes your child to earn a back-up reward, and choosing what the reward will be accordingly.
4. Keep it interesting. Reward charts that were initially successful often fail because the child loses interest in the reward itself. That is, if the reward is always the same, it will lose its novelty quickly, thus diminishing the child’s motivation to try to earn it. I always suggest that, when setting up a reward chart, you have a list of 15-20 reward ideas (and these can require different amounts of points to earn). Change the reward each time to keep it fresh and interesting. You can certainly recycle ideas down the track. It can be very helpful to engage your child in coming up with ideas. Be creative here! Rewards needn’t always involve buying things. It might be getting to play a special game with Mum or Dad or a family movie night where the child picks what movie to watch.
5. Never take stickers/rewards away. If your child does the wrong thing and earns a consequence, find another way to do this independent of the reward chart. If you take stickers or earned rewards away, it undermines the effectiveness of the reward chart.
6. Change the target behaviour as needed. If your child becomes very skilled at demonstrating the target behaviour and now requires 30 stickers, for example, to earn a back-up reward, it may be time to target a different behaviour, instead. Continue to praise your child and even give little rewards randomly for the original target behaviour, but this will no longer be part of the reward chart.