“No More Stickers”

July 6, 2011 at 5:48 am (Positive Discipline)

How sticker charts undermine our intentions to teach children behavior

By Kelly Bartlett

Many parents use sticker charts in the name of positive discipline.  Sticker charts are a popular form of non-punitive discipline, and they do work…to a point.  They do allow parents to teach children behaviors like doing chores or exemplifying kindness to others without yelling, spanking, or threatening punishments.  But using sticker charts as a way to encourage children to achieve behavioral goals sends a surprising hidden message to kids about behavior.

The appeal of sticker charts is understandable; they provide a quick way to give kids an incentive to work and are seemingly “positive”.  It’s easy to say, “When you do [certain tasks] you’ll get a sticker.  Remember you’re working towards [a bigger prize], so get those stickers on there.”

While rewards are appealing to children, and they do motivate kids to behave in certain ways, that motivation is not actually aimed at the behavioral goal.  External rewards like stickers take away from a child’s internal sense of what’s right.  Children aren’t behaving in certain ways because it’s the right thing to do, but instead because they want to earn more stickers.  Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards states, “The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.”

The intent parents have in using sticker charts is for children to learn challenging behaviors (for example, learning to use the potty or being responsible for household chores).  It’s common to think, “We’re teaching our kids to work towards these goals,” when using a sticker chart really says, “We’re teaching our kids to work towards these rewards.”  There is a difference between helping kids work toward overcoming challenges and teaching them to work towards a reward for overcoming those challenges.  A sticker chart, despite its positive intentions, actually functions against what parents are aiming for.

It’s true that children will grow up to be adults working in a world in which they’ll be rewarded for their work in the form of a paycheck.  But isn’t it nice when people know how—and want to—work hard whether or not they get (or despite the size of) a paycheck?  This is what parents can teach kids at a young age; to develop their sense of internal motivation to do what’s right simply because it’s right.

Sticker charts also make it easy for kids to opt out of their challenges; to say, “Nah.  That’s OK if I don’t get a sticker today.”  When, really, appropriate behavior is not an option.  It’s an expectation.

What happens when kids don’t care about the stickers anymore?  What happens if the reward becomes meaningless?  Well, parents could adjust the system so it’s more enticing; require fewer stickers, or make the reward bigger and better.  But then they’re exerting their energy into the sticker chart system, not on actually teaching their kids about how to be successful.

In teaching children, parents should be aiming for a deeper sense of self than earning stickers.  Helping kids face challenging moments are opportunities for parents and children to connect, communicate, and to relate to each other on an emotional level; with a sticker chart, those are missed opportunities.

It’s the relationship and interactions between parents and children that are the real key to guiding kids to achieve their goals.  Using a chart takes away from a child’s sense of pride in their accomplishments.  Instead of saying, “I did it, I am capable,” kids are saying, “I did it, I got a sticker,” and they are focused on the sticker, the next sticker, and the reward.  In other words, not their personal accomplishment.

So, what does replace a sticker chart for teaching kids behavior?  It depends on the goals that are on the chart.  Some parents use them for chores, and they include things like “make your bed,” “clean your room,” “feed the dog,” “put your clothes away,” etc.  For those types of tasks, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, offers a few parenting tools that work more effectively than stickers for teaching long-term habits:

  • Make the task fun; turn it into a game.
  • Teamwork; do it together to model cooperation and keep each other company.
  • Limited choices; break the task down and offer limited choices so kids are not overwhelmed.
  • Offer empathy; let kids know their feelings are valid and important.
  • Show faith; remind children of their capabilities, “I know you can do this.”
  • Get input; ask child what would help to get the job done.
  • Take enough time to properly teach; model, demonstrate, teach, re-teach, and check for understanding.

Not all of those tools are applicable to every task, and some tasks go more smoothly with a combination of a few of the tools at once.  But all of them help kids work towards a bigger goal than working for a reward.  They invite positive interaction between parent & child, and they celebrate a child’s effort and sense of confidence.  That is the motivation for continuing to do their chores; children feel capable, respected, and valued.

