Beyond the Star Chart-Making Real Behavior Changes

Parents often tell me they have tried star charts and reward methods, but “they don’t work.”  As they describe in more detail what they have tried we come to realize that the method was missing some key elements.

Next time you want to help your child learn a desired behavior try this more detailed approach:  First, stand back and really observe your child.  Around whom does this behavior occur, and around whom does it not occur.  What exactly is the behavior and what behavior would you like instead.  When does the behavior occur?  Morning, late afternoon, after a night with insufficient sleep?  Where does the behavior occur?  In the car, in the supermarket, in the toy store?  Why might the behavior be occurring?  How often does it occur per hour, day or week?

Do you need to make any changes to help the child be successful, such as removing tempting fragile articles, running the last errand another day, or getting the child to bed on time?  Once you have thought these preventive changes through then alter the antecedents to the misbehavior to see if the problem is reduced.  If you do not see enough improvement identify a reward system that reenforces positive behavior.  I prefer to reward a child with individual time and attention rather than material rewards, but earing points toward a material reward is sometimes useful.  I never take away points or rewards because children can feel discouraged and defeated and give up trying.  I recommend that negative consequences be related to the misbehavior.  For example, taking away markers that a child has used on walls or furniture is logical and related.  Taking away television for calling a sibling a name is not.

When you set up a reward system try it for a short time to see if it works before instituting it as a policy.  The reward system was originally designed as a substitute for corporal punishment.  When used systematically it can be very, very effective.  It was not designed to last forever, but rather to instill new, positive habits.

A good example of using this method is for keeping young children in their own beds at night.  As the parent finishes the bedtime story, he or she reminds the child that when they stay in their own bed until the big hand is on the 7 then they can come into the parent bedroom for an extra snuggle and a short story.  If they come in during the night they will be silently walked back to their room and they will get a quick snuggle but no story.  The consequence is positive, logical and related.

Key Point:  Behavioral methods work well when they are well thought-out.


Melody Matthews Lowman, M.A. has a background in both psychology and education. Her biopsychosocial approach allows her to be a resource for behavioral and educational problem solving for children, teens and adults.
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