Is a behavior chart effective in modifying children’s undesirable 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 are widely used by parents at home and teachers in classrooms.
In classrooms, they’re usually called “token economy systems.”1
Different types of behavior charts include clip charts, behavior color charts, and reward charts.
Using a behavior chart to improve your child’s challenging 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 for a reason other than the right reason.
Avoiding jail is still a good reason, but shouldn’t we avoid taking 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 stopping bad behavior, we essentially bribe 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 work, 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:
Chore Chart (Responsibility Chart For Kids)
A chore chart is a specific type of behavior chart focusing on getting children to do chores at home.
Children usually get privileges or allowances for compliance.
A popular belief is that children learn to be responsible by taking on these duties.
While no studies have supported this assumption, several studies have uncovered the 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 sick.2
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 fewer 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 repeatedly 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 rewarded with doing chores at home were less likely to help make more toys when given a free choice.
The more frequently the mothers used external rewards to motivate at home, the less likely their children were to help in the experiment.
Using rewards to motivate children undermines their intrinsic motivation to do a particular task and reduces their altruism.
Using 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 to how they acted before they started.
In schools, after removing contingent rewards, some students’ interest in the specific behavior dropped even below the level before the practice started.3,4
By rewarding children to adopt a desirable behavior, we signal that the behavior itself is inherently undesirable or that 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 on 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 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 are sad, making this girl feel guilty for saddening her friends.
When this student received fewer points than other students, some of them would tease her.
“I’ve got more points than you do” can hurt a child’s feelings, especially for younger kids.
This simple token economy has a questionable effect on improving learning and creates a lot of social tension among children, especially the more sensitive ones.
In school, taking points away on a behavior chart for negative behavior can also amount to public shaming the child in front of the whole class.
Alternatives To Behavior Charts
So, what should parents do if we cannot rely on these behavior tools to eliminate bad behavior?
We can motivate kids the right way, or some refer to it as the hard way.
Why is it so hard to find what motivates a child?
Because it takes time, effort, and patience.
It’s not immediate, and so there are no instant gratifications for parents.
Aren’t patience and perseverance the two values we want our children to learn?
What better way to teach them than modeling through our patient and persistent teaching?
It can be challenging for some parents because some children are too stubborn or strong-willed 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 know therefore how to do calculus?
It takes time, practice, and continuous learning to master harder 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 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.
The decision-making part of their brains doesn’t finish developing until their mid-twenties.
So, it is pretty 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 of why we should behave or do chores.
Behavior – Don’t do unto others you don’t want to be 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 care for each other and help each other.
We all do things for others, e.g., parents cook for everyone, walk the kids to school, and drive the kids to have play dates, etc.
Imagine if we only care for ourselves and do not help each other; 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 care for 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 poor behavior with an appropriate one.
3. Discipline To Teach
Discipline means to teach, not to punish.
When we patiently teach our children proper behavior, we instill in them the value of behaving instead of the value 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.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
Final Thoughts On Behavior Chart
Parenting is hard. A daily behavior chart or chore chart does 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 to meeting our behavior goals.
- 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:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.119
- 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