Using a reward chart can be a motivating way to introduce a new skill (e.g. potty training), break bad habits (e.g. chewing on clothing), or brush up on something your child seems to have forgotten (e.g. making her bed in the morning). Children three years old and up will have the most success using a reward chart because they have the cognitive ability to understand and the emotional maturity to delay gratification. Here are some simple steps to get you started:
1. Choose the Behavior: Keep it simple and if possible focus on one behavior at a time. Describe the behavior in terms of what you DO want your child to do, rather than what you DON’T want them to do. For example, “Keep pajamas dry all night long” instead of “Don’t wet your bed”.
2. Decide on the Criteria: You have clearly stated the behavior you want your child to do, but what is reasonable to expect from him or her in terms of how often or to what extent they must display the behavior? This can be the trickiest step because you want to push your child beyond where they currently are (e.g. having a night time accident three times ina week), but the goal also needs to be reasonable and attainable. Do you want to require four consecutive dry nights, or ten non-consecutive dry nights, or maybe 6 out of 7 nights in one week? It’s always better to start with the expectations lower rather than too high, so that your child can experience the success of meeting the goal and earning a reward. You can then increase the expectations as needed to get your child where you would ultimately like them to be.
3. Select the Reward: This is the fun part! Since it is critical that the reward be motivating to your child (i.e. they REALLY want it!), let him or her be involved in choosing it. The best way to do this is to write down a list of possibilities – e.g. stay up late, ice-cream sundae night, power ranger toy, trip to the beach, playdate with a special friend, etc. and then let your child choose. They can also make their own suggestions, just be sure you help them choose something realistic and reasonable. Parents are sometimes pleasantly surprised at the simple things that their child would like to earn as a reward!
4. Showtime: Choose a day to start and make a big deal about it so your child gets excited and motivated! Show them the chart and be sure to explain exactly what he or she needs to do, what the reward will be, and how they will earn it. Stickers, stars, stamps, and smiley faces all work great for marking each success!
5. Follow Through: The most important step to ensure success is following through with the plan. It takes time and energy, but be consistent about using the chart – i.e. every day remind your child what their goal is and try to inspire them to work toward their special reward. Review their progress at the end of the day (or more often, depending on what your child is working on) and add a star or sticker if they’ve earned it. Keep track of the criteria as you go along. If it seems like there is a problem (e.g. the expectations are too high and your child is not having any success), then it is absolutely essential to revise the plan and change the criteria as necessary. If you make changes, just make sure you explain these changes to your child. Remember to give your child lots of praise and encouragement as they have small successes and when they reach their goal and earn their reward! You can then build on this success and work toward higher goals (e.g. more complex behavior or tougher criteria) on the next reward chart.
Common reward chart pitfalls to watch out for:
- Biting off more than your child can chew: It is usually counter-productive to focus on more than one or two behaviors at a time or expect your child to perform beyond what he or she is capable of. It’s better to start small and set your child up for success. You can gradually raise the expectations as your child meets the goals and feels successful!
- Setting up the criteria so your child loses the incentive to do well: Imagine if the behavior is “no fighting with your brother” and the criteria is “no fighting all day” in order to earn a sticker. Now imagine a child fighting with his brother in the first 30 minutes of the day! He has already lost the reward for that day and there is no motivation to work things out peacefully. Try and come up with alternatives such as breaking the day into smaller blocks of time and providing an opportunity to earn a reward for each block of time. For example, divide the day into three segments and for each of these time frames the child could earn a cookie for a possible total of three cookies at the end of the day, or stay up an extra ten minutes for a possible total of 30 minutes extra time before bed.
- The target behavior that is too general: Be as specific as possible when defining the behavior that your child is working on so that your child is clear on what he or she needs to do and so that you are clear on how to evaluate it! For example, “be good” is too general and vague, and is likely to be open to interpretation about what meets the criteria for ‘good’. Let your child know exactly what you expect by spelling it out for them: “Follow directions the first time without crying or arguing” or “Sit at the dinner table until you are finished eating and have been given permission to be excused” are both good examples of specific and clear behavioral expectations.
- Using a reward that is not motivating: Remember that the reward should be something motivating to your child. Sometimes parents choose rewards based on what THEY think their child wants, not what their child actually wants. For this reason, it is important to involve your child in choosing the reward. To ensure that reward is something you approve of, try giving them a list of options and let them choose. Involving them in coming up with the list can be motivating too!