Encouraging your child to change behaviour can be tricky. Reward charts can be a powerful way of kick-starting that change.

What are reward charts?

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’ or setting the table or doing up her own shoelaces.

Your child’s chart records how often he succeeds in his 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, he 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

Reward charts work well for children aged 3-8 years.

You can use a reward chart when your child needs to work on changing her behaviour. Your child collects stickers or tokens for the chart each time she behaves the way you want. She then gets a reward based on the number of stickers she has gathered. The stickers and the reward reinforce the positive behaviour.

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’re feeling frustrated by your child’s behaviour and have been paying more attention to negative behaviour.

Some parents worry that rewards for good behaviour are like bribes, but they aren’t the same. The difference is bribes are given before the behaviour you want, but a reward is given after. For example, a reward might be that you let your child choose what’s for dinner if she plays well with friends. And rewards aim to reinforce good behaviour, but bribes don’t.

For my daughter the behaviour was staying in bed once we’d settled her in. For my son it was leaving the park without having a tantrum. The star chart was great. – Mel, mother of eight-year-old twins

Setting up a reward chart

1. Choose the behaviour you want to change or encourage 

When you’ve decided on the behaviour, it’s important to use clear and positive descriptions of the behaviour. For example, ‘Pick up all the toys from your bedroom floor’ is clearer and 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’.

2. 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. Another option is a reward chart app on your phone. Reward chart apps are portable and let you give your child a star as soon as he earns it, even when you’re out.

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.

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, in her bedroom rather than on the fridge. 

3. Choose short-term rewards

Most children enjoy collecting stickers or tokens at the start. But the novelty can wear off quite 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 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 the stickers straight after the behaviour

When your child gets the sticker straight after the behaviour you want to see, it reinforces this behaviour. Likewise, some specific praise reminds your child why he’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’.

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. It’s a good idea to keep noticing and praising your child for the behaviour as you phase out the chart. For example, you might gradually phase out a reward chart after a few weeks 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.

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 if the reward chart is working.

You can base your child’s charts and rewards on her 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 disability.

When reward charts aren’t working: things to try

Not all children respond to reward charts. 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.

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 her for picking up the blocks. Then it could be the blocks and the dress-ups, and so on.

If your child has siblings who are very good at getting rewards, it might discourage him from trying. If you think this might be the issue, you could try changing the rewards to things only he likes or can achieve. For example, if your child likes puzzles and his siblings don’t, you could try giving him a small puzzle as a reward.

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 his 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. You could also give your child plenty of praise for positive behaviour, which includes nonverbal praise. For example, thumbs up, smiles and high fives are powerful ways to show you’re impressed by your child’s behaviour.

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 she usually gets a play swim after her swimming lesson each week.

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 paediatrician or General Practitioner (GP).

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

Explore more