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Reward Charts – achieving goals with target charts and rewards

Updated on October 1, 2015

Behavioural Charts

A gold star for good work!


Everyone knows how good it feels to have someone say “well done, good work, keep it up”. It’s even nicer if it’s said in front of an audience so that other people know that you have done well. If you are also rewarded for your good work, not only will you try harder, but people around you will emulate you and try to add something of their own that will also be acknowledged and rewarded. If you share the reward with those around you and say it was all a team effort, everyone will pull together more often.

The incentive to perform well might just be the recognition for a job well done, or it could be a small treat or reward. What is important is that the person in charge reinforces positive contributions with praise and rewards as an incentive to motivate those that they are guiding. Setting and achieving goals is a system that works equally well in the classroom, workplace or family home. It can be hard when you give up your career to look after children; good effort in the office can often come with rewards from your manager or boss, whereas good effort with your parenting skills is harder to see. My own very sweet and patient mother would always make a point of telling my children when they had been well behaved and would always tell me that I had taught them well. Of course, it was her own patience that she had instilled into me, and I knew that I had often tested it as a child, and now as a mother myself, I often have to think to myself "how would Mum have handled this?"

It is important to focus on what goals are to be achieved and how they will be rewarded. They need to be achievable and something that is agreed on by both parties. A well-meaning parent might set a goal for a child to achieve all grade As in their next set of tests; there are a number of problems with this. The child might feel that it is an impossible task, they are far from being able to achieve it and they have no guidance on how to go about it, so they are already beginning to believe they will fail this goal and will make no attempt to try to reach it. It is also important not to make the mistake of punishing failure to reach the goal, in this case, the child will already be afraid of letting the parent down, which will damage self-esteem. The parent thinks that they have encouraged the child to achieve better grades, they have in fact done the opposite and both sides will feel frustrated.

A better target and reward system here would be to ask the child to revise for a set period of time each evening and then take a break to do something interesting; work for an hour and then watch a DVD or favourite programme together. At the end of the revision sessions try a few practice tests and monitor the grades being achieved and look for and praise improvement. Any criticism must be constructive, so focus on good answers and say how they could be improved. Use a star chart or coins in a jar to record the revision sessions and offer a reward when so many points have been achieved.

The charts can be used to encourage any area that you wish your child or employees to focus on. Use them for toddlers to help with potty training, for example. Remember to reward the positive and not to punish the negative; you are encouraging achievement here. It is important to reward effort as well as achievement, perhaps the main goal is still out of reach, but mark the progress being made towards it. You can use stars on a chart, or if this is too abstract add beads to a string or buttons in a jar. It is important to have something that you can keep adding to so that the child can see how much they are progressing. Make it clear that when they have reached a certain point, they can have the reward that you have agreed on. The reward need not be extravagant, you can use rationing, so once the child has finished their homework, then they can play their computer game for a while. If you are trying to achieve a major goal, it will be more effective to have a bigger reward.

You can use the reward system together with the child’s carers or teachers; let the teacher know that if they reach 20 stars for getting to the potty on time or getting every homework in on time, they will receive their reward. The teacher can help the child achieve goals that you can all set together, to focus on behavioural, organisational, developmental or academic improvement. You will need to explain to the child why you are setting the goals and agree them together. You may be desperate for the child to keep their room clean and tidy, they may not think this is a priority and just see you as a nagging person. Explain why you want it to be tidy, that if their clothes are not washed regularly, but are kept all over the floor, then there is a problem with this. You may have to set some ground rules and let some things go; accept that the child’s room is their space, but have a few simple rules that make it clear that you expect these to be kept. You will not be able to wash their school uniform or sports kit for them unless it has been put in the laundry basket. If you encourage a tidy room and incentivise your children to keep it tidy, even naturally untidy children will eventually see how much easier life is when things are stored away and easy to find.

Remember that star charts are used to meet short-term goals for long-term benefit.

You can ask the child to tidy their room and if they do it well, reward them. If they have a half-hearted attempt, point out the things that still need to be done to get the reward. You may need to do this over many months before they understand the things you are expecting of them. Eventually, it will become more automatic with them that they keep their room tidy without your input or charts.

Reward charts are particularly useful for behavioural therapy. For children struggling with aspects of development and behaviour, for example, those with Aspergers or on the autistic spectrum, they may not intuitively pick up on what you or their teachers are expecting them to achieve. You may need to make the goals extremely explicit for them as they will not understand some expectations that you might take for granted. If they have poor social skills, or they can seem rude or impolite, you will need to explain how and why they need to learn these skills, you will have to show them how to start and stop a conversation, how to pick up on visual clues and facial expressions. If this seems hard or frustrating for you, the great news is that they respond well to a set of rules, they understand black and white, but not shades of grey (apologies to those of you who I have just completely confused with such an abstract analogy). Try to keep your set of rules positive, they should start with “Do” rather than “Don’t”, for example, “do keep the water in the cup”, rather than “don’t spill your drink”.

You can use reward charts to constructively manage difficult behaviour. If your child insists on having a tantrum every time you do the weekly shop, and let’s be honest, it really is a chore, then let them know before you enter the shop, that they will have a reward if they help you with the shopping. If they are young and you sit them in the trolley, tell them 3 key things you need to buy such as eggs, bread and milk. Ask them to remind you to get them. When they remind you, thank them for being so helpful and you can both enjoy a reward together. If they are slightly older you can even write or draw the shopping list together, ask them what they think you should buy, draw a picture and find the things together. You will need to put aside more time to do the shopping this way, but you will both enjoy it more. If it gets to the level where boredom, hunger and tiredness are starting to kick in, draw it to a close and leave. You should reward yourself for being patient and constructive with the task. It is easy to feel very stressed with having to cope with having to do the shop and manage the child. Shocked onlookers listening to your wailing child do nothing to ease the situation. It is easy just to shout and exacerbate the problem. A friend of mine found it so stressful she started to shout at the onlookers, snarling at them “have you never seen a child having a tantrum before”. She told me all about it very tearfully over a cup of coffee. Set up your own reward chart for keeping your patience!

If you display the reward chart in a prominent place, friends and family can see the improvements and can praise the progress too. In the workplace, put target charts in a central area and encourage healthy competition amongst the staff.

Reward charts do not need to be elaborate. You can easily make them from paper or card, draw a grid and buy some star stickers or other fun stickers. You child might want to make the chart. Ask them what targets they would like to set. You might want to make your own, for example if you are trying to exercise more or lose weight, cut down on your drinking, smoking or temper outbursts. You can make your own or download pre-printed ones from a number of websites, or buy them ready made, with stickers, charts and pens. You will be surprised at how pleased you feel with yourself when you see all your little boxes ticked!

Behavioural Charts

Token Boards for children with autism


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