A behavior chart is a visual tracker where kids earn stickers or points for completing desired behaviors, which they then exchange for rewards.
There are two main kinds of behavior charts. A sticker chart is effective for younger children, where they earn one sticker every time they complete the task on their chart. When they’ve earned a certain number of stickers, they can choose a reward from a list. For older children and adolescents, a token economy works best. A token economy is a bit more complex: different tasks may be worth a different number of points (depending on how much effort they require or how undesirable they are for the child), and rewards are also worth a different amount of points (depending on how involved or expensive they are). The child then gets to decide how they want to use their points — perhaps they want to use them right away for a smaller reward (5 points for 10 extra minutes of screen time) or they want to save them up to work towards something bigger (50 points for a new video game).
Regardless of the system you choose, a few pointers can help make a difference in how effective your behavior chart is. Following are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind!
- Involve your child in the process. While you’ll be in charge of deciding which behaviors make it onto the chart and how many points each is worth, you can encourage buy-in by having your child help put the chart together. Younger children will enjoy decorating it with crayons and stickers; older children will feel empowered if they get to suggest possible rewards.
- Make target behaviors specific and clear. For example, “clean your room” is vague. You may define a clean room as one where the bed is made, toys are put away, floor is swept, etc., whereas your child may consider it clean if there is a walking path from the door to the bed. To help your child learn to incorporate specific tasks into their daily routine, make sure each behavior is as specific and universally understood as possible.
- Positively phrase target behaviors: A mistake parents often make is including the absence of a behavior, such as “No yelling.” It’s more effective to teach children what to do rather than what not to do. For example, reward them with stickers every time you notice them using their indoor voice.
- Switch up the rewards after a while. Maybe your child is really motivated by Silly Bands this week, but if they keep getting rewarded with Silly Bands, they might get bored with them and stop working to earn rewards. It helps to check in with your child periodically and come up with fun ideas together for rewards they can work towards to make sure they remain engaged.
- Put too many behaviors on the chart at once. Start with one or two, and work up to no more than 3 at once. When your child masters a behavior (meaning they do it regularly without prompting), celebrate their accomplishment and move the behavior off the chart. You can tell them they’ve done such a great job learning to brush their teeth every day, taking their shoes off at the door, writing down all their homework assignments, or whatever the task may be, that you’re going to start working on something new.
- Take away points or stickers that your child has already earned. We all have bad days, and we all mess up. But taking away credit for good behavior they’ve exhibited in the past won’t encourage better behavior in the future; it will only cause resentment and frustration. Plus, it’s not really fair. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t lose last week’s paycheck. Similarly, don’t give “bad” stickers (such as sad faces or thunder clouds). Instead of focusing on what went wrong, wait for the next time your child does something well, and make a big deal out of it! Giving positive attention to the desirable behavior will help to increase that behavior and decrease acting out behavior.
- Only give tangible rewards. Not only is it expensive for you to have to keep buying them things, but you’d be missing out on an opportunity for relationship building. Social rewards can be motivating for kids and help bring you closer as a family. Examples include going to the park together, having a family game night, baking their favorite dessert together, etc.
Many families find that behavior charts take some trial and error to figure out what works for them. Don’t stress if the system doesn’t work exactly as you hope at first. Think about what feels off, and keep adjusting until you find the right chart that works for everyone.
Caroline Segal is a psychotherapist at the Sasco River Center in CT. She specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.