Using a Reward Chart as a Positive Parenting Tool

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?

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  1. Naomi Ellis says:

    we have used a lot of reward charts in our house. some of my kids love it and others not so much. some loved stickers and others have totally gone for it with money. it is kind of an individual thing for us. sometimes I even like to use them for myself!

    1. It’s great to hear that you individualise the process for each of your children, Naomi. And maybe I need a reward chart for my quitting sugar journey!

  2. Gosh I love your blog, Christie. You always explain these things so simply and clearly…. I was about to create a rewards chart for Izzy and now that I have read this, i realise I had NO idea. I would have made it for a week for example and not started with small goals….

    Can I ask you if you have any advice on general discipline (for want of a better word…)of Immy’s age group (izzy is 2.5 yrs). i am having a lot issues with her ‘listening’ to me and I find myself getting more and more frustrated (as does her Dad) I think its about time we implemented a consistant approach… do you use ‘time out’? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks :O)

    1. Thank you for the feedback, Jess. Let me have a think about your other question.

  3. What a great topic for discussion! As with many things, I’m kind of a middle-of-the-roader on this one. I think reward charts are often over-used or used as bribes instead of motivators. But I do also think they can be used effectively to reinforce new, positive habits. I love the suggestions you give for making it a positive chart. I generally tell people that charts need to be specific to one behavior, as you pointed out (not just for being “good” today), and that they should be phased out over time (your daughter likely won’t be getting these same rewards a year from now). I also like your guideline of making the reward a family activity to celebrate the accomplishment of a goal.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Amanda, and agree that they are a tool that is often over used which is why I wanted to give readers a little insight with ideas for using them most effectively. We really were in a downward spiral with bedtime which Dad 101 was in particular finding very frustrating and the chart made gave bedtime a much more positive focus for all of us.

  4. This is a great topic for discussion. I am also a teacher and have seen both the positive and the negative sides of rewards charts. Some children seem to understand them and then others will only do something if they are going to get a reward. This kind of extrinsic motivation can be worrying and you are right, the chart needs to be simple and specific with the positive behaviour remaining the focus, as opposed to, ‘if you do this then I will give you this’.

    I’m actually having some difficulty at the moment which I would love some advice on.

    I am having a little trouble with my 2 year old refusing to let me brush his teeth. I let him brush them first and then it is my turn but recently it ends in a tantrum. I am trying to remain calm and speak to him respectfully but it is frustrating. Does anyone have any suggestions with this one?

    1. Let him brush your teeth before or while you are brushing his.

  5. Christie – thank you for this!! I love that you addressed both sides of the issue – something that is often lacking. As a huge proponet of “positive discipline”, I had thrown out reward charts as being too extrinsically motivated. However….I can certainly appreciate your approach as described above. We are also struggling a bit with bedtimes….this might be worth a shot.

    Btw – we did go through teeth brushing battles. We actually just…well…let him brush how he wanted to. I figured that they were baby teeth anyway, lol! We also chatted more about brushing the “bugs” off of his teeth. After a few weeks of him doing it on his own undisturbed, he started asking us to help. Now the split is about 50/50. Sometimes he does it, sometimes we do it. For whatever it’s worth. 🙂

  6. I tried using charts some time ago, when my son was about 3 years old. Didn’t have much success though. He seemed to be too concentrated on the reward and outside of it his behavior did not seem to change at all. Now, after reading your fantastic post, I realize where I went wrong. First, my chart covered an entire week. Second, there were just too many things each day that my little one had to do “just right”. Third, the reward did not commesurate with the required effort and was too far in the future for my little one to understand. After reading your post and checking out your examples, I think I’ll give the good old chart another try.

