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Amy Przeworski Ph.D.
Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

The Dos and Don'ts of the Sticker Chart

How to use a sticker chart effectively to improve your child's behavior.

Throughout my years of seeing clients, I often suggested that parents use a sticker chart in order to motivate a child to change his or 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 or her behavior. Obviously, they do not work for every child, nor do they remove problematic child behavior altogether. But in general, they are effective—if you are using the correct method to implement them.

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 afterward. 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 parents should give their 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 targeted behavior that should go on the sticker chart.

Children learn about what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable based on the consequences of those behaviors. If you want a child to carry out 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 so 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 (in which "green light" indicates good behavior and "yellow light" or "red light" indicates 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 can think of any number of their child's behaviors that they would like to target. Trying to change every behavior at once will be overwhelming to a child. Identify just a few behaviors that the child is working on (sharing with a sibling, getting ready for school without an argument, etc.) and use the sticker chart solely for those behaviors.

The child should receive a sticker every time that he or she 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 reward ahead of time.

It is important to identify what the reward is ahead of time—and you can engage your child in the process. For example, you can say, "Would you like to work toward a new puzzle or a new 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, and you are also giving your child some buy-in with the process. Kids are more motivated to do things when they have been given choices.

Identifying the prize ahead of time also lets your child know what he or she is working towards. Simply earning stickers toward 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 reward. Once you have identified the reward, identify how many stickers are necessary to earn it.

4. Make the reward achievable.

Sometimes, what the child wants is something quite expensive, like a tablet or a new bike, 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 that you needed to save $300,000 to buy a house. Would you save every penny to do it, despite knowing that you probably will not have that much money saved up for many years? Most people would continue 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 short period of time (from a few days to a week) or the child will stop working toward them and the stickers will cease to have any meaning. In other words, 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 five 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 reward that she was working towards ahead of time.

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

In our home, we keep the prize on a shelf in view. That way, the prize serves as a visible reminder that there are rewards for our daughter's behavior—and that if she wants the reward, she needs to engage in a targeted behavior. When we are out and about, we verbally remind her of the targeted behavior, that she will receive a sticker for it, and that 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 or her behavior. When I try to get to the root of the problem, the parent often says that they do not know what has gone wrong.

When I talk with the child, however, the child often 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 or 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 targeted 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 occurred. What I have personally done is 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 targeted behavior is and what the consequence for engaging in the targeted behavior is (i.e., she gets a reward).

9. Be positive.

The idea behind a sticker chart is to reward the child, not punish him or her. In other words, do not take away stickers if a child is behaving poorly. Be sure, also, that you give the child the opportunity to earn rewards—don't select behaviors that are beyond her developmental level.

10. Think of it as a reward, NOT as a bribe.

Sometimes, parents have been concerned that they are bribing their child to behave. Bribery, in a parenting context, is when you are stuck in a tough situation and you offer a prize to try to get your child to change his or her behavior in that specific situation. If you are in a store and your child is throwing a tantrum, for example, you may try to bribe the child by offering him a candy bar if he stops throwing the tantrum.

What bribery does, in the long run, is increase the likelihood of the bad behavior. A child will learn that if he or she throws a tantrum, the parent is likely to offer a candy bar to stop the child from screaming. Of course, the child will then throw a tantrum every time that she 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. 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 to occur. 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 family's best prizes have come straight from the dollar store!

Copyright Amy Przeworski

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About the Author
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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