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If your child is struggling with certain behaviors or responsibilities, help may be as simple as creating a sticker chart.
Parents, particularly those of young children, have used behavior charts to motivate their kids for years, and kids do tend to respond positively to them — at least in the short-term.
A behavior chart involves setting a goal, creating a chart that clearly displays the goal, and then marking with stars, stickers, or earning other rewards when the behavior has been successfully displayed.
Here’s more about the different types of charts, how to use them, and common pitfalls to avoid when using a rewards system.
Types of behavior charts
There are a variety of charts to choose from. Some may be more appropriate for young children. These charts are usually very simple and don’t call out too many goals or categories.
Others, like chore charts, may help to motivate and organize responsibilities for older kids. The act of charting their progress may give them a sense of additional responsibility.
Toddlers and younger kids may not need a big prize for doing a good job. Sticker charts make use of colorful stickers as the reward.
All you need to create a sticker chart is a piece of paper and some stickers that speak to your child. Think of their favorite cartoon characters, animals, or other images. These are the kinds of stickers you’ll want to keep on hand.
When a child makes progress, you place a sticker on the chart. You can also let them choose the reward sticker and add it to the chart themselves.
Star charts are similar to sticker charts. But instead of the star being the prize, it’s more of a visual representation to help count the number of times something — like making the bed or putting away toys — has been done.
Again, you can make your own using paper or purchase a sticker chart, like the Playco Reward Chart or Roscoe Responsibility Star Chart, with reusable stars or other shaped markers.
You can find charts with all sorts of options and colorful reward magnets. Good choices might include the Melissa and Doug Chore and Responsibility Chart or the dmazing Magnetic Chore Chart.
Like store-bought star charts, these charts are visually interesting and well organized. School-aged children might even enjoy making this type of chart themselves.
Magnetic charts are better for children ages 4 and older. Magnets pose a choking risk for any child under 4.
You may have come across a color chart — like the EZ-Tuck Clip ‘n’ Track Behavior Chart — in your child’s classroom. This type of chart is oriented vertically.
Moving your clip up the chart is associated with good behaviors and moving down is associated with poor choices. You can write what each color category means on your own to make this type of chart more personal.
Older kids and teens may find a written chart is helpful for tracking their progress toward goals. As kids grow, the fancy visuals aren’t necessarily as important as the tracking itself.
Consider something like this Magnetic Behavior Chalkboard, which allows kids to write down whatever is in their routine — chores, homework, etc. — and place a checkmark beside items they’ve completed.
Written charts can be part of a daily or family journal as well.
Don’t want all the paper hanging around? Older kids and teens may even find that charting using an app is motivating. While not a physical chart, apps allow both kids and parents to track progress and earn rewards.
One example is the Homey App which lets kids chart their chores, work toward goals, and earn an allowance. The app even connects to bank accounts and allows your child to put money into different savings accounts.
How to create a behavior chart
For young kids, you might consider making a chart for habits like brushing teeth, using the potty, putting away toys, or staying in bed after bedtime.
Older kids may also benefit from seeing more complicated responsibilities and chores on a chart. Whatever the case, creating your system is relatively straightforward.
1. Set your goal
You’ll want to be as specific as possible when setting a goal. For example, a goal like “be nice to your sister” may be difficult to grasp. Instead, you’ll want to explain exactly what “being nice” means in terms that your child can understand.
You can elaborate by explaining you’d like your child to use kind words, keep their hands to themselves, and include their sister in play.
Keep the language positive as well. Words to avoid include:
Instead of “don’t jump on the bed” you might say “play on the floor.”
2. Choose a reward
Try to choose a reward that you know will truly motivate your child. It may be a toy or favorite activity.
Resist choosing things that are out of your budget. Even a sticker or hug can motivate.
You might even consider choosing a small basket of prizes from a dollar store for a behavior like potty training that may take some time — and several rewards — to master.
Make sure the award is age-appropriate, too. Older kids may be better motivated by things like screen time, allowance, or staying up later on a weekend night.
3. Make your chart
The chart you use can be as simple as a piece of paper with stars drawn on it. Or it might be fancier, like a store-bought chore chart with all sorts of fun magnets.
The most important part is that it’s clearly labeled with the goals or expectations. For example, you might write “Toby’s Potty Chart” and include a picture of a toilet.
Use simple language and images so your child will understand. If stickers are your main motivating tool, consider including your child in choosing them.
