Throughout my years of seeing clients, I often suggested that parents use a sticker chart in order to motivate a child to change his/her behavior. Many times parents have responded negatively to that suggestion or have told me that sticker charts don't work. But the data overwhelmingly indicates that sticker charts DO work to help a child to change his/her behavior. Obviously they do not work with every child, nor do they remove problematic child behavior altogether, but in general, they are effective for parenting...if you are using the correct method to implement them. The suggestions below are based on what I've learned from being a therapist and a parent.

The idea behind a sticker chart is that people will do difficult or even unpleasant things if they know that there is a reward coming following the activity. Any person who has ever gotten up on Monday morning, looked longingly at their comfy bed, and still gone to work is an illustration of this principle. You go to work because you know that there is a reward—a paycheck—and that if you do not go to work, you will not receive the reward.

At times I have heard parents say that they do not believe in sticker charts because children should just be intrinsically motivated to behave or because the parent "shouldn't have to" reward the child for something that the child is expected to do. I am not arguing that you give your child a sticker for every behavior. If your child goes to bed at night with no problems, you don't need to give your child a sticker for that behavior. But, if bedtime has become a battle for you, getting ready for bed with no difficulties may be a targetted behavior that should go on the sticker chart.

Children learn about what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable based on the consequences of them. If you want a child to do a behavior more often, a reward will help. And although maybe you "should" be intrinsically motivated to go to work and to contribute to society, receiving a paycheck for doing it sure does help!

Caveat: I am not advocating that every person in a child's life should use a sticker chart. Recently, I have seen numerous blog posts by teachers criticizing the idea behind reward charts and indicating that some children have become depressed when they were given a "yellow light" or "red light" on a traffic-light based system of green light being good behavior and yellow or red light being poor behavior. These traffic-based systems include a component of punishment—you are demerited for not engaging in the targeted behavior. This is not what I am advocating for. I am advocating for a rewards-based system. Punishment can be handled in an entirely different system.

Also, I am stating that reward charts can be useful for parents to implement. Teachers may have too many students to provide the necessary time and attention that a reward chart would require for each student.

Dos and Don'ts of Reward Systems

1) Make it clear what behavior (or behaviors) you are working to change.

Often parents have many child behaviors that they would like to target. Trying to change every child behavior at once will be overwhelming to a child. So identify just a few behaviors that they child is working on (share with your sibling, get ready for school without an argument) and use the sticker chart solely for those behaviors. The child receives a sticker every time that the child engages in the targeted behavior. They save up the stickers for a reward. Once the targeted behaviors are being done pretty consistently, you can start to work on other behaviors instead.

2) Identify the prize ahead of time

It is important to identify what the prize is ahead of time, and you can engage your child in the process. For example, you can say "Would you like to work towards a Buzz Lightyear puzzle or a Mickey Mouse book?"  If you ask your child to choose from a few potential prizes, you are setting limits on how much you are willing to spend on a prize, and you are also giving your child some buy-in with the process. Kids are more motivated to do things when they have been giving choices during the process.

Identifying the prize ahead of time also lets your child knows what he/she is working towards. Simply earning stickers towards some amorphous prize is too vague for most children. They want to know what they are going to get out of working hard. Don't we all?

3) Identify how many stickers need to be saved up for the reward ahead of time.

Imagine that you received a paycheck but had no idea how much money you would need to buy something that you wanted to receive. There is no motivation if you have no idea what your currency will buy you. Children are the same way. If you want stickers to motivate your child, your child needs to know how many stickers are necessary to earn a prize. So once you have identified the prize, identify how many stickers are necessary to earn to get the prize.

4) Make the prizes achievable.

Sometimes what the child wants is something quite expensive, like an iPad or iPhone, and the parent decides that the child would need to earn 100 stickers to earn the prize. That type of reward will be difficult for a child to work towards because the prize will not be earned for a long time. Many times the stickers cease to have meaning if the prize is too distant or if too many stickers need to be earned in order to earn the prize. Imagine if you needed to save $300,000 to buy a house. Would you save every penny to do it knowing that you probably will not have that much money saved up for many years? Most people would contiue to spend their money because every penny feels like just a drop in a very large bucket that needs to be filled. The same goes for children. Rewards must be achievable within a few days to a week or the child will stop working towards them and the stickers will cease to have any meaning. So choose small prizes.

5) Use meaningful rewards that the child wants to receive.

