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How to Build a Behavior Chart for Your Toddler

How to Build a Behavior Chart for Your Toddler

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I have a question I can’t seem to find a concrete answer for on the internet, so I’m hoping more for the opinion of a Fellow Parent Who Has Successfully Raised Kids Older Than Mine (we don’t have too many yet in our friend group).

My daughter is 21 months old, and she’s our only kid, so we’re not great at telling when some Best Pin EVER!!!!!! is a good fit for her age. She’s generally really well-behaved, but we’ve been working on staying her own bed all night. She was doing really great and we were foolishly high-fiving our awesome parenting skills when a bout of separation anxiety set in last month, causing her to wake up multiple times a night trying to climb into our bed… and generally fight bedtime altogether. We’re down to only a night or two a week now of getting up, and I want to encourage her to keep going. (FWIW, I totally subscribe to your philosophy of “do what you want as long as you stay in your room”. She takes a few books to bed and once I’m out, I’m out. It worked great until the separation anxiety!)

I was hoping maybe a sticker chart would help? She’s really motivated by plain old enthusiasm (high fives and cheering) but bedtime doesn’t have the same instant gratification that, say, being great about brushing your teeth does. I’m just not sure if she’s old enough to grasp the concept yet?

Also, as she’s getting more and more independent we’re trying to give her some tasks that she can feel good/helpful about doing. I was thinking of doing a hybrid behavior/chore chart so there was some easy, more instantly rewardable things on there besides staying in bed. The chores I could care less about – she typically helps do them anyways, and we can do them together: feed Fishy and help feed the dog/cats.

So, what age would you generally recommend for a sticker chart? If she’s too young, any tips on rewarding a kid for something that’s happened the night before (ie staying in her room)? What’s worked for your family?

Thanks so much in advance!!

So here’s my over-arching big-picture philosophy on behavior charts for very young children: They work best when they are a visual extension of the positive reinforcement your child already receives from you on a daily basis (praise, high fives, you-picked-up-your-toys-so-now-you-get-a-cookie, etc). I don’t think there’s any right (or wrong) age to introduce a behavior chart, and it certainly won’t hurt anything to at least try. If your toddler doesn’t seem to grasp the concept or respond to the incentives, you can quietly put it away and then try again in three to six months. Just because it might not work the first time for the first particular behavior doesn’t mean it won’t work later, when she’s a bit older or you’re using it for a different purpose, like potty training or real chores.

(Believe me, we’ve gone through a TON of charts and failed spectacularly at using them consistently, but when a specific behavior issue crops up the first thing we do is draw up a new chart on the kitchen chalkboard wall. Despite our past inconsistency, our kids STILL respond to a chart and a specific reward goal like gangbusters.)

So I’ve mentioned “behavior” in the singular form a few times, and that would be my Number One Advice for anyone looking to introduce a chart to a young toddler or preschooler. Only ONE thing listed on the chart should be something that your child actually isn’t doing (or not doing) consistently. Everything else should basically be cake, stuff they’ve more or less mastered. So the things you already praise and high-five your daughter for (like brushing her teeth, feed Fishy, etc.) would fill out the rest of the chart. That way she’s more likely to understand how the chart works and what the incentive is for getting all her stars or stickers each day.

Since she’s so little, I’d probably stick to three to five things, arranged in the order she usually completes them throughout the day. Let her be the one who places the sticker or magnet or whatever you go with to mark the task as “done.” To set her up for success, you can even leave “stay in bed all night” OFF your first iteration of the chart until you can sense she’s “getting” it and responding to the special extra positive reinforcement that she’s being good and helpful. So maybe start off with 1) Brush teeth, 2) Feed Fishy, 3) Feed dogs/cats. After a few days or a full week, go ahead and add two more things. Staying in bed all night and one more easy-to-semi-easy one. (Like picking up toys, putting clothes in hamper, etc.)

As far as what kind of reward to offer, that varies WILDLY by kid. And don’t be afraid it takes some trial-and-error. For some kids, just the stickers or stars and feeling of accomplishment are almost enough. Other kids are happy with small token-type rewards, like pennies, an M&M or a temporary tattoo. Other kids respond to a big, super-special reward (money, a new toy, a special outing) they have to “work” towards, by consistently completing everything on the chart for a full week. That last one can be a harder concept for a very young toddler to understand, though, but again, it varies. I will caution against offering rewards that require a lot of effort or money from YOU, like driving to the store to pick a treat out, buying an expensive-ish item week after week, keeping a stash of dollar store crap that you’ll forget to restock, etc. You want something that’s EASILY sustainable on your end so YOU can stay consistent and not end up undermining the entire undertaking because you got lazy. (Speaking from experrrrrrrrrience. If it’s not something I always have in the house or can bulk-order via Amazon Prime, it’s not gonna work in the long-term.)

