Is behavior chart effective in modifying children’s behavior? Should parents use a chore chart or pay children to do chores at home? In this article, we will look at studies that can answer these questions, and find out the best way to motivate kids to behave.
What Is A Behavior Chart
A behavior chart is a type of positive reinforcement used to encourage children to adopt a new behavior. Whenever the child carries out a desired behavior, a point, a sticker or a token is rewarded. When the child has saved up a predetermined number of points, those points can be exchanged for a prize, such as a toy, extra allowance or delayed bedtime.
Deemed as one of the easiest behavior modification tools, behavior charts and sticker charts are widely used by parents at homes as well as by teachers in classrooms (in classrooms, they’re usually called “token economy systems”1).
Using a behavior chart to improve your child’s behavior is simple.
Shared your ice cream with your sister? You’ve earned three points.
Finished homework on time? You’ve got a star.
Handing out points and stars to encourage positive behavior is relatively effortless and the results are almost immediate.
Yelling, nagging or arguing is substantially reduced.
Children love to work for the rewards and parents enjoy the apparent effectiveness.
So, should you use it?
A Boy Who Did “The Right Thing”
I once talked to a little boy about a hypothetical scenario.
I asked him if he saw a hundred dollar bill on the street, would he pick it up and put it into his own pocket.
He answered as-a-matter-of-factly, “Of course not.”
Impressed by his maturity, I asked him why.
He replied, “Because you will go to jail if you get caught taking other people’s money.”
There he is, a boy who would do the right thing, but for a reason other than “the right reason”.
Avoiding jail is still a good reason, but shouldn’t we not take other people’s money because it’s wrong to take other people’s property without their permission?
Here is another example.
Some years ago, after a lecture, Professor Mark Lepper (a world famous psychologist) was approached by a couple who told him about a system of rewards they had set up for their son, which had produced much improved behavior at the dinner table. “He sits up straight and eats his peas and the Brussels sprouts and he is really very well behaved,” they reported. Until, that is, the first time the family dined at a nice restaurant. The child looked around, picked up a crystal glass from the table and asked, “How many points not to drop this?” A fine example, says Dr. Lepper, of the detrimental effects of over-reliance on rewards to shape children’s behavior.Mark Lepper: Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning By Christine VanDeVelde Luskin, Bing Nursery School at Stanford University
Like many things in parenting, what we choose to do can have a profound, and sometimes unintended, impact on our children.
When we reward kids for behavior change, we are essentially bribing them to behave the way we want.
Children would happily comply because they want the prize, not because they want to behave.
Behavior charts for kids works, but only on the behavior level in the short run.
We forget about the values and the lesson we are teaching our children, which is:
We only behave when we can benefit from it.
A chore chart is a specific type of behavior chart focusing on getting children to do chores at home. Children usually get privileges or allowance for compliance.
A popular belief is that by taking on these duties, children learn to be responsible.
While no studies have been found to support this assumption, several studies have uncovered negative side effects of getting children to do chores using external incentives.
In one study, a researcher asked children waiting for story time to help make paper toys for some poor, sick children in the hospital who had nothing to play with while they were sick2.
Some were promised a reward for helping and some were not.
After two minutes, they were told they could either “help the children in the hospital some more” or play with some other games when the researcher went to get the story tape.
No rewards were offered for this period. Children could decide to do so by their own choice.
Results showed that children who were promised a reward at the beginning made less toys in the first period, and were less likely to continue making the toys in the second period when no further rewards were offered.
This is not surprising at all because similar experiments have been replicated over and over again in other contexts, proving that external rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation and the quality of work.
But what is more surprising is that researchers also found that children who were rewarded to do chores at home were less likely to help make more toys when given the free choice to do so.
In fact, the more frequently the mothers used external rewards to motivate at home, the less likely their children to help in the experiment.
So using rewards to motivate children not only undermine their intrinsic motivation to do a particular task, but it also reduces their altruism.
The use of token economy systems is widespread and used primarily with captive, dependent populations such as patients in psychiatric hospitals or children in school.
Many studies have proven their immediate effectiveness.
Some even found the improved behavior remained shortly after the rewards were removed.
However, in 1972, the first systematic review of the research on token economies revealed otherwise:
Generally, removal of token reinforcement results in decrements in desirable responses and a return to baseline or near-baseline levels of performance1.
In other words, when the rewards stop, people revert back to the way they acted before they started.
