As a former ABA therapist, current OT and mama to a 4 year old, I’m no stranger to sticker charts. I work with parents all the time who tell me about this amazing sticker chart they learned about from their child’s teacher or their child’s behavior therapist. My knee jerk reaction when I hear sticker charts is “oh no not sticker charts!”
When I talk about sticker charts, I’m referring to any method of giving a child a token, sticker, reward for doing something (or not doing something). For example, you might give your child a sticker or a token every time they share a toy with their sibling, or if they make it through a school day “without incidents” or “without outbursts” is a popular one. Sometimes the sticker itself or a toy is the reward, but some families add up to a big reward, like for every 10 stickers you get to buy a toy at Target, etc.
Those are all under the same category of sticker charts, behavior charts, etc and that’s what I’ll be talking about today.
As a former ABA therapist, current OT and mama to a 4 year old, I’m no stranger to sticker charts. I work with parents all the time who tell me about this amazing sticker chart they learned about from their child’s teacher or their child’s behavior therapist. My knee jerk reaction when I hear sticker charts is “oh no not sticker charts!” When I talk about sticker charts, I’m referring to any method of giving a child a token, sticker, reward for doing something (or not doing something). For example, you might give your child a sticker or a token every time they share a toy with their sibling, or if they make it through a school day “without incidents” or “without outbursts” is a popular one. Sometimes the sticker itself or a toy is the reward, but some families add up to a big reward, like for every 10 stickers you get to buy a toy at Target, etc. Those are all under the same category of sticker charts, behavior charts, etc and that’s what I’ll be talking about today. Before we get started, I want to acknowledge and see and validate parents who are listening that either currently are doing sticker charts or have done them in the past. I by no means think you are a bad parent, and I don’t want you to feel that way. If it triggers some sort of guilt or shame in you, I apologize. Remember, we can only do better when we know better, and that’s really my entire reasoning behind this podcast, to educate parents of how you can most effectively raise and support your neurodivergent kids. And hey, if at the end of this episode you decide you still want to keep using sticker charts, go for it! there is no one size fits all approach for raising children. The ONLY parenting strategy I will ever aggressively say NO ABSOLUTELY NOT NO WAY… is any sort of physical or emotional abuse. If sticker charts work for you and your child, have at it. I just wanted to give you my take on it and for some things to keep in mind. Throughout the years I’ve really built up my compassion and empathy for parents who truly are at the end of their rope and have the best intentions but just really want to see their child succeed and not be the “bad kid” and to “just listen” to instructions. I get that. And I appreciate the fact that a sticker chart feels very concrete and actionable and easy to start and do and implement with a child. And to top it off, it can yield some AMAZING results, pretty immediately. So I don’t blame parents who want to try this, especially when it’s so glamorized and easily accessible and one of the first lines of suggestions from other parents. And to be quite honest, I know many families who started out their parenting journey fully intending on utilizing gentle parenting techniques and trying SO hard, but the results they were looking for (e.g. to stop the meltdown, to stop the hitting, to get them to wash their hair) were not happening in a way that they were expecting. So, conscious discipline, gentle discipline, gentle parenting, it’s all sort of under the umbrella of authoritative parenting, where the parent offers love, warmth, coregulation AND firm boundaries and discipline (not punishment). It’s a newish trend, I know it’s been around for a while, but it’s been picking up steam now with tik-tok and instagram parenting accounts just always talking about it. Here’s where it gets complicated. Let’s say a gentle parenting account is sharing a tip on how to handle your child hitting another child. The tip goes something like “Get down on their level, and say “ i won’t let you hit your brother.” They instruct you to remove the child if they hit again, and sit with them and talk to them about their feelings, while you validate and help them coregulate, maybe breathe with them. Right? All of those are great things, things I do even. But here’s the sticking point. On that post, maybe majority of the people will respond “yes! I do this with my kid and it works! It took a while but he finally is starting to say he’s mad and instad of hitting his brother he stomps off”. Great! But then there’s a few other parents, who maybe have neurodivergent kids or kids who will later be identified as neurodivergent, with sensory needs or emotional regulation needs. They see those comments and think “Well…. I did it too, and it’s not ‘Working’, so gentle parenting must not be for me. So then they go searching for alternatives to gentle parenting, and how you can help behaviors in ND kids… and guess what comes up? ABA. Sticker charts. Time outs. Token charts. And along with that, you get some great, glamorous data that shows how quick and easy it is, how it’s “evidence based” and guess what? It