“There’s a sticker chart on my fridge and I don’t know why:” Sticker charts 101


Wow…I wish it were as easy as it sounds.  It seems easy enough, right?  Find behaviors you want to increase, reward them with a sticker, smiley face or check in the box and magic happens.  One of the first major mistakes I made in my career was suggesting much too often the use of “sticker charts” or “token systems.”  The reason it was a mistake is these systems are far more intricate and difficult than they seem.  I’m not trying to be over-the-top, but it is important to know what you are doing before you do it if you want lasting effects.

This topic is so popular, I have to put this together in several separate posts.  For the time being, here is a list of dos/donts, warnings and recommendations regarding token systems.  For purposes here, I will refer to all of the different forms of tokens/ stickers/ smileys/ checks/ etc. as “tokens.”

  • The most important factor is the connection between the “token” and what can be accessed with the tokens.  What I mean by this is the amount of times the tokens are “traded in” for something bigger, not the amount of times tokens are delivered.  For example, “as soon as you get 10 smiley’s we can go for ice cream.”  This is what makes the tokens valuable.

These systems fail for the following reasons:

  1. Not enough connections between the tokens and the bigger reward at the end
  2. Tokens not delivered frequently enough
  3. Final reward is not valuable
  4. Parents stop paying attention and stop using them
  • It has nothing to do with what the “token” is.  A colleague once taught teachers that pocket lint could be effective tokens if you do it right…its all about the connections making those tokens mean something other than what they are (round pieces of plastic if we are talking about tokens or poker chips).
  • How many tokens should he have to earn?  It depends on how frequently you want to deliver the final reinforcer and how often you plan on delivering the tokens.  Since “connections count,” the benefit would be to set something up that can be earned pretty frequently so you can deliver the tokens as freely as you can.  If this is the case, I like more (not more time, but more opportunities to praise and respond to the behavior).  Beware of the feasibility factor.
  • Determining the number of tokens that need to be earned to access the big reward is also sometimes determined by the opportunities for the behavior to occur.  There are less opportunities to reward pooping than “being polite,” for example.  Something like “pooping in the potty”, I am more willing to immediately reward with something else because you simply don’t get that many opportunities within a day. 
  • Feasibility factor.  This is where parent burn-out comes in.  Don’t start a program you are not going be able to maintain.  For example, “I’ll give him a sticker every time he says thank you.”  This won’t happen.  It will occur too much and you will not keep up with it.  Remember, make a considerable effort, but don’t kid yourself.
  • Quick first, then fade away.  Remember: connections count.  You are building value into the tokens so they can soon be rewards themselves (that is the point, by the way).
  • Make it specific behaviors.  Stay away from “being good.”  Not specific enough.
  • Availability of final reward is important.  Better to make it immediate.  What I don’t want to happen is for the child to earn the last token then have to wait a few days to get it, especially if he acts terribly between earning it and getting it.
  • Stay away from “if you do this every day this week, then on Friday you can…” This reduces the chances to make the connection to one time a week. You miss one week and the reward isn’t redeemable for a whole other week.  For example, “as soon as you get 5 tokens” rather than “if you get 5 tokens by Friday.”  The first allows you to always be working towards the goal.  The latter only gives you that one opportunity on Friday (and probably makes you change the rules, which sucks).
  • Taking away tokens?  Be careful…it can ruin the positive side of this.  Remember: connections count.  This is a reinforcement program, not a punishment program.

3 thoughts on ““There’s a sticker chart on my fridge and I don’t know why:” Sticker charts 101

  1. Pingback: Pull this Bandaid off slowly – How to stop reward systems |

  2. Pingback: 3 Reasons behavior plans fail and what to do about it. |

  3. Pingback: Are you begging your child to cooperate? |

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