As an early childhood teacher, I talked many parents through the process of successfully using reward charts as one tool in their parenting toolkit and recently (as parents of an almost three year old) we have had cause to put the good old reward chart into practice in our own home as well. Reward charts can be helpful in guiding a child’s behaviour. They are by no means the only way and they do not work in every situation but with a few simple guidelines they can work as a short term strategy.
In our case, a few months ago Immy started being much more difficult to get down to sleep at night (this was before the move to the big girl bed). In short, she was trying all types of diversion tactics to avoid having to lay down and go to sleep. For quite a long time we just stuck to our nighttime routine and tried to react calmly to these distractions but slowly, over time, our nerves (as in my own and Dad 101’s) started to fray and frustration started to creep in. This wasn’t helpful for anyone and we had to find a way to circumvent the situation. Enter the reward chart.
That is our very first reward chart you can see pictured above. It clearly shows that if Immy goes quickly and quietly to sleep four times (that is two naps and two night sleeps so two complete days) she can go to the swimming pool with Dad 101. And this is why it works;
My tips for successfully using a reward chart as a positive parenting tool with your child
- It is simple, specific, measurable and achievable (a bit like the SMART goal acronym which adults use).
- Reward charts should always focus on just one specific behaviour. Things like sitting (and staying) at the table to eat dinner as a family, brushing teeth at a regular time of the day or using the toilet are some other examples of where a reward chart may work.
- Choose pictures for your chart which reinforce the expected behaviour. Although I am no great illustrator, by drawing the images for our chart myself I could make them specific to our goal.
- Initially it is important to make success easily achievable so that your child sees the result quickly. Start with small goals and slowly increase the expected number of times you see the behaviour before the reward is granted.
- Consider the age of your child. I personally would not even have attempted a reward chart any earlier than we did and Immy was two and three quarters.
- Reinforce the behaviour by regularly revisiting the chart and using positive language. Each bedtime we would look at the chart with Immy and remind her that she would be able to add another sticker when she woke if she went to straight to sleep and then we would remind her what ‘going straight to sleep’ looks like for us, for example, lying down in her bed, nice and still, taking deep breaths and closing her eyes as we sing her lullaby to her. As we were looking at the chart she would usually count how many stickers she already has and how many she still needs until we can share in the ‘surprise.’
- Make the reward (we call it a ‘surprise’ with Immy) a special shared family experience rather than a food reward or toy. So far as a family we have been for a picnic dinner at the park, to the beach for a swim, bike riding, to the zoo and fishing with friends. Apart from the very first chart, Immy has always been involved in the discussion about what the surprise will be, though we did need to be mindful of timing as we have always tried to make the reward event as immediate as possible.
Opponents of reward charts talk about the fact that the motivation for the behaviour becomes extrinsic or from outside of the individual (as opposed to intrinsic motivation which involves doing a task as you are interested in it or you enjoy it), that the child is only motivated by the reward and that their long term behaviour won’t likely be changed once the reward is removed. And that is why I say that using a reward chart is just one tool to effect change for one behaviour for a short term. In our case, everything else we had tried with Immy hadn’t worked and this worked well. For us, as parents, it brought a positive focus back to bedtime and made the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone.
Plus working towards a goal and for a reward are part of life. We work to generate income for our family and our efforts are compensated. However everything we do in life is not motivated (or at least shouldn’t be) by what we will get out of it and by using a reward system thoughtfully and specifically I do not believe you are teaching your child to only act or behave in order to receive a reward. Remember, it is only one tool in your whole parenting toolkit.
What are your thoughts on reward charts? Have you ever used one? Was the experience successful?
- Aaah! Coping with Toddler Sleep Issues
- And so to sleep
- Dealing with Toddler Tantrums
- Why Kids Are No Good At Being Good
- Lessons Learnt From Toddlerhood