is WAY easier to implement and maybe the first time you try it, it works like a charm. So of course you’d stick to that method over gentle parenting. Here’s the thing (and my last spiel about gentle parenting, because that’s not what this episode is about but I want to make sure I give full context here. Gentle parenting, authoritative parenting with a neurodivergent child (or really any child, but especially an ND child) isn’t about just getting them to stop hitting or stop XYZing. It’s about responding to them in a way that shows them that you will consistently show up for them, help them through these stress/dysregulated moments and will always teach them what to do next time. Now for ND kids, the behavior is usually related to some sensory need or emotional regulation challenge that may take some extra interventions to support those skills (which sticker charts DON’T offer). But your job as an authoritative parent is to provide loving boundaries, to keep your child safe and to continuously show up. When you do that, you’re planting the seeds for better relationship, emotional resiliency and so much more. It’s not an immediate effect on behavior but it’s definitely contributing towards something more impactful and sustainable in their life and in your dynamic and relationship as a caregiver. OK… so now with that introduction, let’s talk about sticker charts more. The problem with sticker charts So here’s my main overall gripe with using external rewards like a sticker chart for behavior: it makes a huge assumption that the child has voluntary control over the behavior itself. Sticker charts assume the child is intentionally being bad. Giving your child a reward for keeping their hands to themselves assumes that up until this point, they’ve had complete control over that and essentially they have just been doing these behaviors intentionally, on purpose. And we know, that’s not the case. We know kids are inherently good kids and that they don’t do things on purpose to be bad or to manipulate you or other children. They are usually communicating a need, or a want, an emotion, or a lack in a certain skill set. Sticker charts are compliance based and have no direct relevance to their internal motivation of doing a certain task. But what about when you give the sticker and they stop the hitting, that must mean they were in control of it the whole time, right? No, not necessarily. What it means is your child may not have the internal motivation yet to stop the behavior but your shiny external reward sticker or promise of icecream after school will do it. But this reliance on external reward and motivation can be a problem long term. When Sticker Charts Backfire Sticker charts almost always in my clinical experience end up backfiring. Will work right away, and then all of a sudden it increases behaviors with no long lasting skill that was built. Sometimes the stickers or rewards will lose their luster and the child will ask for bigger and better rewards. Sometimes the child will then start asking for stickers or rewards for everything else they already do that was never an issue. For example, maybe you give your child a sticker every time they clean up their toys because cleaning up was always a battle. Maybe now you ask them to put their plate away in the kitchen, something they’ve never had an issue with but today they say “can I get a sticker for doing that?” The other really overlooked thing when it comes to sticker charts is rooted in sort of that reverse psychology concept. I remember learning this way back in undergrad in a Psychology class. They talked about when you reward someone for a behavior, even if they used to like it or even if it was neutral to them, their brain starts to question why you rewarded them, it MUST mean that this behavior or this activity is hard/undesirable in its own way because you have to reward them. So even if you do this with a task your child already dislikes doing, rewarding them for it will not help them feel more comfortable doing it or like doing it in the long run. Some exceptions to sticker charts Now, I do want to share that when it comes to house chores that are BEYOND what the child is responsible for themselves, I don’t have much against earning allowance for that. For example, earning money for sweeping the floor or emptying the dishwasher. That’s because I think that it does relate to the real world, where you can be paid for doing manual labor like that. I don’t think I’ll be doing that in my house but I do want to differentiate that from using stickers/rewards to change your child’s behavior. Cleaning up their own toys or doing their homework does not count as chores and also should not be incentivised if you expect them to do it on their own. I’m not completely rigid like cancel stickers forever! My daughter gets toys and prizes from her Dentist after a checkup or gets a lollipop or sticker from the Doctor after a vaccine. I’m totally not opposed to that, but how that’s different is, those rewards 1) aren’t given by me directly 2), are unconditional- she gets them literally just for showing up 3) are not manipulating or trying to change or discourage/encourage any kind of social emotional behavior. It’s meant to just make the entire event less negative. And I don’t use it in a way to bribe her like “if you don’t cry at the doctor, you get a sticker”. She gets a sticker, from the nurse no matter what. The other push back I get from people sound like “well, I love reinforcement for myself! I buy myself treats or special items after I do a hard task” That’s also totally different! You’re