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Why Children Act Out Despite Rewarding Good Behavior: Creating Behavior Charts 101

Why Children Act Out Despite Rewarding Good Behavior: Creating Behavior Charts 101

Rewards charts.  Behavior charts.  Behavior modification systems…Although they go by different names, many parents have done behavior charts at one time or another.  The basic premise is that if a certain behavioral goal is met then positive consequences are given with a chart outlining the rules and expectations.  They can range from giving candy or stickers each time a toddler uses the potty to earning extra screen time when homework is completed on time to a special toy when your child sleeps in his own room for an entire week.  They can be useful in influencing and changing behaviors, but they can also be a bit tricky to make effective.  Sometimes we may feel like children act out despite trying to reward good behavior.  Here are a few tips to create a strong behavioral system and effectively work toward helping your child change certain behaviors.

1 Make Sure Children Have Skills First

Make sure your child has skills he or she needs to be able to effectively reach the goals stated on the behavior chart.  For example, no matter how motivated children are to get that toy, it can be difficult to not yell or hit when they’re angry if they don’t have skills to learn how to calm their emotions.  These skills include first being able to recognize when their emotions are building up (sometimes with the prompt of a parent).  If children are already at a 10/10 before they recognize it then it is really hard to slow down and use good anger management skills.  It’s the same for us adults when we’re really upset, right?  But, if your children can recognize when they’re at a 5/10 it’s much easier to step back and let their emotions calm down before re-engaging in the situation.

Teach children different relaxation strategies such as deep breathing or thinking of something funny or leaving the room to go do something else.  (Subscribe to on the home page for updates on when I publish an in-depth article of favorite relaxation techniques clients used.  For now, just google it.)  But, relaxation strategies don’t have to be super technical and therapist-y.  Brainstorm emotional outlets that help your child calm down like going outside to sit on the swing, having a corner in their room to draw, or listening to calming music.  The point is to make sure that kids have a toolbox they can use to help them meet their goals.  Before your behavior chart is started you want to make sure that your child is set up for success.

2 Children Invested in Rewards

Behavior charts are a motivation game.  You get x if you do x.  So, it follows that the motivation has to be motivating.  One easy way to ensure it is exciting to your child is to have him or her help brainstorm the rewards that will given for reaching objectives.  Then, your child becomes invested in the outcome versus working for a reward that they don’t care much about.  I have found that with some options and brainstorming, children and parents are able to both agree on rewards that will be offered.  Yes, children often throw out impossible rewards, like going to an amusement park after only 1 week.  But, I have also found that children understand this to some degree and they are able to come up with some reasonable reward options.

3 Short-term and Long-term Rewards

Have both short-term and long-term rewards.  For example, when a daily goal of not hitting is met, then a child can earn a treat.  After the rewards chart is completed by filling in all the boxes or they go so many weeks without hitting then they earn a trip to the arcade.  Having both short-term and long-term rewards helps short-term and long-term motivation.  If rewards are too long-term then children lose interest.  Imagine that you could earn a vacation in 1 year if you exercised every day.  Pretty far off, right?  It’s hard to get motivated when it’s still 365 days away.  Conversely, if rewards are all too short-term and small then they could lose their excitement in getting rewards. Imagine that you got $2 every day you kept on your diet.  Starts to become not very reinforcing when that chocolate ice cream is in front of you…

4 Do Not Take Away Earned Points

Do not take away points that have been earned.  Remember, this is a motivation game, and people lose motivation when everything they worked hard to earn is lost.  Imagine that your boss took a chunk of money out of your paycheck whenever you make a mistake.  It would get pretty frustrating and hard to continue working for that boss.  Use separate consequences (not taking away points) to address behavior that needs to be disciplined.

5 Rewards Can Come in a Variety of Ways

Remember that not all rewards have to be monetary and tangible.  They can be extra privileges or removing something that they don’t like.  Rewards could include not having to do a chore or moving bedtime or curfew back by a certain time or getting extra screen time.  With some brainstorming, you and your family can find creative ways to reward that don’t cost money and aren’t “things.”

6 Refrain from Arguing

Let the behavior chart do the arguing.  What I mean by this is when a child does not earn a privilege or reward because the behavioral expectation was not met, do not engage in arguing with him/her about the behavior.  It is much easier for every one involved when it simply comes down to a check mark on the chart.  When this is done then the behavior chart is being reinforced and eventually it’ll become a smooth system.

7 Clearly Defined Goals

That being said, behavioral expectations must be clearly defined so your child knows exactly what is expected of them.  Also, you know exactly what to expect and don’t have to debate on whether or not the goal was met.  This way rewards no longer depend on your mood and sleep-deprivation or your child’s behavior the past 20 minutes instead of the whole day.  This also helps with consistency between parents.  For example, “be nice to your siblings” is way too vague.  What does that even mean?  Instead, ask that your child speaks in a calm voice to siblings and do not call them names such as “stupid-head.”

Clearly defined goals are objective instead of subjective.  That often means you can put a number on them and can keep tallies on your phone or in a notebook.  If the behavior is something that is hard to put a number on, like whining, then you can use a warning system to send the message to your child that they are whining and they need to stop or else a mark will be given.

8 Pick Only a Few Behaviors To Work On At a Time.

If you want to work on several behaviors with your child, try to focus on only a couple of the most important behaviors.  Don’t try to solve all behavioral challenges at once.  Just like it can be overwhelming when your boss throws too many assignments at you at once, it is overwhelming and difficult for kids to work on several different behaviors at once.  When they can focus on just a couple behaviors at a time then they can more easily learn how to change their behaviors.  It sets them up for success.  After their behaviors are going well for a few weeks then you can start transitioning to the next set of behaviors.

9 Set Realistic Expectations

Set realistic expectations.  We can’t go from couch potato to 1/2 marathon in a week, and children cannot instantly change their behavior no matter how motivating the rewards.  For example, it is probably unrealistic to ask a child who has been hitting an average of 6 times a day to hit 0 times a day.  Remember that change will be gradual, and behaviors required to earn a reward should reflect that.  After a week or so, re-evaluate your child’s behavior the past week, ponder whether the expectations should be made higher, and inform your child if they will be changing.  Just as a side note, it is important to inform your child at the beginning of the program that you will be re-evaluating on a  weekly basis and reserve the right to change the behavioral goals every week.

10 Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

This is perhaps the most important rule.  I know it can be difficult to stay consistent with watching and rewarding behaviors when you have a million other things to juggle as a parent.  But, children learn much quicker when consequences are consistent and predictable.  Make a commitment as a parent to keep up the behavior chart until you see consistent responses from your child.  I have seen a lot of children respond well for a couple days, but then life happens, parents forget the chart and hence the consequences weren’t consistent, and children slide back into old patterns.

Remember that behavioral systems are just one way of addressing behavior challenges.  There are so many different ways to help them.  Find the strategy that is the right fit for your child and your family.  Continue using praise for good behavior, looking for the good behavior and traits to love about your child, connecting with your child and talking to them.

If your child’s behavior is causing much disruption in the home or in their lives, it can be helpful to speak with a professional counselor to address the behavior and any underlying causes.  This post does not provide therapeutic services.

Tanya Lindquist

Tanya is a licensed clinical social worker who worked for several years at various therapy clinics before becoming a stay at home mom. She loves helping families find tools and methods they can apply to helping children overcome any challenge.

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