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How to Use Sticker Charts to Effectively Improve Your Child's Behavior

sticker chart improve behavior

In the midst of a global pandemic, I find myself as a stay at home mom with two children (2-year-old and 8-week-old), while my husband works full time in our garage.

We put a hold on all help; no daycare for my daughter, no grandparents coming over to help, no nanny or babysitter to lighten the load.  It is all me, all day, and WOW is it difficult! 

When my daughter was born, I stayed home with her for the first three blissful months, loved every minute of maternity leave, and yet was ready to go back to work because I adore what I do. 

However, having two at home and no help is a horse of a different color.  I have gained an infinite level of respect for parents that stay at home with their children: You are the unsung heroes; you are the gold medal winners!   

mom babies sticker charts

With all that being said, I needed to call upon my knowledge of behavior in order to help me get through the isolated days at home without help.  It was becoming far too easy to flip on my daughter's favorite show because it seemed like the only minute where she didn't need me to engage her. 

I was starting to feel guilty for how much screen time that she was getting (hi, mom guilt, welcome). What I wanted her to do instead was look through a book, or even let me read her some books, and have some sort of rule about screen time.  Because she is only two, I immediately thought of doing a sticker chart for her.   

In the behavior world, we call sticker charts "token economies." Token economies are where children can earn tokens for identified "good" behavior, and after earning a set amount, they can trade those tokens in for something reinforcing (e.g., a piece of candy). 

We often use tokens all day with the children that we work with, so we typically make token boards with laminated pieces that can stand repeated use.   At home with my own child, I am using stickers and a piece of paper; items that most of us have on hand at home.   

I feel like in some ways, everyone thinks that using a sticker chart is obviously straightforward and requires no explanation.  However, I can't tell you how many times I have had a parent tell me that "tokens" don't work for their child, which really tells me that the parent wasn’t doing it quite right. 

Like most things in the behavior world, if they are done correctly, they are massively successful.  So in this time where parents are quarantined at home with their children's daily academics now solely their responsibility, I thought some quick tips on using sticker chart might be helpful.  

  1.  Set a reasonable expectation for earning the backup reinforcer (or reward).  My daughter just turned 2, and as we are stuck at home all day long with a 7-week-old, it was getting much too easy for me to turn on Peppa Pig for a quick reprieve.  So, the new rule (really more for me than for her) was that she had to read 5 books during the day if she wanted to watch a show.   Her books are short, and since it's really the adult reading it to her, we knew that 5 could easily be achieved on a daily basis.   
  2. Discuss the new expectations before ever starting.  Involve your child in the process to get them excited.  I took a plain white piece of paper and created the chart for the week.  Then I let my daughter do some coloring on it.  We talked about the new rule ("We need to read 5 books before you can watch a show,") and let her pick stickers that she wanted to use.  Logically, each day has five spaces for the stickers that she earns.  
  3. Stickers (or tokens) must be given immediately following the desired behavior.  If you are trying to support your child completing math problems on a worksheet, then you need to deliver the sticker right when the worksheet is completed.  It is not enough to tell your child, "great job, that earns you another sticker," but then don't actually give the sticker for 15 minutes.   This immediacy helps to solidify the relationship between the desired behavior (reading books) and earning the reinforcer (stickers and eventually watching a show). 
  4. NEVER give the backup reinforcer unless all tokens (or stickers) were earned.  If the child learns that they can get the reward without having to earn it, then the whole process will be lost and you will be a parent who says, "Sticker charts don't work for my kid."  

June 2020 update: 

I wrote the above section when we began my daughter's sticker chart.  Now, three months later, I can attest to the success of the whole process!  A few things have happened as a result of consistent use of stickers: 

  • We have successfully been able to withhold access to her television watching until she's earned all 5 of her stickers (by reading all 5 of her books).  There have been nights where she didn’t earn enough stickers and she's been okay when she's told that she can't watch a show. 

  • She knows the rule, can state the rule, and demonstrates understanding of the rule.  Sometimes she'll wake up first thing in the morning and will say, "I want to watch Peppa Pig," and I'll say, "Hmmm, what do you need to do first?" to which she replies, "Read some books! Come on Mommy, let's get books."

  • She has learned to enjoy reading a LOT more.  She would always tolerate books, but rarely asked for them, and didn't seem to totally love them.  We have always been "library people," so that she has a continuous rotation of books to keep things exciting.  When the quarantine went into effect, we were stuck with the books that we had (plus the library haul that we weren't allowed to take back).  She has favorites, and she can recite many lines from these books that she loves.  She laughs, she makes goofy voices like we do when we read them to her.  All in all, it's been a totally positive experience.  


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