Using Child Behavior Charts for Your Kids
Do they really work and where can you find them?
Child behavior charts are a method of modifying child behavior and encouraging children to modify their behavior to desired outcomes. Perhaps you want to encourage your child to keep up with certain chores or to try new things or get them into a more scheduled routine. Child behavior charts can be a good way to modify their behavior through a reward system.
When my kids were young I used a method of rewarding good behavior with marbles in their marble jar. Eventually as their jar filled, the marbles were cashed in for rewards or money they could spend on candies or toys. For the most part, it worked well but I found it very difficult to keep up with my end of the deal, if we’re being honest. I think a sticker chart may have been just as effective without having to keep up with monetary rewards or other activities they wanted to do as reward. I had the right idea but it was too complicated for good follow through. A behavior chart with fun stickers would have been a more immediate reward and may have been easier for me to keep up with.
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What is a child behavior chart?
A child behavior chart is a chart that you hang on the wall or stick to the refrigerator for kids to see. It is usually bright and cheery, organized by the days of the week and by a list of “desirable behaviors” that you want to encourage your children to do on a daily or weekly basis.
It is basically a behavior modification system that uses reward to encourage desirable behaviors.
When your child accomplishes a desirable task or displays a desirable behavior, they are allowed to pick out a sticker and place it next to the activity to celebrate their accomplishment.
The idea is that a reward system will encourage your child to focus on doing these “good” behaviors and gives them the gratification of a reward at the end if they accomplish their desired goals.
Criticism of the child behavior chart
There has been some criticism of using behavior charts for kids. In a 2016 article called Against the Sticker Chart published in The Atlantic, Erica Reischer, a psychologist, discusses some of the reasons child behavior charts are not a good idea and many parents and teachers equally advocate against behavior charts and sticker charts for similar reasons that she outlines.
In many ways, they do. The problem with sticker charts and similar reward systems is not that they don’t work. Rather, they can work too well, creating significant negative and unintended long-term consequences for both the kids and their families. Sticker charts are powerful psychological tools, and they can go beyond affecting children’s motivation to influence their mindset and even affect their relationship with parents.— Against the Sticker Chart
Reischer told a story to make her point of an 8-year-old child who was asked by their parent to stop what they were doing and help their brother to clean up a spill. The child had been effectively using a behavior chart and this is a moment when it backfired. The child’s response to their parent was “What will you give me?”
This is my concern, as well, for using a rewards-based system for your children. Essentially, you are rewarding behaviors, many behaviors that are normal, everyday activities of things your child should be doing and would not normally be rewarded. It creates the idea in your child’s mind that they have to receive some kind of reward for themselves (and they may want to know what that reward will be before agreeing to do anything “good.”)
I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a “reward economy.” In reward economies, kids learn to trade desirable behavior for a reward. Sometimes the reward comes directly, in the form of toys, ice cream, or books; sometimes its value is stored, like currency, in stickers or other objects that can be exchanged at a later date. Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to “give it away for free,” like the 8-year-old boy who wanted a reward for helping his brother.—Against the Sticker Chart
I think the takeaway here is not that behavior charts for kids don’t work–they do work, especially for more mundane tasks–but to be aware of the psychological ramifications of a rewards-based system and not to overuse it.
For example, the mother in Reischer’s story was trying to get their child to do what I would consider a “good deed” or a helpful behavior. Empathy, helpfulness, charity, kindness–these are all things that are deeply rooted in character. Perhaps the behavior chart is more applicable to things like brushing their teeth, combing their hair, or remembering to fold their laundry. But for behaviors that require a bit more social knowledge and ethical understanding, the behavior chart is not necessarily the way to go.
Studies have shown that offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior may diminish future helpful behavior and can erode children’s innate tendency to help others. —Against the Sticker Chart
In short, don’t get so excited when you see your children responding well to their behavior chart and begin reward-izing every single thing that they do. And do not let the behavior chart alone teach your kids why they should do certain behaviors.
Another criticism of the behavior chart is that they introduce a “market economy” to the parent-child relationship where social interaction is typically the norm. Thus becomes the need to offer greater rewards as they get older and the desirable behaviors are a bit more complex than ‘I brushed my teeth today!”
When is a child behavior chart helpful?
Behavior charts can help children to set goals and track their accomplishments. What may feel like a game to them is actually a more complex behavior modification program–but they don’t have to know that, of course. While these charts work best for toddlers and preschoolers they have been used in older children as well but I think that is where the “bargaining” for “what’s in it for me” may begin to come into play.
Behavior charts can help smaller children to prepare for school by way of a more structured environment while providing them with a visual representation of their successes. Toddlers and preschoolers are very often hearing the word “no” as they plunder through life unawares and parents try to keep them corrected and on track. Behavior charts can help to balance out all those “no”s with a few “good job”s that they can see in bright and cheerful stickers they get to place on their chart.
Also, the chart provides a bit of order to your child’s day. This is something they will have to fall into when they begin school so this could be good practice for them to set a goal, work toward that goal, and receive a reward for doing so–in school these rewards could be a smiley face sticker on their work or activities for rewards for children who exhibit good behavior.
