The Fault is in Our Star Charts
I think it’s safe to say most parents have tried reward charts with their children at some point. We call these reward charts star charts at my house because we originally used sticker stars with our first chart. When I tried researching using star charts, however, I mostly came up with astrological websites. Not much help there with toddler behavior, although I did learn my daughter’s astrological sign.
It’s possible I’m not the best person to discuss using reward charts since my success with them has been hit-and-miss. But I can tell you about the things that have worked for us, and what didn’t.
I have an extremely stubborn three-year-old. And most days she’d rather win a battle of wills than earn a reward, no matter how spectacular. We’ve both struggled to maintain enthusiasm for reward charts when behaviors weren’t changing. With some tweaking of the process, I have found ways to use reward charts successfully. If I can make a reward chart work with my strong-willed child, then these tips should help almost anyone succeed.
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Build up some Excitement About the Chart
We’ve had fun setting up our star charts whenever we begin a new one. I’ve let my toddler choose pictures from magazines for me to cut out and glue on. We’ve colored charts, we’ve bought awesome stickers. We recently started using an awesome magnetic responsibility chart to keep her behavior goals and rewards front and center on the wall.
Use whatever you can to make the start of the reward chart a big deal. With each chart, we’ve purchased or planned rewards my daughter loves to motivate her to succeed. Usually, we’ve used small toys or trips to Dairy Queen. We’re not talking trips to Disneyland here, but choose something genuinely motivating. Try to keep the enthusiasm going as you use the chart every day. And keep the reward visible.
Set the Bar Low
Robert Browning once said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and you should ignore it completely. At least in this case. The idea of baby-steps was made for the reward chart. Make sure the behavior goal is attainable so your kiddo doesn’t feel defeated or give up as soon as they begin. Always keep in mind you’re dealing with a three or four-year-old and set the expectations accordingly. If they are consistently not succeeding in earning a star, lower the bar even more.
The 4-Day Win
Martha Beck has a concept she calls the 4-Day Win. She mainly uses it with dieting, but I have found it to be effective with reward charts as well. The idea is to break any goal into bite size pieces to keep it from overwhelming you. With the 4-Day Win, you get a tiny reward each day for completing your goal and bigger reward at the end of four days. With your child’s reward chart, the sticker is the small reward. At the end of four days, there needs to be a bigger reward for four days of success. I really encourage keeping the chart to four days, or possibly even three. A week is forever to a three-year-old.
Both my daughter and I have struggled with forgetting or losing interest in reward charts if it goes on too long. We would create fancy charts and forget about them before she got to the end. Or she would lose interest in the specific reward we’d planned and stop trying. These weren’t year long goals, we’re talking 7 to 10 days. Four days is plenty.
When you choose your behavior you want to improve, be as specific as you can. Clean your room is a much too general goal for a toddler. Choose something like picking up five toys and putting them back on the shelf each day. Or trying one bite of a vegetable at dinner if you’re working on picky eating. Whatever your original idea is, consider if there is a way to break it down further into a smaller bite-sized piece. Chances are it needs to be more specific.
You Can’t Fix Everything at Once
Create a reward chart with one to three behaviors to work on for a start. Any more than that and not only will it overwhelm your toddler, it will be exhausting to keep track of all the rewards. And I prefer a reward for each behavior, rather than for completing the whole chart in keeping with the idea of bite sized pieces. It might be best to start with just one thing if this is your first chart.
Keep it Age Appropriate
These tips are given with older toddlers in mind. Younger than three is probably too soon for reward charts to be a useful concept. Most of these tips are still valid for older kids, but you may be able to add more behaviors at a time and the types of behaviors and rewards will change.
A Reward Chart in Action
My toddler is a juice addict. Try not to judge. It started with her falling in love with Pedialyte during an illness and no other drink has ever lived up to those fruit flavors. When I deny her juice, my daughter would rather dehydrate than settle for the water I’m offering. Did I mention stubbornness can be an issue? So we’re using the reward chart.
We set the goal of five cups of water per day. We built up some hype to get started. Showed her the reward, a Peppa Pig stuffy friend. We bought cool new reusable, BPA free, multi-colored straws. We keep the cups small so it doesn’t overwhelm her. She gets small rewards and heaps of praise for every small success and Peppa Pig for the big 4-Day Win. Ready, set, go, on the drinking water reward chart!
Has it Worked for You?
Our success with reward charts has been mixed, but we persevere. I am so much happier, and so is my toddler, when we can reward good behavior rather than punish the bad. But making these reward charts succeed is still a work in progress. Have you tried using reward charts? Was it successful? Have you found other ways to reward positive behavior changes that worked better?
We moms need all the tools we can get! Happy star charting!
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