When it comes to encouraging a toddler or preschooler to do something you want them to do (like stay in bed during the transition to a “big boy/girl bed”), some will find a sticker chart as a good positive reinforcement tool. Rather than jump to punitive methods such as timeout or taking away privileges, using positive reinforcement to encourage behavior can be much more effective.
Your child’s temperament and personality will be a factor in how effective a sticker chart is. The use of a sticker chart takes a certain level of understanding and self-control on your child’s part, though, and that age will vary. There is a difference between knowing what he shouldn’t do and being able to control the impulse that “makes” him do something he can’t do. This is the primary reason that in the 2 to 4 year age range, most methods won’t ever work the first time for persistent children. While you might think your 4 month old (or 6 or 10 month old) is strong-willed now, by the time he reaches the age where he begins to try to become more independent, it can be very difficult to encourage the right behavior. A sticker chart is a good way to teach kids about cause and effect and rewards for hard work (After all, it’s hard work to control your impulses! Adults have trouble with that!).
Sticker Chart Tips
1. A sticker chart does not need to be fancy. You can start with a simple piece of colored construction paper and write “Jane’s Sleep Chart” or “Michael’s Good Job Chart” or that sort of thing. You can have your child help make it by coloring with crayons and other decorations.
2. Think about what is important to your child. Every child will have a “currency”. I don’t mean money. Your child might be into dinosaurs or dolls or M&M’s or TV or a special game with just mommy or daddy. All parents will have a different philosophy. Some won’t want to use food as a reward and others don’t allow TV. This “currency” will be unique to you and your child. When we were potty training my first son, we used Matchbox cars as an incentive when he had trouble pooping on the potty and it worked well. Those cars were VERY important to him and he rarely wanted to share them because he did work very hard for them, but we potty trained in 2 months (pee within a week, but poop took some time) and he was potty trained before the age of 3.
3. Try to keep the rules simple enough for your child to understand. Children will vary when they can understand the concept of the sticker chart rules. Some will be able to understand at 2 and others not until 3 or even 4. They all develop differently so this isn’t a reflection on intelligence. Also, your child may be able to understand the chart, but can care less about it until you either find the right “currency” or he gets a little older.
4. Decide how many stickers she needs to win a special “prize”. For particularly difficult problems, you might have to start with an instant gratification and work your way up to using stickers, but if you are using stickers you’d choose a number of stickers they must earn before they get a prize. For example, if you are trying to keep a child in bed all night, you might start with bedtime and tell them that every time he stays in bed at bedtime, he gets a sticker and after 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5) stickers, he will get the prize (his “currency” from #2).
5. Be consistent! You can’t make rules and then change them. I also don’t believe that you should ever take stickers away. She earned them fair and square. If you earn a paycheck at work and make an error at your job, they don’t take away your pay (usually), so once she earns something, she should be able to keep it. It is tempting when she is misbehaving that you take some away, but this will sabotage your efforts. If she feels like they can be taken away, she will stop wanting to earn them. Imagine if you felt your paycheck could be taken away on a whim, you’d likely stop wanting to do any work for fear you’d do it for nothing.
6. Put the sticker chart where he can see it. You want to reinforce the idea of the chart and if he can’t see it, he won’t think about it. When we were working on a sleep problem (because, for us, they never go away 100% for son #1), we put his sleep chart taped on his bedroom door.
7. Involve your child in putting the stickers on the chart. You must involve your child as much as possible in the entire process. If you just announce there is a chart, explain the rules, put the chart in a drawer and you’re the one to put the stickers on, she won’t find the chart fun whatsoever. You have to be energetic and excited in creating the chart, involve her in the decorations and make it exciting. Let her have some control (toddlers looooove control) by putting the sticker on the chart herself. It doesn’t matter if the sticker is on crooked or in the “wrong” place.
8. Make sure it’s clear when she has earned a prize. You can put circles where the stickers will go and a star at the end of a row, so she knows when she gets to the end of each row. This is important, especially if he can’t count yet. Another alternative is you can make a small chart (think a piece of paper the size of a book) and once he gets his 5 stickers and his prize, you make a new chart.
9. Praise, praise, praise! Keep your excitement up when your child does well and praise often. They generally want to please you. Praise behavior you like, ignore behavior you don’t (unless it warrants time-out such as hitting or another “serious” offense. I highly recommend Hands Are Not for Hitting).
10. Slowly transition away from the chart. Once your child’s behavior has been consistently the way you want, you’ll want to slowly transition away from the chart (well, if she conveniently forgets about it, I’d just go for it!). You can play up the fact she is getting to be such a big girl and now she needs 7 stickers (or however many) to get the prize or change the prize or change the rules in some way that make sense and keeps her excited.