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.

Why a white daisy?

Apparently, when people  are asked to draw a flower, the first one that comes to mind for a majority of people is the daisy shape.   This single flower (just the flower part without the stem or any leaves and on a solid black background) was show to study participants after being shown a high-arousal negative image. Examples of high-arousal negative images include awful things like violence, injuries and car crashes.  Two trials were conducted:  in the first subjects were shown a high arousal image and then either a) the flower image b) a mosaic of fragments of the flower image or c) a visual fixation point.  In the second trial, the high arousal image was followed by either a) the flower image, b) a chair (deemed a neutral image) or c) a blue sky with clouds (deemed a positive non-floral image).   Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were taken throughout the experiments.  

As expected, mean blood pressure was lower when participants viewed the flower versus the fixation point or the mosaic flower,  but what was unexpected is that the flower image actually reduced mean blood pressure to a level lower than the baseline.  Both the flower image and the blue sky had a similar positive impact in changing mood from negative to positive (with the blue sky having the most overall impact).  However, only the flower (not the sky) caused a reduction in mean blood pressure.  It was determined that viewing a simple flower image could in fact change a negative mood into a more positive one and also decrease blood pressure. 

The power of the single flower image was then studied in regards to salivary cortisol levels.  During this study, the high-arousal images were once again paired with the flower image, the flower fragment mosaic or the fixation point.  Once again, only the flower image was shown to significantly decrease stress during the recovery phase. One final examination looked at fMRI images of the brain during these conditions.  Through this imagery it was discovered that the flower image was effective in decreasing the amygdala-hippocampus activation that occurred after viewing the high arousal images. Researchers speculated that the flower image was a distraction tool that was helped prevent the recall of the stressful images.  

The brief viewing of this single flower image was shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions and created better functioning of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems! Having such a simple tool available to help reduce stress and regulate unpleasant emotions and is one possible tool for interrupting ruminating thoughts or unpleasant flashbacks.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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