  7. We have used reward charts with our 3yo a few times. Like you, we use them sparingly i.e. once something has become a bit of an issue to help get ‘back on track’ with behaviour. Funnily enough, our latest one was for bedtime too! Her reward was new sheets (we were given an almost new king single to replace her 20 year old single, so she needed them!). But I do love the idea of using special family outings as the reward. Great post Christie 🙂

  8. We’ve had great success with reward charts for our girls.

    I’ve set up voucher books that the girls can choose a reward from – play boardgame, cook, etc

    Recently our social skills teacher suggested setting up a reward chart for Annie, each time Annie accepted ‘no’ for an answer she would get a star. Annie listened to the suggestion, saw the chart and then went off to get ready for bed, she then came out and asked to watch tv (something not allowed after bed time) of course we said no. Annie then declared ‘now I get my star’… She has figured out how to manipulate the system.

    So that reward chart got changed to stars for giving things a go, even when she didn’t want to try it.

  9. Many many years ago we used a reward chart to train my son to sit on the toilet long enough to let nature take its course. It was the act of sitting at a certain time for a length of time, whether or not there was an outcome. It took some time but it worked. The doctor had suggested it after numerous times of severe constipation. Gradually we lengthened the time frame to when the reward was given until it was a whole month of stars. It worked and for that I will be forever grateful. There was no reverting to old behaviours when the chart was removed. I think you need to assess each child, and whether people see it as bribery or not, if it works and you get the outcome you need, then that is all that matters.

  10. Not a fan of wall charts (i have a psych degree & 4 children) for various reasons, in particular, when you have one for one child when the other 3 are doing absolutely everything beautifully. It might well work brilliantly for one child families. We chose different methods to get our children back on track when they were making bad choices on something in particular. I don’t acutally like a reward, as opposed to just good behaviour for the sake of manners & learning, it’s an expectation – we expect them to do things the right way & not always get rewards. Teachers often use them & i think it’s a bit harsh on the board for everyone to see, when they try to make it even for such a variety of different reasons to get a star, it loses all meaning. Thankfully they don’t do them after about year 2, so it’s over for us now. My children would come home with a new pencil or something & say they got it as a reward, “a reward for what” & they’d say “i don’t know, just being good like i’m meant to be anyway” so lost on my children.
    They’ve all turned out to be high achievers with beautiful manners & behaviours, i’m so glad you addressed the fact that rewards charts don’t work for everyone. Some of these educational & advice posts are so one sided, yours was nice & well rounded. Love Posie

    1. I find it interesting that you say it might work better in one child families, we had 3 other children when using it for our son, none of them had issues with it as we explained why it was happening. At no point did they express or show any indication that they felt they were missing out. In fact, they used to encourage our son. I suppose that might have been because he was the youngest and the girls were old enough to understand. Each child and each family is so different so I suppose you use what works to solve a situation.

  11. Hot topic 🙂 I have had mixed results with rewarding behavior. We used reward chart for pooping on the potty, and it worked like a charm. On the other hand, we are still giving out 2 M&Ms for pooping, and it’s almost 2 years after full potty training. What I am trying to say is that sometimes rewards can become rituals in child’s eyes, and it’s hard to “wean them off” later. I like the idea of using experiences rather than tangibles for rewards – thanks for the suggestion.

    1. I found your comment about the M&Ms interesting, Natalie. We gave a sweet as a reward when Immy had a little toilet training regression but as using the toilet became independent for her she simply stopped asking about it, I think the packet ran out and that was that. But then we have tried to not make too bigger a deal out of sweets, treating them as just ‘sometimes’ foods if you will.

  12. I haven’t used reward charts for my kids (but then I have a four year old who doesn’t often sleep through the night and a 2 year old who never does so don’t listen to me!). My question about using them for issues like bedtime is how do you know when a behaviour is something that the child can easily control (like wanting to play around at bedtime for fun) or is motivated by something outside of their control. For example, how did you know that your daughter not wanting to go to bed wasn’t the result of some developmental change – like not needing a nap any more or needing to go to bed later or developing a fear of the dark or similar? I’m not suggesting that any of these are the case for your daughter, I’m just wondering because when I’m confronted with a behaviour I don’t like in one of my children I’m often not sure how much I should focus on changing the behaviour and how much I should try to identify and address the cause. But I guess if something was annoying me a lot then I probably wouldn’t really care!