As for the overnight, non-instant gratification issue, I wonder if there’s something you can do first thing in the morning during breakfast?  Is some small healthy-but-“fun” food she can have (toaster waffle, fruit salad, yogurt smoothie, a special cereal, etc.)? That might be a tempting, tangible “thing” you can show her before bed and remind her about, and then make a Big Exciting Deal Over the minute she wakes up in the morning. If you’re not comfortable rewarding with food, she could watch a short cartoon while she eats, or play with whatever other prize/token you’ve found motivating (stickers, Play-Doh, whatever).

Anyway, I’m a big fan of the behavior/chore charts. I don’t think I’ve personally introduced them before age two, a very small, very visual chart for a child who already responds well to positive reinforcement is probably worth trying. If you do go for it, let us know how it goes!

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • not a sticker chart fan

    For another point of view, here is a totally different perspective on the sticker chart: 

    http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/02/perils-of-sticker-charts/470160/

    I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement, but I have stopped with the sticker charts because in my experience the sticker chart ends up failing for anything my kid finds emotionally hard, like staying in bed, or just really doesn’t want to do, like trying new foods. Rather than addressing their fears and motivations, it gives them a choice — is this thing I’m afraid of/resistant to worth it for a sticker? And at least for us, the answer usually ends up being “no” pretty quickly

  • IrishCream

    I used a sticker chart for exactly that issue (good behavior bedtime) for an almost-two-year-old, and it worked pretty well.

    It wouldn’t have occurred to me to try using one with a child that young, if it hadn’t been for my older daughter’s insistence that her little sister needed one too. And of course big sister helped reinforce the concept, ad infinitum, so that certainly helped. We kept it simple–one sticker in the morning after a good bedtime, lots of reminders during the bedtime process and saying “you’re on track for a sticker!” Dollar store prizes once they earned two, three, or four stickers (we kept upping the ante once they got the hang of it.)

    With two kids whose bedtime dramas played off one another’s, hard to say exactly what was the magic bullet, but my younger child did seem to understand the sticker concept and be motivated by it.

  • A.L

    I used a sticker chart for my daughter when she was about 24 months old (potty training related). I was concerned that she wouldn’t get the concept either, but she did just fine with it. I gave her an M&M at the same time as the sticker so she got some immediate reward to help reinforce the idea. I also started with only 3 spots on the chart to get her prize so she could have a pretty quick win. Then I added more and more spots on the chart as she understood the whole concept more. One thing that I think helped was putting a picture of the prize next to the chart so she could be reminded what it was she was working for. I hung both the chart and the picture low so she could see and reach it and always let her put the stickers on. Plus, we often talked about her progress and the prize and we would often count the number of spots and/or stickers on the chart. Our charts were never overly exciting: a piece of construction paper with some boxes drawn in marker was enough for us. But we did use some sparkly Frozen stickers that my daughter was SUPER excited about.

  • c

    We tried a slightly more instant gratification with our daughter that worked pretty well.  At bed time, I put a small, clear bowl up on a dresser in her room, where she could see it but not reach it.  I put a few pieces of candy in it.  (Chocolate chips were the motivator here, but the friend who gave me the idea used skittles for her allergic kids – whatever works for you.).  Every time she got out of bed during the night, mommy ate one of the candies.  In the morning she got whatever was left – a super big deal, because she only rarely gets chocolate.  She saw the immediate result of getting out of bed and in the morning she got a reward that was proportional to her ability to stay in bed, but she could SEE that reward all night.  This also meant that if something was a big deal (nightmare, really lonely, whatever) she could make the choice to get up and forfeit only part of her reward.  That was important for her in the beginning – all or nothing was too discouraging.  And of course you can change the number of treats you start with to reflect the type of success you are getting, so it’s not like you end up giving your kid a ton of sugar every morning!

