Reward charts, or star charts, are a powerful way of:
- encouraging behaviour you want, such as cleaning teeth without fuss
- discouraging behaviour you don’t want, such as hitting
- rewarding your child for practising new skills, such as staying next to the trolley when shopping or putting all the toys in a box when asked.
How and why rewards charts work
Reward charts work well for children aged 3-8 years.
You can use reward charts when your child needs to work on changing her behaviour. Your child can collect stickers or tokens for the chart each time she behaves the way you want. She then swaps the stickers for a reward, or rewards, later on.
When your child tries hard to change his behaviour, a reward chart can show him when he’s done a really good job and keep him motivated.
Reward charts can also help you to focus on the positives in your child’s behaviour. This might be helpful if you’ve become frustrated by your child’s behaviour and have been paying more attention to negative behaviour recently.
A reward for good behaviour isn’t the same as bribing your child. The difference is that a bribe is given before the behaviour you want, and a reward is given after. Rewards reinforce good behaviour, but bribes don’t. For example, one reward might be that you let your child choose what’s for dinner if she plays well with friends.
Setting up a reward chart
Choose the behaviour you want to change or encourage. Use clear and positive descriptions of the behaviour, and talk with your child about the behaviour you want to see. For example, ‘Pick up all the toys from your bedroom floor’ is clearer and will be easier for your child to understand than ‘Tidy your bedroom’. And ‘Knock before going into other people’s rooms’ is more positive than ‘Don’t invade other people’s privacy.’
Set up a chart
. You can choose from lots of different styles of charts, or make one yourself. Older children might like to create their own chart, perhaps with a drawing or photo of the reward they’re trying to earn. Put the chart where your child can see it. Keep in mind that your older child might prefer a spot that’s private – for example, his bedroom, instead of on the fridge. Decide which stickers or tokens to use – star stickers work well for younger children, whereas older kids might like points or other markers. Here are a couple of ready-made examples you could download:
Choose short-term rewards. Most children start by liking the idea of collecting stickers or tokens, but the novelty can wear off quite quickly. When this happens, swapping the stickers or tokens for some short-term rewards can help them keep their eyes on the main prize. You could let your child choose from a range of objects, events and activities – a family bike ride, special time with mum or dad, staying up late, a hired DVD, or buying a new book or small toy.
Give your child the stickers immediately after the behaviour happens. Some specific praise reminds your child why she’s getting the sticker or token. For example, ‘I really like the way you and Mia have been playing and sharing toys this morning. Here’s a star for your chart’.
Try to stay positive. If your child doesn’t earn a star, just move on. Also try to avoid punishing your child by saying, ‘I’ll take a star away’, or ‘You won’t get any stars if you keep that up!’ Focus on encouraging your child to try again.
Move on from the reward chart. You can gradually stop using the reward chart once your child’s behaviour has changed. For example, you might gradually phase out the reward chart after a few weeks by increasing the length of time between stickers or points. If your child’s getting a sticker each day for unstacking the dishwasher, this could be increased to one sticker every two days. But if you suddenly stop using a reward chart, your child is likely to go back to the old behaviour.
- Optional step: if your child has a particularly challenging behaviour, you might like to measure the behaviour before you start and while you’re using the reward chart. For example, count how many times, or how often, your child hits. Record this when you start using the chart, then keep track of it as the days pass. This will help you tell if the reward chart is working.
Your child’s charts and rewards can be based on his age and interests. For example, you could use a puzzle as your chart and give your child one piece at a time to build it. Reward charts can also work well for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a disability.
It works best to have frequent, small rewards. If the length of time between the sticker and the reward is too long, your child might lose interest or motivation. For example, your child might be hitting about once a day. You could try looking for two times in the day when she’s keeping her hands to herself, and reward her those two times.
Thinking about how much behaviour change to expect can help you and your child stay positive and realistic. You might look for small changes to reward before working your way up to a big change. For example, if you want your child to help more with tidying up, you could start by rewarding him for picking up the blocks. Then it could be the blocks and the dress-ups, and so on.
Stickers lose their value quickly. Unless the stickers are a way of earning other rewards, your child’s likely to lose interest.
Your child could get bored with the same reward. To avoid this, you could work together to set up a reward ‘menu’ with a choice of rewards to spend her stickers on. For example, 5 stickers = a game with mum or a chocolate frog, 10 stickers = a trip to the park or a small toy.
If your child can get the reward in other ways, it won’t be effective – for example, if the reward is a special food treat he also gets when he visits his grandparents.
Staying on the look-out for the behaviour you’re rewarding will help you catch your child being good. It’s a good idea to reward the behaviour as soon as you see it – your child might lose motivation if her efforts aren’t being noticed.
Other mums and dads can be a great source of ideas and feedback. You can connect with other parents using rewards and star charts in our preschoolers forum
and school-age forum