Don’t use reward charts until you’ve read this!

Olivia Smith (NCCD Psychologist) shares her experience and thoughts about how to effectively use reward charts to help your kiddo…

As a paediatric psychologist, some of my caseload involves direct work with parents. Whether it be by life situation, temperament or a developmental difference- some children are more challenging to parent, and that’s okay! Sometimes parents feel they don’t have a good model to draw on from their own experience of being parented or had a vastly different upbringing to their partner. Other children present with behaviours that exceed their knowledge base and additional skills training is needed.

Reward charts are commonly used to encourage the occurrence of positive behaviours, be this in the home or school environment. Like most things in life however, preparation and implementation are key to success. I have worked with many parents who report having tried reward charts, and they haven’t worked; however, this is often due to a lack of planning or inconsistent implementation. Before you reach for the stickers and laminating machine, consider the following:

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  • It is important that your child is developmentally ready to understand the link between their behaviour, the ‘token’ (for example a sticker on a chart) and the eventual reward that they will ‘earn’. Children at earlier stages of development are not able to understand delayed gratification. Such children will quickly lose interest if getting that star on the chart does not immediately translate to something tangible for them.
  • Decide on a specific behaviour that the reward chart will track. It is important that this behaviour is something the child has the capacity to do, is clearly defined and is a ‘positive opposite’ of the problem behaviour. For example, if your child is always yelling when you ask them to finish on the iPad, your goal behaviour would not be ‘good behaviour’ or to ‘stop yelling’. It instead could be ‘to take three deep breaths when you are asked to stop using the iPad’.
  • Consider what is a reasonable timeframe for the chart to cover. For some children this may be receiving a token for every 2 minutes of playing appropriately with their sibling with the eventual reward earnt after 5 such occurrences- for others, this may be ‘saving’ tokens across the course of a month to ‘purchase’ a larger reward. We want to set children up for success, rather than creating goals that are impossible to achieve.
  • Determine suitable rewards based on different levels of achievement. Rewards do not necessarily need to cost money. They may instead be special privileges, like getting to choose what the family eats for dinner or watches on TV, or activities, such as going to the movies, getting to bake a cake or going to the park. They can also be access to a preferred item. For example, rather than a child having unrestricted access to an iPad, screen time may be dependent on having earnt a certain number of tokens that day.
  • Ensure that the reward is ‘valuable’ to the child- what their preferences are will change over time, hence it is important that rewards update accordingly.
  • Ensure that the token is applied to the chart immediately after the occurrence of the desired behaviour and that you give labelled, specific praise. For example, you may say “you spoke to your sister in a calm voice when you lost the game”, rather than just “good job”. A high-five or hug (if enjoyed by your child) also never goes astray!
  • Do not give tokens if the desired behaviour does not occur, as the child will quickly learn that they will get their reward anyway. Likewise, do not remove tokens- instead if the child does not engage in the desired behaviour, they do not earn a token at that time.
  • As the child becomes more consistent in exhibiting the appropriate behaviour, you can gradually change the goalposts so that they must exhibit the behaviour more often or frequently to earn the same reward. It is important that any changes be discussed with you child prior to being implemented. Ideally, we are working towards the reward chart becoming obsolete and the behaviour becoming a regular part of the child’s everyday life.
  • Finally, parents often express that they don’t want to ‘bribe’ their child to behave appropriately. However, reward charts and bribery are different- this is to do with when the reward is being offered. In a reward chart scenario, the link between the behaviour and the token is made clear to the child prior to any behaviour having taken place. In contrast, in a ‘bribery’ situation the child is usually already behaving inappropriately- and hence a negotiating situation takes place, which teaches the child that they should only comply if they ‘get’ something out of the situation. Timing is key.


Olivia Smith is a registered psychologist and is completing her registrar program in Educational and Developmental Psychology. Olivia is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. Outside of her work at NCCD, Olivia works as a clinician in the area of early identification of autism in children (aged 12 to 36 months) at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University.



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