Are Behavior Charts Really Effective?

Are Behavior Charts Really Effective

For years sticker charts and prizes have been a popular tool used by parents and teachers to motivate better behavior and reinforce new skills in kids. Many parents and preschool teachers I work with ask me about using behavior charts with their little guys to change behavior. They want to know my thoughts on whether or not they are really effective.

My response to parents and teachers is, “It depends on what you want for your child.”

If the focus is short term on the here-and-now and the end goal is simply wanting compliant behavior from a child - getting them to do what you want, then behavior charts can be effective.

When implemented effectively the charts help dictate the child’s desired behaviors and the rewards and consequences that go along with those behaviors.

If parents are already using behavior charts when we start working together I make sure they understand that it’s the rewards used to motivate behavior are external motivators, meaning they are outside of their child’s own monitoring system. The incentives are driving the behavior, not the child. Children are behaving in a certain way to please their parents (or teacher) and earn the reward.

It’s important parents also know there are limits with behavior charts. When behavior happens because of an external reward the chances of the behavior happening are limited to the presence of the reward. Behaviors will happen only as long as the prizes are available, novel and exciting to the child.

There are also limitations in what can be achieved with external motivators in that the behaviors don’t typically transfer over to other situations. The positive behaviors are limited to the situations in which the rewards are being offered.

On the other hand, if parents want more than just compliant kids (and this is where I coach parents to focus their parenting goals) and to truly and permanently change children’s behavior we need to shift the focus to intrinsic principles of behavior including, self-control, intrinsic motivation (understanding the value and purpose of their behavior) and long-term habits.

When parents shift their focus and emphasis internally and longer term, focusing more on the person they’d like their child to become, then behavior charts become viewed more as a method of bribing children into being compliant and fall short of being effective.

An inner focus requires approaching parenting from the perspective of guiding, coaching and teaching kids rather than controlling children. It means giving up external incentives and not being single mindedly focused on a child’s behavior and the outcomes in this moment. It requires allowing children time and practice to begin to behave in certain ways because they desire the natural positive outcome that comes with their behavior.

When we have an internal focus on behavior certain factors open up for influencing behavior change in healthy ways that we need to consider.

Relationships. Social and emotional development happens within the context of our relationships with children. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has said, “There is no development without relationships.”

When we teach and guide children in our behavior expectations parents should always consider their relationship with their child and be mindful of being respectful in the interactions with them. Our teachings are stronger and more likely to be internalized by our kids when done positively and respectfully.

Behaviors are learned skills. Behavior is a skill that must be learned, just like learning how to ride a bike or tie your shoe that you learned when you were a child. These skills are best developed and honed over time with guided practice knowing there will be a series of mistakes.

Focus on teaching children guiding principles for their behavior. Help children understand the WHY of their behavior rather than enforcing a litany of rules with corresponding rewards and punishments. When children understand and internalize why they are behaving a certain way that’s when they start to have self-responsibility for their behavior and change is more permanent.

Verbal encouragement is a powerful motivator rather than using external incentives. Pay attention to observable positive aspects of your child’s behavior that are happening and focus encouragement there. Encouragement allows us to reinforce small steps toward larger goals vs focusing praise only on the end product of a behavior goal attached to a reward or a punishment.

When we teach children the skills they need, focused on the guiding principles of their behavior, all within a loving and respectful relationship, children will start to own their behaviors and true, lasting behavior change will come from within – without charts, bribery or manipulation.

Changing patterns of behavior is hard, and it can be confusing and challenging to try new things. It’s also easy to give up when something new doesn’t work out and then to come up with plenty of excuses about why it doesn’t work.

I want you to know my support is always available.

If you relate to any of this information and want to learn more about how I can help you, or if you want to schedule a free phone conversation to see if my coaching is right for your family, please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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My work is dedicated to supporting parents and early childhood educators in understanding and reducing challenging behavior in young children at home and in the preschool classroom.

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