The Do’s and Don’ts of the Sticker Chart
“What gets rewarded gets done,” is the one takeaway that my husband and I will never forget from our management class in the MBA program at Penn State (where we met for the first time!). In businesses, management must align incentive programs to the overarching business goals in order to drive the right behavior from employees. The big bonuses are what get the employees out of bed early in the morning and drag them to work after barely sleeping a wink because the baby wanted to party at 2 A.M. Similarly, we as parents can use reward systems to positively reinforce good behavior from our children.
Reward systems like sticker charts help motivate our children with positive reinforcements as opposed to negative punishments such as timeouts. I much prefer rewarding my children with stickers for a job well done than hulking out and yelling at them with my Batman voice. That said, we need to be mindful when implementing reward systems to ensure we get the wanted results. Also, I must note that reward systems do not work for every child, but hey, what does? Sticker charts have definitely worked for my family and got us through some difficult times such as transitioning my stubborn toddler from a crib to a toddler bed. So here are some Dos and Don’ts of reward systems so that you can avoid the pitfalls and successfully motivate your kids to achieve desired behaviors.
- DO explain the reward system.
A sticker chart may seem simple to you, but for your kids, especially if they are toddlers, it may take some explaining. It’s like my husband, an attorney, handing me a legal document and telling me it’s self-explanatory. So, sit them down and slowly go through how they can acquire the stickers and how the stickers eventually lead up to a prize. Don’t forget to ask them if they have any questions or suggestions. Taking the time to sit down with your child will make them feel empowered that they have a say in how to achieve the reward.
- DON’T use values as goals, use behaviors.
One mistake that people make when using reward systems is that they set values such as honesty or kindness as goals instead of specific behaviors that support those values. Values are vague and not easily comprehended by toddlers, so setting them as goals may be confusing and misinterpreted. It is very tempting to set a broad goal and apply many different behaviors to it. For example, “being responsible” sounds like a great goal because you can give them a sticker for putting on his shoes, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth, etc. However, that’s where we fall into the death trap of having kids grow up not wanting to do anything unless they get a reward because they are so used to getting rewarded for everything they do. Instead, set very specific goals such as “brushing teeth” and work on only a few goals at a time to drive good behavior that will eventually lead to good habits.
- DO identify a prize ahead of time.
Yay I got a sticker! Yay I am putting my sticker on the chart and now I am one step closer to…what? A firetruck? A train? A set of crayons? Just like at work, you would like to know what your bonus would be instead of just a promise of getting something good. So, work with your child to identify a prize ahead of time so he/she knows what he/she is working towards.
- DO pick an achievable and meaningful prize.
To design a sticker chart and choose an appropriate prize is no easy task. You really have to think about your child’s personality and what he/she really wants. You don’t want to design a sticker chart that will take a whole month to complete because your child may be tired of it or get impatient after a couple of weeks. I like taking my child to the toy store and help him pick out the sticker chart prize so that he feels empowered since he has a say in the prize. Of course, you have to set limits, but let him/her pick the prize as long as the prize is within reason. I always find it pretty eye-opening to see what my son wants as he grows up and his interests change. And remember, the prize doesn’t have to be a toy or something physical – it could also be tickets to see a show, or a family trip to the beach, or even as simple as having a bubble party!
- DON’T stray from the goals.
If your child responds well to stickers, it may be tempting to offer him/her a sticker as a bribe to get through tantrums or meltdowns. However, a sticker is not a bribe – it’s a previously identified reward for a specific, targeted behavior. Therefore, if you are working on a sticker chart for potty training, for example, those stickers should not be used for any other purpose. Otherwise, your too-smart-for-his-own-good kid may realize that behaving badly equals getting stickers, and may use tantrums to acquire more stickers instead of focusing on potty training.
- DO post the charts up somewhere highly visible.
Toddlers are the worst at keeping focus. My son loves to ride his bicycle into bushes because he just cannot concentrate on the sidewalk ahead of him (yes, we always make sure he has a helmet on!). Keeping the sticker charts visible helps remind your child of the targeted behavior throughout the course of the day. My son even gets excited when he sees the sticker charts and looks forward to doing the tasks that will get him the stickers!
- DON’T take stickers away as punishment.
Remember, sticker charts are a positive parenting tool, so taking away a sticker as a punishment for not achieving the targeted behavior is a no-no. Talk with your child to see why he/she is refusing to follow directions and defying the sticker chart – most of the time is simply that your toddler is overtired from a busy, crazy day. So, take a break from the sticker chart for a day or two and jump back into it when your child is ready. Your child worked hard to earn the stickers, and taking the stickers away may render the entire reward system useless if your child gets into the mindset of, “why do I bother doing things for stickers if they are just going to take it away anyway.”
- DO celebrate each achievement and explain why your child deserves a sticker.
Every sticker is an opportunity to reinforce the behavior and repeat WHY your child deserved that sticker. Don’t just give your child a sticker – celebrate it like he just won the lottery! Tell him/her how proud you are that he/she achieved the behavior, and how he/she is getting better and better at it.
- DO wean your child off the sticker chart.
Can you imagine a 10-year-old asking for a sticker when he/she goes to the potty? I would imagine that he/she would be horrified and die of embarrassment if you offer him/her a sticker! A common question for parents using reward systems is when they can remove the rewards and the child will continue exhibiting the new behavior. Well, every child is different, so the method in which you wean your child off the sticker charts may vary. For example, my son seems to be happy enough to continue the new behavior after he completes 1-2 sticker charts and achieved his prizes. We just finished a couple of rounds of sticker charts in order to motivate him to change his own clothes at night, and now he is happy to change his own clothes every night before bed without any stickers as a reward. Some kids may need a slower transition off the sticker charts, and in that case, you can reward him/her less and less (for example, reward when he/she achieves the targeted behavior every 2-3 times instead of every time) until he/she one day doesn’t need the stickers anymore.
- DON’T overuse sticker charts or other reward systems.
While it might be easier to give your child stickers for everything to avoid arguments and tantrums, try and limit using them for the truly challenging behaviors. Stickers lose their novelty if your child can easily get them for every little thing that he/she does. Target only 1-3 goals at a time and completely wean your child off those goals before starting a new goal with a new sticker chart.
Now that you have some Do’s and Don’ts for sticker charts, it’s time to get started on this great positive parenting tool! Discuss the sticker charts with your spouse to make sure that you are in agreement with the goals and how the rewards work. For example, for the goal of cleaning up toys, do you give your child a sticker for cleaning up his own toys only? Or if he helps clean up the entire room, including his sister’s toys? Sticker charts have helped my family avoid so many situations that may have caused tantrums and tears. Instead, I get to see my toddler’s happy face when he receives a sticker, and you can also tell he has gained confidence in himself as well for hitting the goals. I hope they can help your family as well!
What goals would you like your toddlers to work on?