If you have said this, then this post is for you.
Several years ago, I got my first teaching job right out of college in a preK/Head Start classroom. I learned some valuable behavior management skills in those early years, but none more so than the right way to use a sticker chart. Yep, there’s a wrong way and all of us have accidentally found it.
If you’re struggling with behavior and the last sticker chart you tried didn’t work, there’s a chance you just need to tweak your method a bit.
First and foremost, sticker charts are an excellent tool for positive behavior reinforcement, but they should be used sparingly. You can absolutely wear a kid out with sticker chart after sticker chart. Building positive relationships, modeling desired behavior, and role playing desired behavior over and over are key pieces to changing your child’s behavior for the better. But sticker charts are an excellent tool in your toolbelt. Just like any tool, knowing how and when to use it is going to yield the best results.
So how exactly do you use a sticker chart that actually works?
1. Pick one behavior at a time and be super specific.
“Be good today” is not a realistic goal for any kid. Neither is listing five things a child has to do in order to get a sticker. Even if there are 20 behaviors that need to be corrected, pick one to start and do not move on until your child is confident and proud of their new skill. Remember, this is a positive behavior system! We’re making goals that are positive behaviors. Tell your child exactly what they should do in positive terms to get the sticker.
- “Peed in the potty” is better than “didn’t pee on the floor.”
- “Went to my calm down spot” is better than “didn’t hit when I was angry.”
- “Went to bed quietly” is better than “went to bed without screaming.”
2. Decide on the reward ahead of time and attach a reminder to the sticker chart.
When kids know what they are working for, they will be much more motivated to earn those stickers! Make sure you choose a reward that you are willing to follow through with almost immediately. A trip to the beach or something that is going to take at least a few days to follow through with might not make the best reward, especially if you are just starting out. A special treat, a small new toy, or a movie make great rewards. Give your child a few choices and let them decide what they want their reward to be, then tape a picture or other reminder of the reward to the chart.
Your child needs a very achievable goal, especially in the beginning. For kids under 5, this usually looks like 5 stickers. Yes, FIVE. Those square grids you remember from elementary school are way too many for a toddler just trying to hold it together. When they don’t receive some kind of reward after 5 whole stickers, they get discouraged and lose interest. Always start smaller than you think, reward quickly, then gradually increase the number of stickers they have to earn to get their next prize.
Trust me when I say the sticker chart does not have to be fancy. You can free hand some boxes on a piece of paper, but if you want something cuter, there are lots of websites like this one where you can print your own. Or you can search any image like “puppy outline” and draw boxes inside it for the stickers. Pro tip: the stickers should fit neatly inside the boxes. If they don’t, use different stickers or draw new boxes.
4. Award stickers immediately and frequently.
Addressing behaviors with your child is going to need the same hawk-like observance you applied to potty training. If you’re trying to eliminate biting, you’ll have to be paying attention to situations where your child might have bitten but chose not to. This might be your full-time job for a few days. As a teacher, I once had a child who got a sticker every five minutes that they were able to keep their hands to themselves. Every. Five. Minutes. That’s pretty much all I did that day, but you know what? It worked! Within a few days, he was able to control his hands without any reminders or stickers. Don’t miss a chance to award a sticker when one is earned!
5. The sticker chart needs to be prominently displayed on your child’s level.
Highly visible is the key here. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the name of the game with kids. The sticker chart needs a prime location in your house, eye-level with the child, and preferably in the spot where the offense usually occurs. If you’re working on a bedtime behavior, put the sticker chart next to their bed.