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How to use reward charts to boost good behaviour

Getting children to comply when you ask them to do something, however simple, can often be challenging.

Whether it’s something vital to their wellbeing, such as cleaning their teeth twice a day, or less important, like hanging their coat up instead of dropping it on the floor, the ongoing battles can be a real energy drain.

One way of swapping raised voices for calm compliance is to use a temporary reward system: motivating your child to make good choices through small incentives. (An example of this could be ‘If you do your homework every week without fuss then at the weekends you can play Pokémon Go and hunt for shiny Pokémon!’)

Reward charts can be used for correcting negative behaviour, such as fighting with a sibling or messing around at the dinner table, or to encourage progress with tasks that they’re reluctant to try like tying shoelaces or telling the time.

Here are some tips on how to use a reward chart to encourage good behaviour and bring some peace back to family life!

Clearly define the behaviours you want to promote

For a reward chart to work your child must understand what it is you would like them to work towards. Sit down with them before you start and explain why the end result is important to you, how you will help them achieve it and how it will benefit them to take part.

Don’t make the end goal too complicated or difficult to achieve otherwise it will become overwhelming and they’ll become demoralised.

Break it down

It can be helpful to break bigger goals down into smaller steps. For example, if the ultimate aim is for your child to dress themselves in the morning but they’re not quite ready for that yet, the first stage on the chart could be ‘Find a clean pair of pants and put them on’. When they’ve mastered that, the next step will be to ‘Find pants and socks’.

Ticking something off, even if it’s only a tiny part of the overall objective, will be more motivating for them than not being able to celebrate anything until they’re able to get completely dressed.

Choose your words carefully

If you’re looking to correct a habit, think first about how you can write it on the chart to inspire them. Use positive language - ‘William will remember to put his dirty clothes in the laundry bin’ - rather than negative - ‘William won’t leave his clothes all over the floor’.

Keep the words simple for younger children and, if they can’t read, use drawings or pictures to help them recognise the instructions.

Create an age appropriate reward chart

Design a reward chart that your child will appreciate and want to use.

For younger children you could draw their reward chart out on bright paper or card and let them colour it with crayons or glue on pictures that they like.

When the child has completed a task successfully they can either draw a tick/smiley face in the box or choose their favourite sticker from a selection.

If they are reluctant to use a reward chart then they could add a marble to a jar or keep a tally on a chalk board to mark each step instead.

Older children may prefer to use a virtual chart app that you can download on to your phone or tablet, ticking off each completed task digitally.

Choose the rewards

To keep the momentum going and to promote ongoing good behaviour then it can be useful to give small rewards along the way. You can mark successful completion of small chunks of time (say, every fortnight) with a little present that they’ve chosen beforehand.

Stay small

Don’t go too overboard with this: the presents should be enough to encourage the child to continue with their positive actions but if they’re too big or exciting they might overshadow the rest of the chart. Items that are ideal include toy cars, small items of stationery, a pack of Topps cards and jokey things like slime or putty.

Keep them going

When they reach the halfway point you might want to keep their motivation going with something slightly bigger, like a cuddly toy, a book or a game. After that, you can re-focus their attention on the larger reward, which will be waiting for them when they’ve completed the whole chart and reached their goal.

Crossing the finish line

When your child reaches the end of their chart and has either demonstrated great behaviour or learnt their new skill their first reward should be your praise and enthusiasm for the effort they’ve put in: show them you’re really proud of their achievement!

Then it’s time for them to receive their ultimate prize: whatever it was they really, really wanted when you first started the chart.

Think outside the box

Rewards don’t always have to be material objects. If your child isn’t particularly motivated by ‘things’ then you could use an experience as the final prize instead. This could be a trip to their favourite place, a cinema night at home with snacks or a sleepover at their grandparents’ house.

You could make it even more fun by thinking of something slightly wackier as their gift. How about promising them a water fight in the back garden, the chance to create a menu made entirely from  their favourite foods or a mini-disco in the front room with a few friends, lights and all?!

Frequently asked questions about reward charts

What age children benefit from a reward chart?

In general, reward charts can be used by children between approximately three and eight years of age. They are old enough by three to start understanding the idea of positive encouragement: that they are rewarded if they choose the right behaviour. By eight they should, theoretically, have the idea of making good choices and helping around the house embedded into them. Reward charts should largely be unnecessary by then and may be seen as ‘babyish’.

But it will depend on each child: only you know them well enough to know whether a reward chart will be a suitable activity for them.

Can I reward more than one task at a time?

Again, it depends on the age and understanding of the child. With very young children it’s probably better to focus on just one thing at a time: for instance, ‘Put your toys away and get a sticker’.  

Older children will be able to cope with having several things on the go at once, although it’s best not to have loads or it will seem like too much of a chore. If you do want them to work towards several things concurrently, pick a few that are related, for example: clearing plates away after a meal, ensuring their books are in their bag ready for school, and tidying their room at the end of the day.

Remember to offer encouragement throughout the chart’s duration and to be supportive if they miss their goal occasionally: remind them that they can always try again the next day.

Great Little Rewards is crammed with perfect rewards for brilliant kids, so take a look now!

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