Using Sticker Charts to Improve Child Behavior
As I mentioned in a previous post, sticker charts can be a great way to help your child learn behaviors that you want to see more of. Sticker charts certainly aren't a new idea, and many parents have tried them. But there are ways we recommend using sticker charts to increase the likelihood that they will work. Here, I want to give some tips on how to use sticker charts so you'll be successful in improving your child's behavior.
Choose the "Stickers"
Although I'm discussing this as a sticker chart, you don't necessarily need to use stickers. Younger kids tend to enjoy stickers, so if you can find a large number of them that are affordable you may want to use them. But you can also make a sticker chart that is laminated, or one a white board, so it can be reusable. In that case, you can use something like check marks, smiley faces, or points. Think about what makes most sense for your household, and give it a try. You can always change it later!
Choose an Appropriate Time Frame
When deciding how you want to setup your sticker chart, one of the first things you need to decide is the time frame for the chart. That is, how often will they get chances for stickers, and how long will they need to wait for their reward? Younger children have a harder time delaying a reward, so you'll want to consider a sticker chart that is used daily and has a reward at the end of the day. Once a child is older and can wait longer for a reward, then a sticker chart can span an entire week and a reward can be on the weekends.
You'll also want to consider how many times during the day the behavior can earn a sticker. If it's something that doesn't happen often (e.g., finishing homework), then it can be every time the behavior occurs. For other things that are throughout the day (e.g., playing without hitting), it can be separated into periods of time and a sticker can be earned if the behavior happened throughout. It all depends on the behaviors you ultimately end up choosing, which will be covered more below.
Pick an Appropriate Reward
Once you have the structure in mind, you'll want to figure out a good reward for your child. Part of choosing a good reward involves deciding what your child will need to do in order to earn that reward. For most rewards, they either get it or they don't, which means they need to earn X number of stickers/points/etc. While this can work, it can also be discouraging for a child if they come just one or two points shy of reaching their goal.
An alternative to having a cut-off for the reward is to choose something that is flexible. Most often I recommend something related to time, such as time playing a video game or watching TV. For every point earned, maybe they get 10 minutes to play a game. It all depends on the behaviors you're choosing, how many points they'll earn, and so forth. You can also combine both approaches and have something that's flexible, but also some sort of bonus if they get all the points they're able to earn. And again, try what you think will work, and if it doesn't then you can always change it later. It may also help to involve your child in deciding what their reward will be.
One thing that tends to come up when choosing a reward is the idea of taking something away (e.g., TV time the child already has) and allowing them to earn it back. However, we tend to discourage this because it turns the sticker chart system into a punishment. That leads to the child disliking the sticker chart system, and it will be less effective as a result.
Involve Your Child
Once you know what the chart and system will look like, try to involve your child in the actual making of the sticker chart. It offers you an opportunity to explain how it will work, and they can get excited to be a part of its creation. You can also make the chart more fun as a result, meaning it is something they are excited to use.
When starting a new sticker chart, you want to first make sure everyone understands how it will work. While you can explain the rules to your child, often it's easier for them to learn by experience. Start by picking a behavior that will be very easy for them to achieve, and start giving them a sticker (or check mark, smiley face, etc.) for doing that task. The behavior you start with probably won't be the main one you want to increase, but that's fine. The whole idea is for your child to learn how the system works.
Some sample starter behaviors can include (if they already do these):
- Brushing teeth
- Tying shoes by themselves
- Finishing homework
Choose Clear Behaviors
After your child understands how the sticker chart works, you want to transition to choosing real behaviors that you want to see more of. But not all behaviors will work well with a sticker chart. To get the best results, you want to choose behaviors that are clearly defined. For example, finishing homework is concrete because there's a clear way to check if it was completed or not. On the other hand, something like "use nice words" is vague, especially for little kids, and they'll be upset if they think they did what they were supposed to but you disagree. Some of this will come down to the age of your child and how well you feel they'll understand the behavior that's chosen.