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.–Amy Przeworski Ph.D. (The Dos and Don’ts of the Sticker Chart)
4 Types of behavior charts for kids
There are different types of child behavior charts. Knowing which one to use to effectively manage your child’s behavior is key to having a successful result.
Here’s what to consider when choosing what type of chart to use:
- What are your goals?
- What types of behavior is the focus of the chart?
- What are the ages of your children?
- How do your children respond best to a reward system?
- Is it working effectively–perhaps a different style chart would work better for your child(ren)?
How to implement a behavior chart effectively
Clearly defined goals
Any type of chart that you choose to use with your children must have clearly defined goals. “Brush teeth” is more specific than “good hygiene” which could leave your children with an open-ended goal and leave room for too much bargaining over the reward.
Make each element of the chart clear but also make sure that you and your child are on the “same page” with each item on the list. You’d be surprised how clear you think something is but then your child interprets it differently.
Ask your child to explain each task to you in their own words–this will help to uncover any confusions your child may have over an activity.
Clearly defined rewards
Similarly, you need to have realistic and well-defined rewards.
If anything is unclear, you could end up with a child who is expecting too much for too little. Discuss the rewards with your child and make sure that they are clear on what to expect. The goal here is to promote good behavior–not build in them unrealistic expectations for rewards.
Make the goals achievable
Set a standard that is consistent, reasonable, and easy to maintain. If you give a sticker for every single activity–this might get a bit tedious. Perhaps a check mark that when they finish all their checks for the day or get a certain amount of checks for the day they can get a sticker for their chart and one for themselves to keep. This way you are working with the stickers once, still encouraging use of the chart and focusing on behavior, but you are not burdened by giving out stickers every hour of the day. Too much of a good thing can also dilute your efforts. Adjust your methods to suit your child’s personality and do what works best to modify their behavior and encourage the goals you have set for them.
Praise for the achievement when they accomplish it
As soon as your child completes a task–offer praise and let them either check it off on the chart or place their sticker reward for that task.
Connecting the behavior with the reward helps the chart to be a more effective tool. The praise alone is helpful to keep your child focused on the desired behavior.
Behavior charts do not work without consistency, as I learned similarly with my “marble jar” system I used with my boys. Consistent use, daily, and consistent time spent focused on encouragement–these are the things that will make your reward chart / behavior chart system work.
Behavior charts effectively modify behavior by
- Encouraging good behavior
- Rewarding good behavior
- Keeping the child focused on the desired behavior
These things cannot work without your consistent encouragement and leadership. The behavior chart gives your child the guide they need–it is up to you to provide the guidance.
Bargain with your kids if it is just for the sake of “I want”
Some kids may advocate for themselves. In other words–they’ll try to manipulate the system to get more rewards for themselves. Or they may expect you should reward them for other behaviors not listed on the chart, as in the 8-year-old boy who didn’t want to stop playing to help his sibling to clean up a spill.
If you suspect your child is taking this “market economy” approach a bit too seriously–perhaps you can speak their language a bit by developing the behavior chart to keep them motivated and on track with their behavior, without their manipulating it or you in the process.
- Stick to the chart
- Remind them of the reward system and that the rewards are non-negotiable
You can, however, work with your child in their advocacy with regards to other situations not on the chart. Making a bargain with your child is not altogether a bad idea–only you must take a bit of time to think over the “message” your child is receiving with said bargain and whether or not that supports what you want them to learn.
Remember that whenever you make a “deal” with your child, they are learning the power and value of doing what you say you are going to do. If you fail to follow through on your “deals” with them, then they may learn to distrust other people and that people can say one thing and do another without consequence.
If you have a little bargainer on your hand–tailor the chart to keep them encouraged and goal-oriented, but give them some space outside the chart to work toward their own personal goals. The personal “power” they have in this may help to keep them focused more on the goal and less on the “getting of what they want.”
Use the chart to shame them
You should never use their performance to shame them or force them to put a sad face next to their name on the chart. Shaming is ineffective and you are causing emotional harm to your child by doing so.
Be wary of the language you use with your child with regards to their performance. Keep it positive and never insult them or berate them for falling short on their goals.
Compare children to each other
I grew up in a family with 5 children and whether my father meant to or not he compared us to each other, especially when it came to grades. What this did, essentially, was make the less-accomplished children feel inferior to those who were scoring excellent grades. This left no room for each child to be evaluated on their own merits, their own abilities, and their own accomplishments. Furthermore, it led to resentment, jealousy, and sibling rivalry. What he intended to be encouragement backfired because instead of motivating the children, it put them into a competition with each other.
Do not use the chart to compare one child’s abilities or accomplishments to another. In fact, separate charts for each child are likely more effective as it makes each child focus on their own goals and accomplishments without comparing themselves to others.
Where to find Child behavior charts
You can find lots of different behavioral charts for children online with a quick Google search. Pinterest is also a great site for finding them. Here are a few sites that have them for free:
You can also create your own:
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Using Child Behavior Charts for Your Kids