It seems obvious that the child needs to want to receive the reward or a sticker chart will not be effective, but many parents identify things that they think that their child wants as rewards, only to learn that they were wrong. I once gave my daughter the choice of two puzzles as a reward for earning 5 stickers. She looked at the puzzles and immediately began to howl, "But I don't want these prizes!" Clearly receiving a prize that she had no interest in was not a motivator for her. This is part of what led me to realize that I needed to identify the prize that she was working towards ahead of time.

6) Keep your child's eye on the prize.

We keep the prize on a shelf in view. That way the prize serves as a visible reminder that there are rewards for her behavior and that if she wants the reward, she needs to engage in a targetted behavior. When we are out and about, we verbally remind her of the targetted behavior and that she will receive a sticker for it so she will be one sticker closer to earning the prize. Simply reminding her of the prize sometimes (but not always) can make a world of difference in her behavior.

7) Be consistent.

Many times parents have told me in a session that the sticker chart isn't working and the child has not changed his/her behavior. When I try to get to the root of the problem, often the parent says that they do not know what has gone wrong. When I talk with the child, often the child says that the parent forgot to give the child stickers or did not have a sticker on hand at the time of the sticker-worthy behavior and then forgot to give the child stickers at a later point. If this is the case, there is no motivation for the child to change his/her behavior. If your employer forgot to give you your paycheck sometimes would you continue to go to work every day?

Consistency is key with a sticker chart. You must ensure that you give the child a sticker when the child engages in the targetted behavior. This must happen every time the child engages in the behavior.

8) Connect the sticker to the targeted behavior.

One way to connect the sticker to the targeted behavior is to give the sticker to the child as soon as the targeted behavior has occured. What I have done is to keep my child's sticker chart on the fridge. The instant that my daughter engages in a targeted behavior, we go right to the sticker chart and put a sticker on it with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. We count how many stickers until she gets her reward. We review why she is getting a sticker ("You are getting this sticker because you did X behavior. Nice job! I'm really proud of you for doing X behavior! Keep it up and you're going to earn more stickers so you can earn your prize!"). It's a big deal for her to get a sticker, which makes it a big deal for her to have engaged in the targeted behavior. Her getting positive attention for engaging in a targeted behavior makes it much more likely that she'll do that same behavior again.

If we are not at home at the time, I tell her that she will get the sticker as soon as we get home. The instant that we get home, we go to the sticker chart and review what behavior she engaged in that earned her the sticker and put the sticker on her chart. By reviewing what behavior earned her the sticker, I am making a connection between the reward and the behavior. That way it makes it easy for her to know what the targetted behavior is and what the consequence for engaging in the targetted behavior is (she gets a reward).

9) Be positive.

The idea behind a sticker chart is to reward the child, not punish the child. So you do not take away stickers if a child is behaving poorly. You give the child the opportunity to earn rewards. This is not about punishing the child.

10) Think of this as a reward, NOT as a bribe.

Sometimes parents have been concerned that they are bribing their child to behave. Bribery is when you are stuck in a tough situation and you offer a prize to try to get your child to change his/her behavior in the situation. For example, if you are in a store and your child is throwing a tantrum, you may try to bribe the child by offering the child a candy bar if the child stops throwing the tantrum.  What bribery does is increase the likelihood of the bad behavior. So a child will learn that if he/she throws a tantrum, the parent is likely to offer a candy bar to stop the child from screaming. Of course a child will throw a tantrum every time that the child is in a store. Kids are motivated by their desires and they quickly learn how to work the system in their favor.

With a sticker chart, you have identified the sticker-worthy behavior ahead of time—before you are in a tough situation. So, before you walked into the store, you identified that being polite and cooperative while in the store is the targeted behavior. If the child does this, the child gets a sticker.  This prevents the child from engaging in the tantrum in the first place.

Again, sticker charts are not a magic bullet that will remove all tantrums and child misbehavior. All kids are going to misbehave at times and a child being tired, hungry, or stressed will make it even more likely that a child will misbehave. But sticker charts can help a child to engage in preferred behaviors more often. 

Finally, if you need to do a sticker chart on a budget, you can find many inexpensive prizes at a dollar store. Some of our families' best prizes have come straight from a dollar store!

Copyright Amy Przeworski. 

This post and all portions of this post may NOT be duplicated or posted elsewhere (including on other websites) without permission of the author.  However, a link to this post may be posted on your website without the need to request permission.

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Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families
Amy Przeworski, Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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