When thinking of behaviors, make sure to focus on what your child should do, instead of what they should not do. The goal of a sticker chart is to increase specific behaviors, and if you try to have your child not do something then they won't know what to do instead. For example, if you want your child to not run throughout the house, have a goal be to only walk instead of saying "don't run."
I also encourage parents to involve their child in this process as well. Have your child help choose the way things are worded, and consider letting your child pick one of their own behaviors they want to work on. Again, if they are involved in the sticker chart's creation then they'll be more likely to follow-through with it and actually change their behaviors.
Limit the Number of Behaviors
When starting the use of a sticker chart, it can be tempting to have your child work on every behavior you want to see more of at once. But that puts a lot of burden on both your child (who will forget which things they are supposed to do) and yourself (because you'll have more behaviors to watch for and reward). To keep things simple, I usually recommend parents stick to 2-3 behaviors at a time, one of which is chosen by the child. There is certainly room to adapt this (e.g., it can be only one behavior if it's very specific like toilet training), so just use your best judgement.
For most kids, trying to change their behavior is really difficult. Self-discipline and self-monitoring take a long time to develop, and it takes a lot of practice. While they are developing, frustration is common, and you want to prevent that frustration from causing your child to give up on the whole sticker chart system. So when your child doesn't do what they're supposed to, try to recognize any effort they're making to change their behavior. They may not get a sticker, but you want to acknowledge the difficulty and praise them for trying so hard.
Not only does this help to keep your child motivated to use the sticker chart, but it also teaches them a valuable lesson. Failure is not always a bad thing. We can learn from it, we can use it to monitor our progress, and it's a given that people will fail when they first start doing something new.
Similar to recognizing efforts, you want to make sure to include praises as part of the sticker chart system. This helps in a number of different ways. Stickers become associated with positive attention for your child, which can make them more effective and make it easier to transition to praise-only at a later time (so you're not using a sticker chart forever). It helps you practice recognition of all good behaviors and drawing attention to it, which does wonders for improving behaviors overall. It helps to reinforce what your child is receiving the sticker for (so long as you label the praise by saying "thank you for [behavior]" instead of just "good job"). Praising also helps to strengthen the relationship between you and your child.
Keep it Visible
In order to make sure the sticker chart continues to be followed, it helps to keep it visible. The refrigerator is a popular place to keep the chart, but it can also be on a family whiteboard or some other place. Keeping it visible not only reminds your child what they should be working on, but it reminds them of past success (by seeing their previously-earned stickers), and it reminds you to keep up with noticing the good behaviors!
In order for the sticker chart to work, a lot of the effort is on your end. Many children will forget what behaviors they're supposed to be doing when first starting out, so it's on you to remind them, check the chart regularly, catch them whenever they perform the desired behavior, and so on. You want to keep things consistent over time so it becomes routine and easier for everyone. But at the same time...
Adapt Over Time
Your system will almost certainly need to adapt at some point. Once your child begins to perform the behavior without the need for stickers, you can choose new behaviors to target. If a reward becomes less enticing, you can try a new one. As your child develops and can delay getting a reward until later, you can switch from a daily chart to a weekly one. Try to be mindful of your changes so they don't happen too often, because that would lead to confusion for everyone, but don't hesitate to change what isn't working.
Sticker charts are an incredibly useful resource for parents and families. They are easy for children to understand, can take many different forms, and help to introduce extra structure into the household.
But sticker charts aren't just limited to children. Do you have some behaviors you've been wanting to change about yourself (especially given it's a new year)? Sticker charts can work for adults as well! Maybe you won't use stickers, but you can give yourself a check mark for every day you complete the behavior (e.g., going to the gym) and reward yourself at the end of the week if you complete a minimum number of days.
Not sure what a sticker chart should look like? Here is a template you can start out with (though I encourage you to customize it with your child), which is also posted on my resources page:
Hopefully this post has been helpful. If you have any questions about sticker charts, or if you feel like I've missed anything here, then let me know in the comments!