Reward charts (also sometimes called “sticker charts” or “behavior charts”) are frequently employed by parents to deal with their young children’s undesirable behaviors. When administered properly, a reward chart is a powerful parenting tool. However, in too many cases, reward charts fail because of a few common errors. Below I have listed common mistakes that parents can make in setting up a reward chart. Dr. Alan Kazdin’s book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child is an excellent resource for how to set up an effective reward chart program.
Mistake 1: The focus is on eliminating negative behaviors rather than focusing on increasing positive behaviors.
Take, for example, an eight year-old boy who exhibits explosive temper tantrums. A sticker chart in which the boy gets points for going the whole day (or even part of the day) without tantrum is less likely to be effective than one in which the child gets points for engaging in a positive behavior that is incompatible with a temper tantrum. Let’s say, in our example, a tantrum is most likely to occur when the boy needs to leave for school. A chart could be made in which the boy gets points for getting dressed for school on his own and on time. There are two key benefits to having the chart focus on the presence of a desired behavior rather than on the absence of a negative one: 1. When you focus on stopping an undesirable behavior, you don’t know what behavior will come in its place. Maybe it will be a desired behavior like brushing his teeth, but maybe it will be another undesirable behavior like getting into a fight with his brother. 2. It is much easier for a child to succeed if he can focus on doing something to achieve a reward, than it is if he has to succeed by stopping himself from doing something (like not having a tantrum).
Mistake 2: The initial goals are too big.
If the initial goal of the reward chart is, for example, to end all tantrums, it is almost certainly going to fail. First, most children have at least an occasional tantrum, so the goal of ending all tantrums is virtually impossible to achieve. When parents set goals for their kids’ behavior that does not accurately reflect what a child is capable of given his/her developmental age, everyone involved is going to be frustrated and the reward chart abandoned. Second, because selecting modest initial goals helps increase the likelihood of achieving the goals, it creates conditions in which success on the smaller goals builds a momentum of success with which to tackle larger goals. In the example above, the parents’ knowledge of what are common triggers of tantrums allows them to select a specific trigger to focus their initial reward chart on.
Mistake 3: Keeping up with the chart places too big an “administrative” demand on parent.
Parents of challenging boys often feel completely spent. The idea of adding another administrative demand to their already busy exhausting lives can seem overwhelming. It is crucial, therefore, that a reward chart be constructed so that the parents feel able to follow through on it. Too many reward charts fail because parents lose their motivation to keep up with it. It is easy to lose motivation with a reward chart. Behavior change does not occur overnight. It takes some time. Behavior change does not occur linearly. One day may be great followed by a day where the problematic behavior returns. One important way to make a chart less of a demand on the parents and easier to follow through on is to make it simple. In the example above, the parents only need to chart whether their son gets dressed for school on his own and one practice session during the day (see below). A second way to make the chart less demanding is to have days off. In our example, the parents and son will take the weekend off. Dr. Kazdin says that a reward chart can be effective even if it is used only one or two days per week. It is better to administer your reward chart consistently only a couple of days per week than to use it every day but be inconsistent on some days.
Mistake 4: Rewards are too hard or too easy to get.
The selection of rewards is an important part of building an effective reward chart program. Rewards need to be small, but desirable to the child. They need to be priced, especially initially, low enough so that a successful day yields enough points to enable a child to buy a reward. As the program builds momentum, more desirable rewards that require some saving of points can be added in. Rewards that are priced to require more than a few days of point savings should not be used because they weaken the link between the desired behavior and the reward. However, Dr. Kazdin does recommend having a big reward for the program. All points earned in the program (even those that are spent on smaller rewards are counted) are totaled towards reaching the big reward. The big reward should be priced so that it can be earned in a minimum of two weeks (with perfect completion of the chart), but more likely it will take a little longer because, as I mentioned above, behavior change is not linear.
Mistake 5: The child is not given chances to be rewarded for “practicing.”
Most parents do not include opportunities for practice in their reward charts. Dr. Kazdin stresses that rewarded practice is a key ingredient in a successful reward chart program. In the example above, at some point in the day after school, the boy would have the opportunity to “practice” getting ready for school. This practice might involve his changing into his pajamas with a parent’s help and then he is left to put his day clothes back on. If this practice is completed successfully then he gets points. Again, keeping in mind the need to keep administrative demands on the parents low, the chart for the boy in the example might include an opportunity to earn two points for one successful practice per day and two points for actually getting ready for school.