When you have a child who needs external help to keep his behavior on track, behavior charts can be useful tools. While they are typically best suited to younger children (pre-school through elementary ages), behavior charts can also be helpful with older kids.

Behavior charts can help children see and choose to make positive changes in behavior. How to make one.

The key to successfully implementing behavior charts is to help your child “own” the process. It’s much more likely that he will stick with the plan for lasting change if that plan comes from self-motivation, rather than parent-direction.  He will learn that his voice matters and that he can use his voice to advocate for himself. He will also experience opportunities to make positive changes and follow those with good choices.

So, how do you make a behavior chart with your child?

1. Pick a format and a medium for your behavior chart.

Does your child prefer a list, as in a “Jack will do x, y, and z behaviors” with spaces for stickers or checkmarks to mark the dates of success? Or does your child process information better in a graph format, like a calendar? Is your child artistic? Posterboard can be a canvas on which he expresses himself around the perimeter of the chart, no matter how you format it. Whiteboards come in a wide variety of styles and can be a low-cost, re-usable medium for the chart.

2. Choose what type of chart will work for your child.

Are you seeking a Rewards Only system? Or does your child need a system of both Rewards and Consequences? Discuss it with your child, but balance that against knowing what behaviors you are targeting for change. Some actions are severe enough that you will need to enforce consequences, at least when you first begin using a behavior chart.

  • For example, a Rewards Chart would say, “Jill will keep her hands to herself at the dinner table.” For each night that Jill refrains from touching her sister or the hot dishes, she earns one sticker.
  • A Rewards and Consequences Chart would go one step further to add: “Jill will apologize to her sister and dry dishes for her sister tonight.”
For each night that Jill refrains from touching her sister or the hot dishes, she earns one sticker.

3. Decide together what behaviors your child should target.

These behavior changes should be your child’s goals. Depending upon his age, you might need to guide him through the selection. Keep it simple to start, choosing only one to three behaviors that he can tackle with good chances for success. Set him up to succeed by positively stating the goals; for example, Jack will ask to be excused from dinner and will clear his place when he is excused.”

4. Consider both daily and weekly rewards to celebrate successes.

Short-term rewards

It is particularly important when you are first implementing behavior charts to give your child short-term goals and follow them with immediate positive reinforcements. Your goal should be to find many ways to acknowledge the positive change that your child makes to start. Stickers can accumulate daily toward a larger weekly goal, thus minimizing the pressure on you to offer daily tangible rewards.

Weekly rewards

As your child finds success, you can begin to stretch the goals out a bit to a weekly reward system. The rewards should be inexpensive, meaningful to this particular child, and connection-building for your parent-child relationship. Rewards that are meaningful for your child might include a one-on-one ice cream date or an extra Family Game Night.  Find what sparks your child’s motivation to succeed and focus on those as rewards.

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5. Talk about future behavior goals and “bigger” rewards for which your child can aim.

As your child’s behavior becomes more self-motivated, and positive changes are happening, talk about new goals together. His growing self-awareness will facilitate these conversations. As he tastes success, he will also be up for the challenge of rewards that are harder to earn.

6. Be patient and flexible with your child and with yourself.

Talk with your child about how new things often take some time to “learn the ropes” and that you expect some adjustment time. Offer him compassion and opportunities for “re-do’s” to succeed. If your chart isn’t quite working for your child, offer to revisit the parts that are not working. Re-work it together and talk about second chances, flexibility, and learning curves.

Rewards that are meaningful for your child might include a one-on-one ice cream date or an extra Family Game Night.

Remember That Change Takes Time

Seeing your child’s behaviors change will be very rewarding, even if it is a long process. Try to remember that the pain and loss existed for a while inside your child, so healing will likely also take time.

For much more support, we recommend Creating a Family’s radio show with Carol Lozier, MSW, LCSW. She also has recently written a book called The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide: How to Heal Your Child’s Trauma and Loss.*

Image Credits: Abigail Batchelder; dougmartin571

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