Other types of goals parents may include with the use of stickers charts are behavioral ones such as “demonstrate confidence,” “show selflessness,” “try new foods,” or “play by yourself.”  They are challenging behaviors with which parents may see their children struggle and want to encourage kids to overcome.  Instead of offering stickers, parents can notice when the behaviors do happen and encourage them to happen again with these kinds of Positive Discipline tools:

  • Acknowledge without evaluating; search out those moments when a child accomplished something challenging and recognize that achievement by acknowledging the effort.  Instead of saying, “Good job,” it’s more like celebrating: “Wow, you did it!”
  • Communicate; ask curiosity questions to draw out their experience.  “I noticed you asked that boy who was alone if he wanted to play…How was that?”  “How did you feel?” “What was hard about it?” “What did you like?” “How do you feel now?”  In other words, help kids process their experience by asking them about it rather than telling them, “Good job for doing that and here’s your sticker.”
  • Offer encouragement versus praise; help kids  internalize the value of their accomplishment by saying encouraging things like:  You worked hard!  You must be proud of yourself.  I trust your judgment.  You figured it out for yourself!  You can decide what is best for you.  I have faith in you to learn from mistakes.  I love you no matter what.

What about kids who really like stickers and just think they’re a lot of fun?  Certified Positive Discipline Trainer Glenda Montgomery says that for these children, parents may want to, indeed, use a sticker chart but implement it differently.  “Instead of a parent presenting a child with a sticker after a task is accomplished, the chart can be totally child-led.”  That is, leave it completely up to the child to decide if and when a sticker should be added, and let the child just enjoy the chart for the fun of the stickers.  This way, and especially in the absence of any larger prizes, children are internally processing the value of their actions and developing their own sense of pride.

Many parents use sticker charts because they don’t know what else to do.  For those who don’t want to use punitive discipline like yelling, threatening or using time-outs, stickers seem like a straightforward, effective, “positive” discipline tool.  But they undermine a parent’s intention to teach children authentic motivation, and they take away from a child’s ability to develop a sense of self efficacy.  While the positive discipline tools are definitely more time-consuming to implement, they’re infinitely more valuable.  They work to teach kids the life-long skills that parents value and help families develop connected relationships in the process.  They convey the message that parents originally intend; that we work to overcome challenges not to get stickers and a reward, but because doing so helps us grow, strengthen, and become highly self-confident.

  Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator, an API leader, and a contributing editor of The Attached Family magazine.  She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.

18 Comments

  1. change5553 said,

    Kelly, this is the best article on rewards. (As you can see, I finally got past all the WordPress hoops so I can comment.) I laughed out loud when I can to the photo of the older child (yours?) pasting stickers on the baby’s head. I want to share this article with as many people as possible. Jane Nelsen

    • Kelly said,

      Oh Jane, thank you for working so hard to leave this comment! I really appreciate your feedback and support. I don’t know if anyone else has had problem leaving comments here or through WordPress in general. And yes, those are my kids (about 5 years ago)…Elia, not quite 2 yet, decorating her baby brother with stickers!

  2. Anita said,

    I’ve often thought this about the sticker charts I am using…is it really the right message? Especially when the kids are replying to my requests with “Do I get a sticker” and counting down to the reward. It did work for some behaviours, but doesn’t seem to help anymore. The prizes have to be so big now that it doesn’t seem right. I am going to try to get rid of them now. Thanks.

  3. Jessie said,

    Yes! Montessori teacher and Mom here; this post sums up my whole philosophy at home and school!!! Sharing this with everyone I know!!!

  4. Selmada said,

    Great article.

    We don’t use sticker charts and I’m not sure we could. In our place stickers are for fun, for art and for decorting ourselves and each other in silly fits of fun.
    I couldn’t possibly take this joy away from them. When the time is right for them to learn about earning, it will be with money with which they will be taught how to save, spend and donate.

  5. Danie said,

    Icompletely agree with you, and I have never used reward charts with any of our 5 children. I want them to learn the difference between what is appeopriate behaviour and what is not through their own life experiences. In my opinion, having them use a reward chart gives them the message that a good deed should only be done if it’s going to give them something,and that is NOT the message I want to give. I have to admit though..that I have always used a sticker chart for toilet training. But it was very simple…whether they went or just tried, they got a sticker for their chart that comes with the pull-ups box, and it was left at that. Thank You so much for this article! Much Love-Danie

  6. Kelly said,

    Tha you all for your thoughtful comments! I appreciate hearing your perspectives on this; it’s not exactly a “popular” concept. 🙂 This article will appear in the next issue of The Attached Family magazine, due out soon. It’s not online anywhere except here, so feel free to share it if you like.