In schools, after removing contingent rewards, some students’ interest in the specific behavior drop even below the level before the practice started3,4.
By rewarding children to adopt a certain behavior, we are signaling that the behavior itself is inherently undesirable or we would not need to bribe them.
Using a token system, not only are we demotivating children to adopt the new behavior naturally when the tokens are removed, but we are also unintentionally causing other problems.
For example, in one after school program, students are given points for good behavior in class or good performance in tests. At the end of each week, points are tallied up and the student with the most points can pick a prize from a pile. Then the student with the second highest points can choose and so on until everyone gets a prize.
It sounds like a win-win situation because children are motivated to do well and every child will get a prize. So no one is left out.
But is it?
Here is what I heard from the students.
When a first grader gets more points than her friends, the friends were sad making this girl feel guilty for saddening her friends. When this student received less points than other students, some of them would tease her. “I’ve got more points than you do” can really hurt a child’s feelings, especial for younger kids.
So this simple token economy not only has questionable effect on improving learning, but it also creates a lot of social tension among children, especially the more sensitive ones.
In school, taking points away on behavior chart for misbehavior can also amount to public shaming of the child in front of the whole class.
Alternatives To Behavior Charts
So what should parents do if we cannot rely on behavior charts?
Well, we should motivate kids the right way, or some refer to it as the hard way.
Why is it hard?
Because it takes time, effort and patience.
It’s not immediate and so there is no instant gratifications for parents.
Aren’t patience and perseverance the two values we want our children to learn, too?
What better way to teach them than modeling through our patient and persistent teaching.
It can be hard for some parents because it feels like some children are just too stubborn and refuse to learn to behave.
But let’s take math for example.
Third graders know how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but do you expect them to therefore know how to do calculus?
It takes time, practice and continuous learning to master deeper math skills.
Just because they know basic math operations does not mean they can master calculus right away.
It’s the same with child behavior.
Just because children can understand most of our words and can comply with some of our requests, it doesn’t mean they can master all their impulse control and understand the meaning behind all behavior expectations.
In fact, the decision making part of their brains don’t finish developing until mid-twenties.
So, it is quite unreasonable to expect they can behave perfectly at age 10!
Here are several proven strategies to teach children how to behave without the drawbacks of bribing or punishing.
Explain the two important principles on why we should behave or do chores.
Behavior – Don’t do unto others you don’t want done unto you.
This one is pretty easy to explain.
E.g. We don’t kick because no one likes to be kicked.
Chores – We are a family. In a family, we all take care of each other and help each other out.
We all do things for others, e.g. parents cook for everyone, they walk the kids to school and drive the kids to have play dates, etc.
Imagine if we all only care for ourselves and not help each other out, what would happen to the family?
Or if Mom and Dad do everything in the house, will they still have enough energy to play with the kids?
And if you don’t learn to do these things now, will you be able to take care of yourself when you grow up and live by yourself?
2. Positive Discipline
Positive discipline is based on mutual respect and positive instructions. By focusing on the positive, children are led to replace undesirable behavior with appropriate one.
3. Discipline To Teach
Discipline means to teach, not to punish. When we patiently teach our children proper behavior, we are instilling in them the values of behaving instead of the values of getting bribery.
4. Model Respect
Children don’t hear when we scold or lecture. They also don’t respond well to punishment. But they do see what we do. By respecting everyone, including the children, we are modeling how to act respectably.
Final Word On Behavior Chart
Parenting is hard. Behavior chart and chore chart do feel like a much needed help in our long list of parenting duties. But taking shortcuts will only shortchange our children. Learning the right values is invaluable.
- 1.Kazdin AE, Bootzin RR. The token economy: an evaluative review1. J Appl Behav Anal. 1972:343-372. doi:10.1901/jaba.1972.5-343
- 2.Fabes RA, Fultz J, Eisenberg N, May-Plumlee T, et al. Effects of rewards on children’s prosocial motivation: A socialization study. Developmental Psychology. 1989:509-515. doi:10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.1249
- 3.Boniecki KA, Moore S. Breaking the Silence: Using a Token Economy to Reinforce Classroom Participation. Teaching of Psychology. July 2003:224-227. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3003_05
- 4.McLaughlin TF, Malaby J. Intrinsic reinforcers in a classroom token economy1. J Appl Behav Anal. 1972:263-270. doi:10.1901/jaba.1972.5-263