Reward charts: what are they?
Reward charts are a way of guiding children towards positive 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 achieves 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 positive behaviour, like cleaning teeth without fuss
- discouraging challenging behaviour, like hitting
- rewarding your child for practising new skills, like staying next to the trolley when you’re shopping.
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 sometimes feel frustrated by your child’s behaviour and pay more attention to their negative behaviour.
Reward charts usually work well for children aged 3-8 years.
It’s good to involve your child as much as possible when you’re setting up a rewards chart. For example, talk together about the positive behaviour you’re aiming for and work through the steps below before you start.
Setting up reward charts that work well: steps
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. They’re less visible and more private than wall charts, 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 later than usual, a movie night, or a new book or small toy.
4. Watch carefully for when your child behaves well
This keeps the focus on encouraging good behaviour. For example, your child might be hitting about once a day and you want to change this. You could try looking for 2 times in the day when your child is keeping their hands to themselves, and give your child stickers for those 2 times on the reward chart.
5. Give your child stickers straight after the behaviour
When your child gets stickers straight after the behaviour you want to encourage, 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’.
6. Try to stay positive
If your child doesn’t earn a star, it’s best to just move on. Also 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.
7. 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 2 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.
8. 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, and then keep track of it as the days pass. This will help you know whether the reward chart is working.
You and your child can stay positive and realistic by looking 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.
When reward charts aren’t working: things to try
Not all children respond to reward charts. That’s OK. Different things motivate different children. But if reward charts don’t seem to be encouraging positive behaviour in your child, there are some issues you can check and consider adjusting.
Your child has siblings who are very good at getting rewards
This situation might discourage your child from trying. If you think this might be the issue, you could try changing the rewards to things only your child likes or can achieve. For example, if your child likes puzzles and their siblings don’t, you could try giving your child a small puzzle as a reward.
Your child can get rewards in other ways
In this situation, the reward 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.
Your child isn’t getting stickers or stars consistently when the positive behaviour happens
In this situation, your child might be confused about what behaviour you expect. But it’s easy to fix – just make sure to watch carefully and give your child a sticker or star every time you see the positive behaviour.
Your child isn’t getting rewards as soon as they earn them
In this situation, your child might feel that their efforts towards behaving well aren’t important or valued. Here are a couple of things you can do:
- Make sure to follow through straight away when your child earns the reward.
- Choose rewards that are easy for you to give straight away. For example, a family bike ride might be easier to give than a trip to the water park.
Your child is bored with reward charts or thinks they’re too ‘grown up’ for reward charts
This can happen if you’ve been using reward charts for a while. There are a few things you can try in this situation:
- Offer your child a choice of rewards to spend their 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.
- Offer your child a choice of good behaviour. For example, ‘Do you want to tidy your room or set the table?’ This gives your child a sense of control, which can be very motivating.
- Give your child plenty of praise for good behaviour. This can include nonverbal praise. For example, thumbs up, smiles and high fives are powerful ways to show you’re impressed by your child’s behaviour.
- Surprise your child with rewards for good behaviour. For example, ‘Thanks for tidying your room – let’s go to the park to celebrate’.
If reward charts aren’t working for your child 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.
Reward charts can work well for autistic children or children with disability. You could ask your child’s disability professionals how to tailor a reward chart to your child’s needs.