Reward charts: what are they?
Reward charts are tools for changing children’s behaviour. They come in several forms, including wall posters and apps.
Reward charts name or show a positive behaviour or goal you want your child to achieve – for example, saying ‘please’, setting the table or doing up their own shoelaces.
Your child’s chart shows how often your child succeeds in their behaviour goals. For example, if you’re using a wall poster, the chart might have spaces for ticks or stickers. An app might have stars that pop up on the screen. Each time your child does well, your child gets ticks or stickers in the spaces or stars in the app. A certain number of ticks, stickers or stars adds up to a reward for your child.
Reward charts are a powerful way of:
- encouraging behaviour you want, like cleaning teeth without fuss
- discouraging behaviour you don’t want, like hitting
- rewarding your child for practising new skills, like staying next to the trolley when shopping or putting all the toys in a box when asked.
How and why reward charts work
When your child tries hard to change their behaviour, a reward chart can show them when they’ve done a good job. They keep your child motivated.
The rewards themselves reinforce good behaviour and make it more likely to happen again.
And reward charts can help you to focus on the positives in your child’s behaviour. This might be helpful if you’re feeling frustrated by your child’s behaviour and have been paying more attention to negative behaviour.
Reward charts work well for children aged 3-8 years.
It’s good to involve your child as much as possible when setting up a rewards chart. For example, talk about the behaviour you want to change and work through the steps below together before you start.
Setting up a reward chart
1. Clearly and positively describe the behaviour you want to encourage
It’s important to use clear and positive descriptions of the behaviour you want to see. That way you’re encouraging this behaviour.
For example, ‘Pick up all the toys from your bedroom floor’ is clearer than ‘Tidy your bedroom’. And ‘Put dirty clothes in the laundry basket’ is more positive than ‘Don’t leave your dirty clothes on the floor’.
2. Choose a chart
You can buy or download a chart or app, or make your own chart based on your child’s 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. Older children might like to make their own charts, perhaps with a drawing or photo of the reward they’re trying to earn.
Wall charts let your child see their progress and feel responsible for it. But note that older children might prefer the chart to be hung in their bedrooms or somewhere else private.
Reward chart apps are portable. You can use them even when you’re out. Although they’re less visible than wall charts, they’re also private, so they can work well for older children.
When you’ve decided on your chart, decide which stickers or tokens to use – star stickers work well for younger children, whereas older children might like points or other markers.
3. Choose short-term rewards
Most children enjoy collecting stickers or tokens at the start. But the novelty can wear off quickly, and the real reward can seem too far away. So it’s good to choose short-term rewards that you can give often if your child earns them, like a family bike ride, special time with mum or dad, the chance to stay up late, a movie night, or a new book or small toy.
4. Give your child stickers straight after the behaviour
When your child gets stickers straight after the behaviour you want to see, it reinforces this behaviour. Likewise, some specific praise reminds your child why they’re getting stickers or tokens. 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’.
5. Try to stay positive
If your child doesn’t earn a star, it’s best to 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.
6. 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 a reward chart by increasing the length of time between stickers or points. If your child is getting a sticker each day for unstacking the dishwasher, you could make it a sticker every two days, with praise and hugs as well.
But if you suddenly stop using a reward chart, your child is likely to go back to the old behaviour.
7. Optional step: measure the behaviour
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 whether the reward chart is working.
Reward charts can work well for autistic children or children with disability.
Reward charts: making them work for you
If you make an effort to notice when your child is behaving well, you keep the focus on encouraging good behaviour. For example, your child might be hitting about once a day. You could try looking for two times in the day when your child is keeping their hands to themselves, and give your child stickers for those two times on the reward chart. Remember to reward the behaviour as soon as you see it to keep your child motivated.
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 your child for picking up the blocks. Then it could be the blocks and the dress-ups, and so on.
Your child might 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 the stickers on. For example, 5 stickers = a game with mum or extra time before lights out, 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, rewarding your child with a play at the swimming pool won’t work so well if your child usually gets a play swim after swimming lessons.
If the reward chart isn’t working and you have concerns about your child’s behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP.