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So, one of the techniques for improving behaviour that you often hear about is the "star chart". You put the focus on good behaviour by adding stars (I nearly said "badges") for the good stuff and when the row is complete the child gets a reward.

We're going to start one off tomorrow but my kids are between 5 and 8 and so the reward has to be a big one to be meaningful to them and to keep them engaged. So we have this nice treat lined up for when they've filled 15 or 25 stars or something like that.

I figure on listing under the chart the kinds of behaviour which will earn a star ("getting dressed promptly on school days", "fighting less", "helping lay the table" and plenty more besides). They're starting to read now so it'll help to remind all of us what behaviour we're looking for.

I guess my question is, how to make the goals concrete for the children? What we're trying to achieve is sustained reduction in fighting, consistently less nagging required at getting dressed time, regular help with laying the table etc. Awarding a star for just a single instance of getting dressed promptly is pointless, since it already happens from time to time. We're not looking for one-offs.

On the other hand saying x has got to occur 10 times or 5 days in a row, or at least 4 times in one week, in order to earn a star, well, it's just too unmanageable. People will lose count.

Any better ideas?

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3 Answers 3

What I have done in the past with similar things is enroll the kids in developing the program. Tell them you want to reward them for good behavior. Let them know you think they are great kids and want to reward them for what they are already doing (again focus on the positive).

Kids want to be good, but it is hard for them to work with their developing brain and body to always do what they know is right, and it takes time to make good behaviors into good habits.

Ask them what sorts of behaviors need to be on the chart. You can prompt them too: "Do you think it is important to get dressed in the morning for school? Should we put that on here too?" Make sure there are some really easy ones for them too, ones they will get no problem. The idea is you want to develop momentum of good behavior. Especially at that age you want them to earn multiple stars every day.

Also make sure you phrase each objective in positive, concrete terms. Instead of "not fighting" phrase it as "getting along" as well as "Using inside voice when inside" etc.

As far as when to give them stars, you want to give them stars each time they do it right. The star is the immediate gratification that helps them to focus on the outcome you want them to achieve.

You can have the columns on the chart dated, and say they need 7 stars in a row to earn a prize. Then you have smaller prizes like a candy bar, an hour of time with dad / mom, etc. Then when they have 5 rows they get a big prize like that trip to the amusement park, etc.

Adjust the prizes and durations as necessary, especially when starting a new chart -- once something becomes habit, it doesn't need to be formally rewarded every time (that's not to say a random treat or "good job" for reinforcement shouldn't be given on occassion). Focus on things that are easy to do, but not yet habit, or aren't yet easy to do/remember and need additional motivation to master.

The keys:

  1. Enroll the kids in developing the program.
  2. Focus on the positive in the goals.
  3. Make goals concrete.
  4. Have stretch goals (stuff they need to work on) and easy goals (stuff they are already doing) - you could use different colored stars for the stretch vs easy goals, then tie different rewards to them.
  5. Give lots of stars - a star by itself is a nice reward - the recognition - make a big deal of it when they earn a star.
  6. Have small prizes (candy bar, time with parent, etc.) that lead to big prizes (day at the beach, take them out of school for a movie, etc.) Again the momentum is important.
  7. Make the goals grow with your children so that they learn to earn rewards by accomplishing new things, rather that already-habitual behavior X must come with a reward.

Hope that helps! Good luck.

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@HedgeMage: "Getting along" is different than "settling a disagreement by making a compromise" - One can get along without settling disagreements. They can get along every day without ever getting into a disagreement that needs a compromise. By focusing on the positive behavior they can learn to cut off a disagreement before a compromise is necessary. –  Jim McKeeth May 13 '11 at 1:40
    
In that case, perhaps you can think of a better example? My point was simply that if goals are more concrete, it is easier for kids to understand what must be done to meet them. Perhaps I didn't demonstrate that well. –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 2:12
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Actually, I don't think you can operate a "successful" (with considerations for the long-term development of the child) star chart. Since you asked for "better ideas," I propose:

  • connecting with your child by setting aside one-on-one time
  • being kind (read connected, respectful, etc) and firm (known as authoritative parenting style, not to be confused with authoritarian)
  • non-evaluative statements that encourage the child to reflect on their own behavior instead of somebody else's evaluation of them. This looks like:

    "I notice you washed the car this weekend. Thank you."

    "I notice you put your toys away."

    "I notice you didn't really eat much at dinner"

  • encourage your child using the following:

    "I appreciate _ "

    "Thank you for _ "

    "I have you seen do _ before so I know you can _ "

    "I have faith in you"

As for why reward charts, praise, etc don't work, I recommend reading Carol Dweck's research as well as Brene Brown. Both of them just released books that are very accessible to the average reader. Basically the problem with praise/rewards is that (and most of these apply to punishments too, which is why I use neither):

  • It invites the child to wonder what is so wrong with them that adults around them have decided they need personal cheerleaders?

  • It invites the child to choose between the reward and their sense of dignity, putting them between a rock and hard place, holding a double-edged sword.

  • It encourages the child to become a puppet/people pleaser and invites perfectionism and "praise-junky" behavior that leaves the child desperate for others' approval

  • It discourages the child from trying new things as learning is fraught with mistakes and disappointments and the child hasn't developed the coping skills for this, and may become afraid of disappointing others and not getting praise. This is what Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset."

  • It can lead the child to confuse between "I did good" and "I am good" which maybe doesn't sound that bad until you consider the flip side of "I am bad." This is what Brene Brown defines shame as and it can have debilitating effects lasting into adulthood. Her work parallels nicely with Dweck's.

  • And, lastly, it doesn't actually teach any skills so at best is a waste of time. Rewarding "good" behavior, isn't the same as teaching conflict resolution, self-regulatory, emotional literacy etc skills and this can show up later in the classroom environment especially.

So, bottom line, sticker charts and their ilk may seem "successful" in the short term, but in the long-term have unintended consequences and may cause quite a bit of harm.

Instead, I recommend running your household the same way you would an ideal office environment: with dignity, respect, shared vision, transparency, communication, consistency, structure, trust, compassion, etc.

And, none of this means you can't celebrate genuine accomplishments but these are not planned beforehand and instead arise naturally.

All that being said, each of these: "sustained reduction in fighting, consistently less nagging required at getting dressed time, regular help with laying the table etc" warrants a separate question and should be dealt with by teaching the required skills. A sticker chart does not teach conflict resolution skills which require complex behaviors, attitudes and skills, for example. I'd be happy to answer each of these questions directly.

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I am not a big proponent of such charts and reward systems for the reasons listed in @Christine Gordon's answer. However, before I learned some of the alternative types of techniques she mentions I did use a few with students. If you still want to use such a system, you might try something along the lines of, "I have to catch you getting along at least 8 times today for you each to get a star/ticket/sticker/mark whatever"

They can't point out the good behavior or it doesn't count. You have to actually "catch" them at it. The over-all advantage to this is that the sticker chart actually winds up rewarding you for noticing when they are doing well. When you do see them doing well, simply stating, "Oh, I notice you are getting along right now" or "Susie, I just saw you try to look for a compromise" each child receiving the observation knows a sticker is coming with the observation, but also gets that observation in the moment that you noticed it - a reward unto itself for all of you.

Jim McKieth's idea of including them in the brainstorming is a great one, if you haven't already determined rewards etc.

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