  7. Dawn Bauman said,

    Dear Kelly,
    Thank you so much for this article. This is the first time I have ever read your blog. A FaceBook friend shared the article and I had to read it. I am an educator, a curriculum writer, and a mom of three. This is the best article I have ever seen on “why not sticker-charts”. I have never like sticker charts and never used them with our children. I admit, I have used them in the classroom because, just as you said, I never knew what else to do. But I always saw the flaws in them: Some kids just don’t care, some see the reward as too far away, and it doesn’t actually TEACH the heart-change you are trying to accomplish! Thanks, I will definitely be reading more from you.
    Dawn

  8. Kerry said,

    Vert nice article! I agree with you about not using a sticker chart “if” it is holding a reward at the end….really working towards the wrong goal doing this. There are other fun ways stickers/charts can be used. I am a homeschool/Montessori mom of 2 boys, We sometimes use stickers to track the weather or to show a particular task has been completed (more like a check list with stickers). As orginizations tools some sticker charts can be great fun to help young children keep track of work competed. This never has any kind of reward at the end!
    My mom gave my little one an “Elmo Potty Chart” sticker chart for potty training…I was not planning on using it…but my little one was all excited about it!…So…we put it up and I said nothing about it….after he peed on the toliet, he wanted to put a sticker on the chart, so I let him…he continues to put a sticker on it, but it has become just part of the bathroom routine, like washing hands and flushing! I never add any kind of reward with it…I make sure he knows how proud I am and mae sure he feels proud too! (I will be happy when the stickers run out tho!)

    • Kelly said,

      Thank you, Kerry! Love how your potty sticker chart is completely led by your little guy. 🙂

  9. Heather Fyffe Dunham said,

    I think there is one exception to the ‘sticker chart’ rule (which otherwise I completely agree with) — my son is ADHD and Aspie, and with low executive function he absolutely needs external motivation for almost everything. His own internal reward system is “broken”, in a manner of speaking, so he does sometimes need external rewards in order to learn a behavior or habit.

    The nice thing about Aspie kids in this respect, is that once they’re into a routine they REFUSE to change it. So once a routine is established via rewards, you can start to take away the rewards and they’ll still keep the routine going. Obviously, this is different than neuro-normal kids who learn to work for the rewards. With Aspie kids, the rewards are an intermediary step to routine. I think that the problem has become that this method, which is designed for and works for kids with specific problems, has been transferred to the general population. “Gee, if it works for those kids maybe it would work for mine too,” whereas in fact it’s totally different for neuro-normal kids.

    I also think there’s a difference between ‘sticker charts’ and ‘checklists’. Checklists are not reward-based, they’re just a help for keeping track of all the steps or tasks that need to be done. For instance, the article mentions breaking down a task like cleaning their room so they’re not overwhelmed. This can be done with a checklist, with each step demarcated so they know precisely what to do next. It’s not about motivation or rewards, it’s just about staying on track and organized. When I’ve done lists like this, the last step is usually something like “now look around at your clean room and feel proud for the hard work you did!”

    This is something absolutely essential for my son — he has a ‘flip book’ I made for his morning routine, his bedtime routine, and cleaning his room. He also gets a detailed checklist for his schoolwork each day (we homeschool). There are not normally rewards attached to any of these — it just keeps him on his routine and makes sure nothing gets forgotten. But it’s also useful for neuro-normal kids like my 4yo daughter. She loves putting the checkmarks in herself. This is useful with tasks where the intrinsic reward value is less immediate and thus less obvious to young children, such as music practice. She gets a little chart with empty squares and each time she plays her piece she checks off a square, and keeps doing it until all the squares are filled. There’s no other external reward — it’s simply for tracking that she’s done it enough times, because that’s a difficult thing for children to gauge for themselves. As a piano teacher for many, many years, I’ve seen from much experience how this helps kids get into practice routines when they’re too young or too inexperienced to understand the long-term benefits of practicing. But it doesn’t take long at all before they do recognize that “hey, the more I play a piece, the faster and better I learn it!” — they feel that intrinsic pleasure of playing a piece well — and they start to manage their own motivation and practice ethic.

    These are the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’, though. As a general, all-purpose, household behaviour modification tool, it’s next to useless…

    • momma said,

      Here, here. It is unfortunate that when one parent finds something that works for their hard-to-motivate child, there is always another electronic co-parent undermining that success with admonishments about the relative value of “intrinsic” versus “extrinsic” awards. Honestly, we’ve used stickers now and again, and extrinsic rewards. Sometimes, like when your kid has something that he needs to learn to do that is 10 times harder for him because he has fine motor skill deficits or ADD or any one of a number of issues that make it frustrating and the “reward” of accomplishment not worth the trouble, then please don’t feel guilty about using sticker charts. For goodness sake, stop feeling guilty about putting effort into your child that doesn’t involve berating and hitting.

