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  • Rachel Rothman Borrero

Behavior Charts -- How to Make Them Stick

Rachel Rothman Borrero behavior therapy, forest hills child psychotherapist

At some point many parents will ask themselves: “What can I do to change my child’s behavior??” and at some point they’ll likely come across someone or something telling them to make a behavior chart. Now, there have been some recent articles about the question of using charts for pro-social behavior. They make the point that pro-social behavior should come from an innate, internal desire to help others rather than doing something for the sole purpose of a reward. That is not what THIS post is going to focus on, though that is an important discussion! Today, I’m going to focus on how to make any chart you create work best for you and your child. Remember, every child and family is unique. No matter how hard you try sometimes a behavior chart may not work for your child, but they often are simple, concrete ways to create structure, state clear expectations and create positive interactions in your home. So, with that said here are three tips for charting success:

1. Keep it Simple

If your boss walked in and gave you a list of 10 things you had to do every single day in order to get paid you’d probably end up not getting a paycheck all that often.Remember that when creating goals for your child’s chart. If there’s so much to do then more often than not nothing will get done. Try to focus on 3 to 4 goals for your child. Anything more than that is too much and will likely lead to your child not working on them, increase your frustrations and ultimately lead to the chart becoming obsolete.

2. Keep it Positive

I’ll go back to that example of your boss – today your boss walks in with his list of things for you to do and it looks like this:

  • Don’t waste time on social media

  • Don’t make spelling errors on your reports

  • Don’t make personal phone calls in the office

  • Don’t wear inappropriate clothes

How would you feel about that list? Seems pretty negative right? Any ideas about what you SHOULD do at work? Maybe, but that’s because you’re an adult and have learned about professional expectations and standards. Kids are STILL learning about expectations and how to meet them, so a chart for them shouldn’t tell them what they need to STOP doing, but rather what you want them to START doing. A secret parenting trick – when you’re telling your child to stop a behavior, always remind them what you want them to start doing. Here are some examples of goals for a chart:

  • I will use my words when I get upset

  • I will make my bed before going to school

  • I will hang up my coat and put shoes away at the door when I come home

  • I will text/call mom when I get to my friend’s house

These goals are written in a positive way (i.e. focused on what should be getting done) with clear descriptions. Never assume your child knows exactly what you mean when you say something like “clean your room.” They may think that means pick up three toys and throw them in the closet, while you think it means make the bed, pick up toys and put clothes in the hamper. When you think about it this way it becomes an issue of miscommunication rather than one of non-compliance. So be clear, be positive, and focus on a few things at a time.

3. Keep it Possible

Here comes your boss again with his lists of 10 things. Not only is he telling you not to do 10 specific things, but he is also saying you better not do any of them, on any day, ever – or else you won’t get paid. What’s the likelihood that you’ll have a 100% success rate? Pretty slim right? Same goes for your child. Perfection is pretty hard to attain. When creating a reward system aim for a reasonable success rate. Start with a low percentage; say 65-75% in order to set your child up for success. That means if you have a behavior chart with 4 goals and you use it Monday through Friday giving a star for each goal completed each day then by Friday night your child should have 13 out of 20 stars (i.e. 65%) in order to earn their reward.

You start with a low percentage because a person needs to know what success feels like in order to want to feel it again. Additionally, your child may need a small reward mid-week as motivation to keep up the good work. If a child is trying and trying, but never meeting the goal they eventually give up after facing repeated failures. When they reach a goal and get a reward they start to learn what it feels like to succeed – it feels pretty darn good! The idea is that they will continue to want this reward, and more deeply the feeling that comes with it. This includes the internal reward of pride and the external reward of pleasing mommy or daddy. As time passes and your child gets better at reaching the goals consistently then the percentage rate for success can go up (say 80-90% of the time). Eventually the goal/behavior will be mastered (or displayed the majority of the time) and internalized. When that happens you can start working on a new goal if it’s needed.

So there you have it – if you’re using charts in your home these three simple tricks will help make your home behavior chart more successful, and more likely to be used to help your child develop positive behavior, self-reliance and pride.

I’m always happy to help families figure out the best behavioral and therapeutic approaches for their home. Contact me to see how I can help you and your family.

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