4. Set up the ground rules
Define specific behaviors you want your child to work using their chart.
If you want them to clean their room each morning, explain what that means. You can say “I would like you to make your bed, tidy up your desk, and put away your clothes.”
Follow that by sharing how that involves the chart. “If you do all of your chores, I will give you a sticker on the chart.” And then explain any further reward: “Once you get 10 stickers, you will get a toy.”
5. Use your chart
Once you’ve defined your goals, set up your chart, and explained the rules to your little one, it’s time to start using the system.
Place the chart in a spot where it’s easy to see, like a refrigerator door or the door to your child’s room. Remember to praise your child and place the sticker or marker on the chart immediately after they’ve modeled the good behavior to create the association.
Most of all, be consistent. The chart will likely lose effectiveness if you don’t use it regularly to help enforce the desired behavior.
Work toward life without a chart
As kids get older, simple charts don’t tend to work quite as effectively. So, once you see improvement and it’s consistent, try phasing out the chart.
Your child may already be making good choices with the original behavior you targeted with the chart.
You can choose to move on and work on another behavior. Alternatively, if you think the chart isn’t working anymore, you change the game entirely. For example, older kids might be more motivated by collecting tokens, like chips or marbles, to earn their bigger rewards.
Do behavior charts work?
Charts for kids of all ages may work very well — at least in the short-term.
Some critics say using rewards may make children less likely to do a task unless they’re continually given prizes.
It all has to do with motivation and where it comes from. When you use a chart and reward system, you’re extrinsically motivating your child. This means that the drive to want to do something or improve a behavior is coming from an outside source (the chart or reward).
Researchers share that extrinsic motivation may not be as sustainable as motivation that comes from within your child. This is called internal — or intrinsic — motivation.
The National Mental Health and Education Center explains that it’s more difficult for kids to stay motivated when their motivation comes from an outside source. They further explain that kids may learn and retain more information in the long run when they’re motivated intrinsically versus extrinsically.
So, how does extrinsic motivation impact intrinsic motivation? In a review on the topic, researchers uncovered that studies are mixed.
Some show that extrinsic rewards may undermine internal drive to improve. Others show that extrinsic motivation might improve or at least “enhance” intrinsic motivation.
At the end of the day, whether or not it helps is likely individual to your own child.
Other research explains that it’s the type of reward offered that’s the key to success.
In a study on 20-month-old children, researchers offered verbal praise, material rewards, or no reward in response to certain actions. They uncovered that material rewards may actually decrease a child’s desire to help others.
On the other hand, extrinsic motivation involving verbal/social rewards (praise) may be effective and preferred because it helps to boost intrinsic motivation. Another study on 3-year-old children echoed these findings.
Helping your child succeed with a behavior chart
tips for behavior chart success
Make sure your goal is attainable and age-appropriate. Tasks a toddler can master may be entirely different from what you might expect from your older child. If you see that a certain responsibility is giving your child trouble, try to see if it’s their effort that’s lacking or if the task is too complicated. Set milestones. If you’re working on something like potty training, your child may lose their motivation if they don’t earn a prize until they get 30 stars. Break it into smaller chunks, like 10 stars, to keep the drive alive. Place the reward somewhere in view. If it’s a new toy, consider putting it on top of your refrigerator or on a high shelf so your child can see what they’re working toward. Consider offering praise. “Great job, honey!” in place of material rewards may be better if you’re concerned your child is becoming too dependent on getting material things in response to actions. Reward immediately. No matter what the prize, be sure to give it right away when your child has earned it through the chart. This will create the connection and strongly motivate the change in behavior. Don’t remove stars or other markers from the chart. Even if your child makes a poor choice, the stickers they earned are already theirs. Instead, if you have some hiccups, explain that good choices result in more stickers or other rewards. Be consistent and clearly communicate your expectations. Overall, if you want the behavior chart to work, you need to use it consistently. Resist changing the rules after you’ve started using it or forgetting to use it altogether if you feel you’re making progress.
The bottom line
While the research is mixed on how effective extrinsic motivation can be, behavior charts may help encourage your child to make progress toward a goal.
You won’t necessarily know until you try it on your own.
Consider setting up a chart to see if it works for your child and your family. Once you’ve mastered a behavior, work toward phasing out the chart entirely.
Try focusing on your child’s sense of confidence with completing certain tasks or reaching milestones, and you may just find that the motivation starts coming from within.