The sticker war has been raging for quite some time and sticker charts have fallen under heavy criticism. I’ll show you how you can use sticker charts successfully to teach a whole range of behaviours and habits.
Like any tool in our parenting toolkit, they’re not an instant fix; they need to be implemented with a plan- but hey, that’s what intentional parenting is, right? I strongly believe that when you set up sticker charts successfully, they’re effective!
There are a lot of valid fears as to why sticker charts at best might be a waste of time and, at worst, be actually damaging to your child’s behaviour.
So, what are parents worried about?
Sticker charts motivate kids extrinsically- it becomes all about the reward. I want my child to develop intrinsic motivation. They need to be able to do things even if there isn’t a reward waiting for them.
Like everything in a child’s development, intrinsic motivation develops in stages and needs to be explicitly taught and supported. By using a sticker chart in the right way, you can help your child to learn about doing things that are difficult or that they just don’t want to do. Sure, there’s a reward in it for them, but aren’t we all motivated by rewards?
I know I’d be much less motivated to go to work if there wasn’t a paycheck at the end of the month. I limit the amount of chocolate I eat because otherwise I know I’ll regret my decisions when I next put on a bikini. Healthy eating is something I care about because I’ve learnt about the benefits. And even the kind things I do are because I have developed a sense of empathy, and I have a vision for the type of person I want to be.
All in all, I do a lot of things I’d rather not do or find difficult because I have learnt about consequences. It’s a gradual process. It’s not a blanket system, but using sticker charts successfully gives your child a little extra scaffolding to learn this too.
My child might become dependent on sticker charts. They might never learn how to cope without rewards and I’ll still be doling out little yellow smiley faces when they’re 18.
You are building their motivation system. Why should your child want to eat cabbage? Just because you’ve said so? They don’t know about the health benefits, the five a day target, the risk of childhood obesity or the impact on long-term health.
So why should they care? It tastes so yucky!! Starting out with tangible extrinsic rewards make more sense for kids- seeing a reward can make that difficult request just a little bit easier to swallow.
As with any scaffolding, it will be needed less over time. The idea is to form a new habit– a new behaviour. They will become familiar with this new thing, and learn that it’s expected.
Then you’ll be able to phase out the sticker or adjust the plan- maybe they’ll now get a sticker if they finish their whole plate.
My child will think that every good action must be rewarded. It’ll become an entitlement rather than a reward, and I won’t be able to ask them to do anything ‘for nothing’ anymore.
I recommend to use a sticker chart around just one identified behaviour or routine. You can be specific about this with your child so they know exactly what they can earn a sticker for and what the reward will be later.
It can be around tidying up, trying new foods, finishing homework- anything! But it’s not a free for all or a negotiation. I’ll talk about this in more detail in a second, but the more planning you’ve done before starting the sticker chart, the better.
HOW TO USE STICKER CHARTS SUCCESSFULLY
Sticker charts are a visual system
I love visuals! I love ticking things off my checklists, using progress graphs, and using things like advent calendars. If I ever went to jail, I can guarantee I’d have tally marks on my cell wall. It’s so motivating! The best part is rewarding myself when I meet my targets and have ticked all the boxes.
A common reward for me is this: If I hit my word limit everyday, then I’m treating myself to an ice cream at the end of the week. When used in the right way, a sticker chart is just the same.
There’s something about those little boxes filling up or getting ticked off that spurs me on like nothing else can (aside from an impending deadline, of course!)
How to make sticker charts interesting
One easy thing you can do is to make the sticker chart interesting for your child. If they love dinosaurs, make it a dinosaur themed one. If they have trucks, put trucks all over it.
Simple things like this can have a huge impact in how much your child wants to engage with something.
Even better if you can make it together and get your child to design their own chart- the sense of ownership you’ll create will help them to buy-in to the idea.
How to plan for using sticker charts successfully
If at all possible, your child can be a part of the planning process. Decide what the goal is- be specific! Let’s say you’ve agreed that they’ll tidy up before supper every night. Could you take a photo of the tidied room so they know what it should look like? Maybe you could give two simple jobs (toys in the box, cushions on the seats).
This stage will depend on the age and ability of your child. It’s important that you both know what exactly will earn the sticker. And talk about the reward- what will it be and how many stickers are needed?
Make it achievable and not too far away. Frequent small rewards are better than one big one that feels like waiting for Christmas to come. Agree and be consistent!
The goal is to scaffold to success, not to ‘teach a lesson’ by the child not earning the sticker.
How to choose successful rewards for your sticker charts
This next tip for using sticker charts successfully is just my personal opinion. I love rewards, I really do, but I’m not such a big fan of the plastic type. Aside from additional expense to you, more often than not, kids don’t need this extra stuff.
