If you have never used charts for behaviour change in your family, or you’ve used them and they’ve not worked as you had hoped, I encourage you to read on. Charts can transform your family life, your child’s behaviour and even your morning chaos if they are used correctly. Charts aren’t just for the little ones. You can even design one for yourself! Routine charts are great too, however our focus here is charts for teaching new behaviour.
The main advantage of charts is that they are a daily visual reminder of not only what behaviour you are trying to teach your child, but of exactly what that behaviour looks like and what the reward is going to be when the chartee masters the new behaviour! Let’s look at the components of a good chart.
Start with a simple, single, visual behaviour. Depending on the age of your child, it needs to be as concrete as possible. It is ideal if you can photograph your child doing the behaviour and use the photo on the chart. Don’t over complicate your chart with multiple behaviours. You can always tackle another behaviour later. For your first, choose something you are likely to have success with in a month to six weeks (ie don’t choose you will not tantrum ever again for a two year old).
Most importantly, the behaviour statement should be positive. A behaviour chart with the goal of don’t hit other children will run into trouble because it is not concrete enough for the child to understand when they have met the goal. What if they go 30 minutes without hitting? Do they get a sticker on the chart every minute? Every 5 minutes? What if they then hit? If they are young, they will not understand the time frame. The whole point of behaviour charts is to teach them to DO something new, not to NOT DO something. Your focus needs to be to teach a replacement behaviour. A chart with the focus play with gentle hands will actually teach prosocial behaviour that we want to see in the long term. Every time you see your child use gentle hands, they get praise and a sticker. They know exactly what they did right and hence what behaviour to repeat to get the same positive adult attention.
A chart should run for at least 4 weeks. A young child may not understand weeks, but they can understand visually filling up a chart with stickers until they get to the end of the footpath/traintrack/fairy footprints in the garden (see my caterpillar example). Choose the number of stickers or stamps you want your child to get carefully. Too many and your child will lose motivation, too few and the behaviour will not be mastered. For something like play with gentle hands you would want to see that two or three times per day for about three or four weeks. For tidy your bedroom on Tuesday obviously it’s only once per week and you might run that with an older child for six to eight weeks. You need enough practice to start a habit.
Allow room to mess it up
You must leave room for imperfection. If your child is not allowed to fail a few times and still reach the reward, you are expecting far too much. Who, when learning a new skill, gets it first time, every time? Whether they are working on getting stickers, ticks or stamps, once earned, they should never be lost. That stamp is an acknowledgement of getting it right; they earned it fair and square. Rather than having to earn 30 stamps 30 days in a row, just have 30 spots they have to fill with stamps. This allows room for a few bad days (we all have those!). You can estimate an appropriate time frame. If they drop the ball a few times, that’s OK, we are learning, it will just take a few days longer to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (good visual for a chart!).
Everyone wants to celebrate success and be acknowledged when they achieve something great, adults and kids alike. What kids really want is the attention of their primary care givers. Rewards don’t have to cost much; a fantastic reward is to have a whole day with mum, dad or another key adult where the child chooses the activity and gets time quality time! Have a look at www.behaviordoctor.org and click on the ‘rewards’ link at the bottom of the list on the right for a HUGE array of free and cheap reward ideas. Most are designed for schools, but you will find some home based rewards there too.
There are a few critical rules when deciding on rewards. First, make sure it’s your child’s currency. It’s no good offering a new soccer ball if they are not sporty. Second, the reward must be in proportion. Don’t reward your child with a new x-box for one week of completing their homework. Lastly, the reward must be different to what they might get form other sources. If Grandma secretly slips your 12 year old a twenty every Wednesday, extra pocket money on a reward chart may lose potency.
A final note on rewards. I choose not to reward behaviour that I know my child can do already. Rewards are a celebration and a positive reinforcement of behaviour that has been learnt new and was not easy or didn’t come naturally. It took effort. If one child is a very gentle handed player, there is no need to use the same system for them as for their more rambunctious sibling. They can have a chart with a different focus.
Pitch it at the right level
I have chosen not to introduce behaviour charts until about age three and a half. Very young children are unlikely to understand what the chart is other than a pretty picture. They need some ability to link cause and effect (if I do A, then B will occur). They also need at least a little bit of ability to sequence days, and numbers. Even if they can’t yet count, they do need to be able to understand the idea of collecting stickers or stamps to reach a goal. You may have some success with younger children by simply putting a sticker on their hand every time you see the target behaviour. Instant, concrete feedback will be more effective here than a vague promise four weeks hence!
Charts are not for everybody, but I love them. I am thinking of writing one up for myself. For every kilometer I run in a week, I get a stamp. When I reach my goal, I get a weekend away without the kids!
Written by Tracey Egan from the awesome blog Passing Phase (make sure you check it out)
I live in Australia with my husband and three boys. I work outside the home with other people’s kids and inside the home with my own kids. It’s a world of kids. All views are my own and do not reflect that of my employer.