Star Charts for your little star: A simple way to improve your child's behaviour

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Here is one example of a star chart.
Here is one example of a star chart.

Everyone enjoys working for a reward that acknowledges hard work, whether it's a salary, a pat on the back or even a special award.

The rewards for a stay-at-home mom are quite subtle, like a kiss on the cheek or that amazing moment when your little one is asleep and looks just like an angel. Like with adults, a reward is an excellent way to encourage acceptable behaviour in your child.

A reward chart can help with anything from potty training, brushing teeth and sleeping in her own bed to tidying up her toys. To really make it work, though, you need to follow a few guidelines.

We consulted with psychologists Andri Burger and Annemarike de Beer of Synergy Psychological Services in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and they shared their advice here below.

Why a reward chart?

The aim of a reward chart is to reinforce good behaviour. A reward chart is the physical presence of an agreement between you and your child.

It helps you as a parent to focus on aims, to keep record and to judge which behaviour has improved, and which behaviour still needs some attention. You can use a reward chart for any behaviour that needs to be changed. Reward charts work well for children under 12 years.

Read: 'Raising a child can cost up to R90 000 a year': How to be financially prepared for baby

So, if you'd like to establish this method to motivate your young child, you'll still be able to use it well into the future to guide her to better behaviour, while she learns to work towards important things at the same time. Ironically, the success of a reward chart mainly lies with you.

If you apply it correctly and consistently, it works for most children, because everyone needs acknowledgement. A child who's continuously in trouble with you ends up knowing exactly what she shouldn't do, but she doesn't know what she should do and what is correct.

Reward charts help children to understand what is acceptable behaviour. So, they have a bigger chance to be successful and be acknowledged. Even if a reward chart is an external motivation, it does help children to feel proud of themselves and later become internally motivated.

Why do reward charts work?

A big benefit of reward charts is that they allow you to improve behaviour in a positive way rather than with punishment. So, the process is positive for you and your child. There are even more benefits.

Reward charts do the following: 

  • Encourage parents to seek positive behaviour
  • Create positive interaction between parents and children
  • Promote a positive family spirit
  • Encourage parents and children to work together
  • Lead to consistency because both parents follow the same strategy
  • Create a feeling of success and internal motivation, which develops self-esteem
  • Give children immediate positive feedback on their achievements
  • Encourage children to remember the rules and develop a sense of responsibility

What should a star chart look like?

If you want to ensure that your chart will work follow the following principles:

1. It's important for you as parents to decide together what behaviour needs to be changed, so you can use the chart together and, in this way, encourage your children as a unit.

2. Don't try and change too many things at any one time. It will overwhelm your young child. Don't choose more than three things that need to change: a difficult, a medium and an easy task.

3. Describe the items on your reward chart in positive terms to your child and be very specific. Don't say, "Your room should not be untidy." Rather say, "Tidy up your room before bedtime: Put your toys in their boxes." 

4. Make it age-appropriate and visual. Your child can't read, so a picture of toys in a box will work better. In this way, a child can see for herself what's expected.

5. Don't set the rewards to bar too high. The younger your child, the easier she'll lose heart if it takes too long to obtain the reward. Rather scale down on the goal and the reward, like an extra story at bedtime for five stars rather than a big gift after 50 stars.

6. Add a bonus row for exceptionally good behaviour, like other behaviour patterns you as parents want to encourage and reinforce.

7. Evaluate the tasks on the reward chart as soon as your child has earned her reward. Keep the goals that have not been met on the chart, and replace the goals met with new ones, so she doesn't become bored. She can now earn bonus stars with the tasks that have been replaced.

Make it work every day You can stick a pretty reward chart against the wall, but it serves no purpose if it's not used consistently – which can be a challenge sometimes!

Also read: Want your child to be a future genius? Here's how...

Make reward charts part of your daily routine. Set aside a specific time slot to award stars, like just before dinnertime. If your child struggles to wait that long, you can reward her twice or three times a day, like early in the day for routine morning chores and at dinnertime for other chores.

Never award stars that have not been earned. If your child has not done what's on the chart, explain why you can't give a star. The same goes for when she has earned one. You need to help her understand it was her choice: "You chose to tidy your room, so you chose to get a star" or "You chose to hit daddy, so you chose not to earn a star."

Help your child to stay motivated even if she's had a bad day: "Today was a difficult day, but you can try again tomorrow. I know you can get it right."

Your child should be proud of every star she earns. Allow her to brag a bit by showing other close friends and family like gogo and mkhulu. In these moments, don't comment on her bad days – focus on her successes.

Be consistent. The more your child sees that the reward chart is important to you as a parent, the more important it will be to her. It is important that both parents apply the reward chart.

Take turns handing out stars and make an occasion of it: Baba can lift the little one on his shoulders if he dishes out a star, while Mama can help her stick the star herself.

Make the reward chart fun, so that it's a positive experience for your child that makes her feel good about herself and something with which she can succeed.

What reward?

The secret to reward charts is that the reward must be something that your child really wants, something she’ll be prepared to work for – but also something that will work for you as a parent.

Must read: Eight top tips for making the most of playtime during lockdown

Choose three practical, feasible and appropriate rewards that you know your child will like, like going to the zoo. "You can ask your child to choose the reward she wants the most."

Rather reward your child with quality time than gifts or money. Make sure to give your child the reward you promised; otherwise, it can be quite disheartening.

If the reward is an outing, you need to explain exactly when it will happen and stick to your promise. It's extremely important that your child gets her reward, but it's even more important to develop a sense of responsibility.

For this reason, you should combine the reward with a positive statement, such as: "You had a very good week. I'm so glad we can go to the zoo. You can feel very proud of yourself."

Five Don'ts

1. Don't be vague on a reward chart. "Neat" and "naughty" can mean many things. Your child should know exactly what’s expected of her – the more specific you are, the greater the chance of success.

2. Don't give other gifts or rewards during the time your child's working towards the one on the chart. Doing so reinforces the idea that she doesn’t really have to work to change her behaviour.

3. Don't use the reward chart as punishment. Stars can't be taken away. Bad behaviour does not override good behaviour; good behaviour stays good. Don't use another device – like black marks or strikes – for bad behaviour. A reward chart has a single focus: positive reinforcement.

4. Don't nag or scold if your child does not do what the reward chart requires. "Punish" her by not giving a star.

5. Don't have more than one reward chart.


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