    1. Roberta, in this case all I can say is that I trusted my judgment and knowledge of my child – and it is all of those things, knowledge of her development, behaviour and routines, which doesn’t really help to answer your question. In this case, the behaviour (whatever the cause) was causing a lot of angst and frustration in our family, in the evening when we are all tired, so we needed to find a way to circumnavigate the frustration and recreate a positive bedtime environment. And this is what worked for us and our child at this time.

  13. that’s really well done. I had problems to make my son remember and understand as a toddler what the chart was actually for – he always wanted the stickers and did not care what it was for. we had toilet training charts that had a photo of him on the potty in the end. that kind of worked.. and all (big)visitors were asking if they could get a sticker for successfully going too . .

  14. I have just been looking into using a reward chart with my daughter and someone put me onto this. It has answered a lot of my questions about how to use it properly what rewards to use etc.
    My problem is what most parents go through. The terrible 2s. A lot of the time I can actually reason with her but lately her behaviour is getting out of hand. So I’m going to try to use the reward chart to hopefully redirect her behaviour and get it under control again. I’m also considering using it for toilet training as well. I think it will work for us as when I have used stickers or a toy as a reward in the past it has worked. This way she has to work a little harder before she gets her toy or outing.

  15. sarah murphy says:

    I’ve been using reward charts for many years and had some great success with them, i’ve gotten some personalised ones with the kids names on from which seem to help give them a bit of accountability and ownership to the chart as well

  16. Tammy Bija says:

    This is a great post and great discussion. I have been recommended by our speech pathologist to put a morning/evening routine chart in place for my 3yr old (who may have possible other developmental and sensory issues). It is so difficult to work out what is working. I have realized for him I need to make it simple (2/3 things max). Where as with my older boy (4.5yrs) he wants to do the same as his brother so he has 7/8 things on his list – he gets high 5s and stickers as his daily “reward” for being helpful with his own routine. Atnthe end of the week we have a treasure box which has things like balloons, outings with mum or Dad, stickers, one dollar coins ( he can spend it on what he likes). This is helping him not feel left out and helping me to have one of my 3 children get ready in the mornings and evenings without my assistance so I can concentrate on the younger 2. What I will agree on is I’m not sure what to do if he doesn’t do all the routine. He really is being helpful by just doing some of these things, if I didn’t do the chart he would feel ‘left out’ and this is a big issue for him at the moment – feeling left of with the attention we are giving to his brother for needed reasons. Also at school he was disappointed when his friend got a reward and he didn’t but in a way “that is life lessons isn’t it?” we don’t all get things in life. I suppose I want to say it is a process of working out what works for your family and I think there are different answers for different times in our life. Now I just have to try and get my challenging (but gorgeous) 3yr old child to do even just one of the routine items without a struggle:(. Tough and exhausting times!

  17. just wondering if you think the behaviour has to be achieved all in a row, or whether you start again if they don’t meet it one day? reward charts never worked with my first who would pick and choose when she was interested in participating even though she had helped draw up the chart, chosen the stickers and the ‘reward’.

    for the teeth – we had a short period where my daughter brushed our teeth and then we brushed hers; another time where she listed everything she had eaten and we ‘looked for it on her teeth’ and brushed it off; and then a period where we focused on set teeth each day so they at least got a rotational clean.

  18. Sharon King says:

    We have used reward charts in the past for going to bed and they have proved very effective. We stopped the go to bed chart to do go to the toilet chart as I was worried about too many charts/focuses at once. Tomorrow go to bed gets reinstated as things have got bad again. I find some things can disrupt their good behaviour. My 3yr old had a cold, couldn’t breathe when she lay down and was becoming distressed, so naturally I stayed with her till she fell asleep. Just over her cold we have moved house, again I sat with her as she was unfamiliar with the new surroundings. It doesn’t take very long to develop new behaviours and in a short space of time she has learned mum will stay and is trying everything to ensure I do. I have previously found the need to reintroduce the sleep chart after holidays for similar reasons. I find they work quickly however…tonight I finally got her settled just by saying that I was going to start another Go to Sleep chart. I did have her expecting prizes though so will definitely take your advice of using family time rather than toys etc. x

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