  • Karen

    I don’t use charts much for the same reasons as the top commenter. I worked with this fabulous myofunctional therapist to “extinguish” my daughter’s thumb sucking when she was 5.5 and she used this really awesome behavior modification system. It could be adapted to younger kids I think but I have a 20 month old and I can’t imagine using it with him. The premise of the system is that you specifically tie the change you are looking for to an immediate reward, you do it long enough to create a new habit, and then you discontinue it. 

    So for my daughter and thumb sucking, we talked about why it needed to stop and included her in affirming that yes, she wanted to stop it for herself, not just for us. Then we set a goal – 30 days of consecutive non thumb sucking. After thirty days there would be a big party with cake and balloons and a special gift. To get there we would start with small accomplishments such as not sucking the thumb while riding in the car, or watching TV. If we ended a car ride or a cartoon with no sucking, she got an m&m. At night we safety pinned a soccer sock to her jammy sleeve and if it was still on in the morning, she would get a prize (target dollar aisle stuff) that I would put in her bedside drawer where she could find it each morning, and note the accomplishment on a calendar to keep track. Eventually we would nix the small rewards and do only the nighttime since that was her biggest challenge. If she managed to get the sock off and sucked her thumb, it was fine, but no prize and we would try again. Only when she went 30 days consecutively would we have the party.

    She was so motivated to have the party that she never sucked her thumb again. Occasionally I find her thumb in her mouth at night but rarely and it’s not led to a full regression. 

    I love this system because it focuses on something for a defined time (30 days), has short reachable goals (one night or car ride at a time), immediate feedback (when car ride or nighttime is over), no subjective evaluation (thumb sucking either happened or it didn’t). You don’t have to keep it up forever once the new habit is formed. 

    For general everyday stuff that needs modifying, such as table manners, we do a bean count. So each kid gets a certain number of beans in a bowl to start the day. If the undesired behavior is shown, say talking with your mouth full, then a bean is removed. If there are beans left at the end of the meal or day, the kid gets a Kiss. No beans = no Kiss. No drama or suspense. As they get better and better at controlling their choices, beans are removed. So maybe you start with 10 beans, then go to 8, to get the Kiss, etc. so that eventually there are 2 or 1 and the kid has to really be on their game to get the reward. Then once they do that for a while, we move on to something else and can always revisit it if needed. But you start with a generous, reachable amount. This also works best for one behavior at a time and it’s been fantastic for us. Much less yelling and nagging when an undesirable behavior is a negative to oneself and a simple removal of a bean versus another lecture on not getting frustrated about whatever.

  • Anne

    We tried the chart, but everyone list interest after a few weeks. The thing we’ve kept for a good year now is a small jar and a dollars worth of those little puffy balls. It started as a pity training reward.
    At first it was a tiny jar and when it was full she got to watch a movie. The A larger jar got her a sticker. Then a mason jar got her a dollar spot toy. Now, at nearly four, she has a small paint can and she gets a freebie. She chooses what is worth ( under $10). So if she wants desert before dinner, or to go see a movie or a new toy. It takes her 2-3 weeks to earn it so it’s almost like an allowance, but not. And she has a set number of expectations ( Feed the dog, Feed the fish, brush teeth, sleep all night in her bed, do laundry, help make her lunch) and can also earn them by being a helper, being independent in the bathroom, etc. She can also lose them for bad behavior, failing to meet basic expectations. It’s worked for us.

  • CeeBee

    Search around on Janet Lansbury’s blog for ideas. I don’t mean to bash the sticker chart, but if someone started relegating my emotional response to a chart with rewards, I would slap them in the face. Your daughter is 21 months and has some bedtime issues. I don’t think it’s unusual, it’s just annoying. Maybe you can extract the reason out of her if her language skills are developed enough? But you can also afirm her feelings, tell her that you love her, and that it’s very important she stay in her bed. Redirect her right back to it if she forgets/ignores the “staying in bed is important”. She will grow out of it. This could play into too little sleep during naptime wakes her up at night, and then she wakes up confused and panicked. Or maybe something has changed and it’s disrupting her sleeping pattern? My daughter has done this off and on and she’s 2.5, and it’s usually linked to sleep/cutting teeth/a cold, when otherwise she’s a fine sleeper. So, if the sticker chart doesn’t keep your child perfectly mannered and sleeping, you might just have to ride it out, unfortunately. I know it sucks to go through this after you get over the initial “sleeping thru the night stuff” after they are born.

  • Michele

    I recommend Dr. Kazdin’s books for tips on using a sticker/reward chart effectively. http://alankazdin.com/books/