Challenge yourself to be more creative with rewards (remember to agree what these will be in the planning phase- it shouldn’t be a surprise when it’s time to give it out).
Consider giving an extra 10 mins of playtime as a reward, an extra story at bedtime, marshmallows for their hot chocolate, or even their choice of craft or baking for the weekend.
These rewards can be much more meaningful than handing over a new toy. To give your child a choice in picking their reward, what about a ‘reward menu’ with five or six choices (only things you’re happy to give!)
Make your child a part of this process as much as you can- ask for their ideas and negotiate together, but you have the final word! Once you’ve chosen the reward- stick to it!!
Plan the language you’ll use
When you’re using a sticker chart successfully, you’ll have a golden opportunity for teaching. Chances are you’ll be praising your child when you give the sticker, so think carefully about the words you want to use.
Again, being specific is the goal. “I loved how you tidied the playroom- you looked after all your toys and you made it look really nice so it’s all ready for play again tomorrow.”
This is much more powerful than simply “well done.” The language you use is so important. You are establishing the new behaviour or routine.
How to keep your sticker chart system positive
When you use a sticker chart successfully, the goal is to have a system of rewards- it’s not a punishment system or a demerit systems. Once a sticker is earned, it’s stuck on and can’t be taken away. Keep the experience positive as much as you can.
Make the goals attainable and scaffold for success (this might mean you help for the first day or so and gradually increase your expectations. or it might mean you provide visuals to show what you do expect) then you will hopefully always be able to give the sticker.
If you can’t give the sticker one day, keep it low-key. Refer back to what you’d agreed (this is why it’s important to write or draw this out at the top of the sticker chart) and keep it factual. An example might be, “you didn’t put the toys away today so I can’t give you a sticker. I’ll give you more time tomorrow so you can get your sticker. You only need one more and then we can bake our cookies at the weekend!”
How to review your sticker chart system for success
A successful sticker chart is a working document. The aim is for it be specific, attainable, fun and positive. If it isn’t ticking these boxes then regroup- go back to the drawing board and figure out what might be going on. Is the goal attainable? If not, you might need to break it into smaller steps. It’s important for your child to experience success, even if it means starting small and building up. Is the reward motivating enough? If not, get creative- what does your child love- what would be an extra treat? A sticker chart is one strategy to support behaviour and new routines, but it isn’t the only one. If it’s become a negative experience, and you’re not sure what you can change, don’t be afraid to park it for a while. It isn’t the answer to everything.
How to use the principles of a sticker chart successfully… without the stickers!
A sticker chart is a popular reward system, but it’s not the only one you can use to experience success.
My personal favourite is the cotton ball system. Use a jar instead of a chart and cotton balls instead of stickers. The same principles apply, but instead of earning a sticker, the child earns a cotton ball to put into the jar. When the jar is full, the reward is given.
The nice thing about cotton balls is that you can decide when the reward happens- choose the size of the jar carefully (you might want to reward every 3-4 days at the start. Then try stretching it out to once a week) and just squash or fluff the cotton balls so you have extra control over whether to reward sooner if needed.
Try out these top tips for how to use a sticker chart with success!
These are just some ideas for how to use a sticker chart successfully with your child. The system will only be as successful as how it is implemented. When implemented intentionally and specifically, sticker charts can be extremely powerful.
Sticker charts are a visual system and visuals are such a motivating tool with kids. Remember to plan out your sticker charts- be specific, knowing what you want to achieve and how you’ll do it. Start small and build from there, and involve your child if possible.
Think creatively about your rewards- most kids don’t need more plastic! Once you’ve planned it out, keep it fun and positive, and remember to be consistent! It’ll take extra time at the start but setting it up well is definitely worth it.
Make the most of the teaching opportunities it provides and use your language intentionally. Keep reviewing and defining as needed- nothing is set in stone. It needs to work for you and your family. And if you’re bored of stickers, take a fresh look at reward systems and try something new.
Sticky charts are not a sticky plaster fix all, but one tool in our parenting toolbox. Try out these tips to use sticker charts successfully.
Here you will lots of amazing free sticker charts that you can download and use.
Let me know if you have used sticker charts in your parenting- how did it go? Do you have any tips or new ideas for parents? I’d love to hear from you!
WANT A LITTLE MORE?
Before you go, check out my free Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets for ideas to boost your child’s speech and language through everyday routines. Enjoy!
You might also enjoy:
- How to Praise Your Child So They Succeed in Life
- 9 Smart Strategies for Dealing With Tantrums in Toddlers
- 11 Incredible Children’s Books That Teach Positive Behavior
- How to Establish a Bedtime Routine for Toddlers and Get ‘YOU’ Time!
Please comment and let me know your thoughts- have you used sticker charts before and did they work? I’d love to know what you think.
Thanks for reading!