rewarding yourself, you’re motivating yourself to do something. No one is dangling it in front of you. Yes I have motivated myself to finish my laundry by allowing myself to watch trashy tv. But I am self monitoring and self-regulating that. My husband isn’t bribing me or threatening to take the tv remote away if I don’t do the laundry- that would be a huge issue Sticker charts in the classroom are a whole other problem and can contribute to anxiety or bigger behaviors for other kids. I’m actually very worried about my daughter’s kindergarten classroom next year as I’ve heard they use some reward system similar to this. I will be keeping an eye on this and will be talking to her teachers ASAP if I notice it starting to affect her. What to do instead of sticker charts so let’s take a breath here. I know I dumped a lot on you, but I really do think it’s time for us to break the cycle of leaning on sticker charts and reward charts. But take a breath, remind yourself, I am a good parent. I am a good teacher. I want the best for my child and I have not ruined them. I am learning new ways to support them. You’re not a bad parent, bad therapist, bad teacher- but I do want to make you aware that there are alternatives to sticker charts. The problem is, it doesn’t often give such a quick return or proof that it works. Now what to do instead of sticker charts completely varies per child and per skill. But that’s where you need to start and where you need to start identifying what the underlying skill is that they’re missing. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s not and if you want to learn how I decode behaviors and break them down into their underlying triggers, check out my Sensory Is Behavior Course for parents at THEOTBUTTERFLY.COM/BEHAVIOR But here are some quick examples for you to think about. A child who has a huge aggressive meltdown after TV time may be lacking social emotional skills. Giving them a sticker everytime they turn off the tv does not teach them social emotional skills, it teaches them to mask their big emotions to make life more convenient for you. A child who says mean words, throws things or storms off when it’s time to do homework may be lacking executive functioning skills, confidence with academics, visual challenges, fine motor challenges, etc. Giving them a sticker every time they start homework does not provide them with the support through those challenges, and would make it less likely that they would do homework without external rewards in the future. A child who is being aggressive at school with peers may be sensory sensitive to sound, touch, or sight and be responding with fight or flight. Or maybe they’re lacking communication skills or other processing skills that make social interactions hard for them from a processing perspective. Giving them a sticker everytime they share a toy or don’t hit a child does not provide them with the skills to better participate in a social interactive setting, it teaches them to shut down or to fake a particular social skill. But do you see how it can vary from scenario to scenario, and simply asking your child to not hit or to share a toy or to start homework for a sticker, token, or some other irrelevant reward is not helping long term development. SO… the million dollar question, what do you do?? As I said earlier, it totally depends per child and per situation. But I’ll give you a very specific example. Let’s say you have a 4 year old who keeps getting notes from the teacher at school that they are hitting other kids, grabbing toys, just being super aggressive around social interactions. For this case, let’s say we know that the child is sensory sensitive and has a hard time around loud noises and emotional regulation. One thing I’d suggest trying is offering noise reducing headphones around loud/chaotic group play time (if it happens always during lego time, try putting them on during lego time). Another thing I’d do is offer a lot of social stories and role playing to practice and model expected safe behaviors around children. Then, I’d also make sure the teacher has a plan in place to enforce safety boundaries. So, before legos I would remind this child “Legos stay in the carpet area and hands are for building, hands are not for hitting. When I see a lego being thrown or hear unkind words, it will be time to take a break.” If the teacher sees a lego thrown or him yelling at the other child, then remind the child of the boundary and take a break from the legos (not time out, not alone). Obviously this is an extremely specific example, but that’s what’s best for our kids- they NEED specific plans and supports put in place that work for them. Is it going to stop the hitting the next day? No. Would a sticker chart make them stop hitting the very next day? Maybe. Maybe not. Sticker charts could end up backfiring and make other behaviors pop up.But zoom out and ask yourself, what exactly are you teaching your child in those moments? Sometimes the better, more long lasting results are worth waiting for, and I want you to not only TRUST the process but believe in the process, relish the process, and know it’s the right process for your child. If you want help coming up with strategies and replacements for sticker charts, I help clients do this via 1:1 parent coaching, you can find more information in the link in my show notes or by heading to www.theotbutterfly.com/parentconsult Or also check out my sensory is behavior course where I focus on more examples like I did here, breaking down common behaviors and potential reasons why they may be happening.