  10. Christine Gordon said,

    That photo is fantastic! I was teaching an after-school, elementary program in public housing and decided to ‘quit’ the kids from their sticker-chart obsession. Despite their school basically being run on sticker-charts, I told them that I wasn’t going to do it. I told them I believed they were capable of doing their best work and knowing their best work – that they didn’t need stickers from me. I also told them that I would save the money that would have been spent on rewards and use them for field trips instead – field trips weren’t a reward, they were part of our learning, and that everyone is invited (this certainly helped them accept my new policy!). Anyway, the first thing the kids asked was “What are you going to do with all the stickers you already have?” (the program had leftover stickers from the previous teacher). I told them I would keep the stickers in a drawer they could reach and that whenever they feel they’ve done their best work, they could go and get themselves a sticker. I thought this would be a good use of leftover stickers and teach them to take pride IN their own work, instead of relying on other people being proud OF them. Well, needless to say that until the stickers ran out, I had 25 5-11 year olds COVERED in stickers every day! Thankfully the stickers only lasted about a week. But, it worked! They never asked about the stickers again, and finally they started to really learn to self-assess their own accomplishments instead of relying on the approval of others (ie adults).

    • Kelly said,

      Christine, what a great story! Love that you saw the kids’ potential and took the initiative to do things differently!

  11. Perceptions of pressure and blame. « Parenting with Understanding said,

    […] so it is with the example of Kelly Bartlett’s article on sticker charts.  The information is there. It’s evidence based stuff. And yes, it challenges a popular […]

  12. Francine Sanchez said,

    Hi Kelly, I just wrote a huge comment on a facebook page and thought it may be beneficial to leave it here as well. I hope it doesn’t offend, I just have a different opinion than you do. I also don’t think you have a very full understanding of how sticker charts can be used. I have seen their benefit over and over again. While they certainly are not necessary they can be a really great tool for parents who need help. They can be really helpful in breaking up difficult tasks into small discrete easy to do tasks. They also provide a neat visual for children who benefit from seeing their success.

    I read this article and I certainly disagree. I am a behavior therapist though, so perhaps that is to be expected. 🙂 What the author is describing is a misunderstanding of how to properly use a sticker chart. What she describes is very poor usage indeed and I don’t think that is typical. I use sticker charts quite often with the children I work with. I have used them with kiddos with Autism and also the kids I work with with Dyslexia. We use them to reinforce positive behaviors. This does not take the place of teaching, modeling, encouraging, or communication in any way. In fact, I think in many ways it improves communication. With my kiddos with Dyslexia we reinforce EVERYTHING. Wow! You didn’t get distracted once during that homework assignment – sticker. I LOVE how you wrote your name on the line and it’s not floating into the air – sticker. You started off our session with so much enthusiasm today – sticker! I could also say all those things without the stickers, but the stickers give him/her a visual representation of his/her accomplishments. At the end of the week we have a store where they can trade in knick knacks for the stickers (a token economy). But, it’s not about the little toys, although that is fun. You get to look at a chart and say, “Whoa! Look at what I accomplished. I worked so hard and I was recognized for it.” When they grow up, I hope they give themselves their own stickers/accolades. I want that to be in their mind while they are crossing off their to-do list. It is a good skill to have. With my kids with Autism, sticker charts helps provide motivation for good behavior. Before, maybe a walk to the library would include stepping into peoples yards, touching every sign post, running ahead or behind, BUT, if they get a sticker for every sign post they walk nicely by (or yard), next to mom, they are focusing on a positive behavior and they are rewarded. Sticker charts help break down big tasks into small discrete steps which are easy to accomplish. I think they are a great tool to use, if done so along with other good parenting techniques. They also should be faded out. So, once my little boy with Autism is a pro at walking by sign posts without running over to them and touching them, maybe he has to walk by 2 without getting a sticker, and then 3 and then 5, and then the whole walk to the library. Eventually, he no longer gets more than some genuine verbal praise and a sticker chart can be moved on to something else he is struggling with. But, guess what? He can now walk all the way to the library safely next to mom. Time to get off my soap box? Ok. I apologize if any offense was given. I just think this is a tool cool that CAN (although certainly do not have to be) utilized very well. Happy Thursday!

  13. Lindsey said,

    Very we’ll put. I can see how stickers can be both positive and negative depending on the child and the situation. It was great reading all the comments on this post. Thx!

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