January 15, 2017

Should You Use A Sticker Chart?

If you have a young child, you have probably considered a behavior management system like a sticker chart or reward system of some sort. Do these things really work? Well, the short answer is yes.  The longer answer is 1) it depends on how you use it 2) it depends on how consistent you are and 3) it depends on if your child has a history of trauma.

Full disclosure: I am not a huge fan of these types of rewards systems. I think they focus too much on outcomes and not enough on the process. HOWEVER, for very young children (under 5), I do find that they work wonders for managing some behaviors. Behaviors connected to potty training, to doing simple chores, to managing small problem behaviors (like biting, hitting, nap/bed times, baths or other transition times) are good targets for behavior management systems.

Older Children and Behavior Management Systems

If your child is over 5, then they are probably getting some type of behavior management system at school. The whole red light/green light or letter conduct grades or, my least favorite of all, “pull your clip.” Again, there is an evidence base for these systems, but (teachers will hate me for this), I HATE those systems. You can read more about why I hate them so much here.

The Impact of Trauma On Behavior Management

The caveat for children who have experienced trauma (especially abuse or neglect or unstable parenting) is that they are used to going without things.  And, more importantly, they have very low positive affect tolerance (which means that they do not handle praise well).  Put those two things together and it means that they don’t care that much about consequences (not getting the reward) and they sabotage their success (getting the reward) because they don’t believe that they are truly worthy.  So, if you have a child that has attachment issues (parents that have mental health or substance abuse problems), or are part of the foster care system…proceed with caution and consult with a mental health professional about behaviors.  You might not find them very effective.

For the “typical” little ones,

Here’s the nitty gritty on sticker charts:

  1. Whatever you do, you have to do consistently.  Don’t just do it for a day or two and then forget.  You have to use it everyday.
  2. The “reward” has to be meaningful to the child, but not so expensive that it becomes a problem.  At this age, stamps or stickers in their favorite characters are usually enough.
  3. Keep it positive.  Just give it if the child does the behavior, but don’t take away if he doesn’t.  At this age, working up to a larger prize is okay, but often difficult because kids don’t understand the concept of time well enough. Just stick to a daily thing (you napped today, so you get a stamp) or  (you followed directions so you get a sticker)
  4. Stick to one or two behaviors at most and make them very specific.  Always keep it positive and talk about what you WANT them to do versus what you want them to stop doing.
  5. Avoid ‘you were good’ vs ‘you were bad’ at school today language.  This becomes a self esteem issue.  Change to good DAY vs bad DAY.  
  6. If the behavior was good, focus on the effort involved. 

“You worked really hard today, you’re so proud of yourself”

NOT the outcome “you were good, you get your prize.” Let them do the work of giving himself the reward.  Have him put the sticker up or get the stamp himself.  You want to focus on the feeling of pride/accomplishment for doing the work, not just for “being good.”

The Visual Impact of Behavior Management Systems

The thing I like the best about behavior charts is the visual aspect.  Due to the language deficits and the inability to read, having a visual cue and reminder about something is very helpful for young children.  So, using a system that has a beautiful visual element is always good.  Some ideas for using visual cues include collecting items that will look beautiful together like:

  • Stickers on a calendar
  • Popsicle sticks into a container
  • Putting marbles or rocks into a jar
  • Moving a football magnet across a field
  • Adding a link to a construction paper chain
  • Putting pennies into a bank

Ensure Compliance By Working As A Team

It is also helpful if all adults in the household are on board with this plan.  Mom’s and Dad’s should be equally able to determine if the reward was earned.  One can’t be harder than the other.  It should be so easy to determine if something happened (like pee in the toilet or not) that anyone around could accurately decide that the reward is due.

If you can not get compliance across all adults in a household, then designate ONE person that is in charge of the rewards and make sure that the child knows that ONLY that person can make the call.

But Keep Going Even If You Don’t Have  A Team

If a child visits another household, they might not be willing or able to continue this system.  Don’t worry.  More than likely, you will see that the behavior improves in both environments; however, it will be stronger in the one where the system is used consistently. Your day care, for example, may not be able to give food rewards for good behaviors but that doesn’t mean that you can’t.  It just means that the child will learn what to expect in each environment.

Whatever you decide, try to make it fun.  Keep it light and silly.  When the behavior occurs consistently (like for a whole month), then either discontinue the chart or change the goal to something harder.

A Note About Siblings:

If you have more than one child, be sure that each child that is part of the system has equally challenging goals.

Imagine if one child is getting rewards for picking up toys and that is a source of major meltdowns, but another child loves to clean…this is a recipe for disaster.  You want to be sure that one child is not mistakenly being set up to be the achiever and another set up to fail.

Any child that is part of the system should have rewards that are hard for them at first and become easier over time.  That way if one child earns the reward and the other doesn’t, you can go back to focusing on the EFFORT involved. He worked really hard on that today.  You can try again tomorrow.

Share your experiences (either positive or negative) with sticker charts or behavior systems with me. I would love to hear more.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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