How to Use a Reward Chart

Not all reward sticker charts are created equal. In today’s episode, I’m going to explain how to use a reward chart effectively–and I will also explain why we don’t use them very often.

How to Use a Reward Chart

When I was five-years-old, I was terrified of putting my head underwater in the pool. Swimming without putting your head and face in the water is particularly difficult. So my mother approached me with a bribe: If you put your head underwater, I will give you an Italian Ice (anyone remember those cups of frozen ice? I loved those). I really wanted this special treat, so I did it.

That’s all it took.One day. I put my head underwater in the pool and it changed my summer. My fear was gone and I got to fully immerse myself in the pool and enjoy swimming with my friends.

Fast forward 30 years. I have two of my own kids and that day with the Italian Ice sticks out in my mind. With my own kids, I am not a proponent of bribing them to do anything. But I do recognize the value of using powerful, tangible rewards to motivate certain behavior.

In fact, long before I had children I was trained in traditional methods of rewards-and-consequences to manage behavior (when I say traditional, I mean things like “Time-Outs” and Reward Charts). After I started my own parenting journey, I knew that this old school approach to raising children wasn’t the right fit for me. That’s when I found positive parenting.

As an advocate for positive parenting, I believe that developing good behavior in our children comes from having a strong bond and relationship with them. When it comes to discipline, I rely on that life-long bond and I lead by example. To use a golf analogy, positive parenting is more about the long game and focusing on the big picture. The long drives are important to get you to the green.

But the short game is important too. Using the wedge to get you up out of a sand trap, honing your putting skills to get you into the hole. That’s why I sometimes pull from my more traditional rewards-and-consequences tools as well. I have found that when used intentionally, they can help to make our days flow more smoothly. I think there is absolutely potential to combine a positive parenting approach with effective tools and strategies to help you get through the most challenging days–in fact.

How to Use a Sticker Chart

Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. If they don’t work, they probably aren’t being used correctly. Yes, there is a wrong and right way to use a reward chart. If used correctly they can be incredibly effective. In my six years of parenting, I have used a reward chart exactly twice. Although I choose not to rely on them often, both times were an overwhelming success.

Here’s the story: My son had been in swimming lessons for about a year. The progress was very slow. He wouldn’t put his head underweater. His teacher has told me that he has all the skills and he’s very capable, but his fear is preventing progress. And y’all, swimming lessons are expensive.

I was a scared kid myself, so I fully recognize how real these types of fears are. But channeling my Italian Ice days, my mom instincts told me that he had the potential to push through it and thrive. Therefore, together with my non-swimmer, we created a sticker/reward chart to increase motivation.

I let him pick a toy he wanted (he chose Blades, a Rescue Bot). Then I told him we would make four trips to the pool, and each time if he jumped into the water by himself, he would get a sticker for the day. When he filled up his chart, he would get the toy. (See photo below for our super-simple reward chart).

An hour later we headed to the pool. He was scared, but I told him it was his choice. If he didn’t want to do it, that was fine. But the motivation was there, because he really wanted Blades. And I will tell you, it was absolutely incredible. By the end of the hour, my super-scared-leech-clinger jumped in and swam the entire length of the deep end. Completely himself. Then he did it like 6 more times to show off.

So while I rarely rely on this type of method, sometimes it can be a game changer.

I shared that I don’t often use traditional rewards-and-consequences with my children. Instead, I rely on positive parenting strategies to build good behavior. Positive parenting is about focusing on the long game and the big picture. But sometimes we need tools and strategies to improve our short game to get us through the day.

It can be complicated to know when you should intervene and try to “fix” a behavior and when you should let it go. The truth is that many behaviors fix themselves over time. Even if they are annoying behaviors, they are often a sign of normal development and socialization (this is a topic for another day!).

The Five S-Words That Create an Effective Reward Chart: Keep it Supportive, Specific, Short-Term, Self-Driven, and Sporadic

Not all reward charts are created equal. But they do all take time and effort—so if you are going to do it I want you to be doing it right. And when I say “doing it right,” I want you to be using a research-based approach to ensure that it’s effective (vs. just a waste of energy).

1. Supportive

Keeping it positive and supportive is vital. In fact, this is the most important piece to remember: Reward charts are only used to increase or motivate good behavior. They are not used to put an end to bad behaviors.

  • Example of increasing desired behavior:
    • “Put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket after bath time” to get a sticker.
  • Example of decreasing undesired behavior:
    • “Stop pestering the dog all day” to get a sticker.

2. Specific

Choose only one behavior to target at a time and be sure that the goal is very clear.

  • Example of clear goal:
    • “Jump into the pool 5 times on your own” to get a sticker
  • Example of vague goal:
    • “Be good all day” to get a sticker.

3. Short-term

I recommend one day per age of life. A three-year-old should be able to earn a reward in no more than 3 days, a four-year-old in no more than 4 days, and a five-year-old in no more than 5 days. Stickers each day towards progress serves as a visual sign that the goal is getting closer. Once the goal behavior is fully-achieved, the reward chart should be faded out as quickly as possible. It’s important to ONLY give the stickers and credit if the goal is actually achieved. If you are giving stickers because you feel bad when they don’t meet the goals, this system won’t work.

4. Self-driven

Your child has to pick the reward. You don’t need to give him/her leeway to pick anything in the world, but the activity/reward/toy they are working towards has to be something they really want. I like to put a photo of the desired reward right into the reward chart to keep motivation up (see photo of ours below).

5. Sporadic

I consider this sort of intervention to be labor intensive. It does require you to set aside time to design it, print it, enforce it, and manage it. As parents, we need to keep it simple. That means this type of chart should only be used sporadically (I’ve used it twice in 6-years of parenting!). When used less often, they will be more powerful.

Hi there. Welcome to episode 211. Today, I'm talking about reward charts. I'm talking about the most effective way to do them and also why I don't actually use them very often. Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple Families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler, more intentional life. In this show we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience raising kids, but also rooted in my PhD in child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us. Hi, thanks for tuning in. It is Denaye and this is episode 211 and today we're talking all about reward charts. Now, I don't actually use reward charts very often with my kids, but I know that they are very widely used.

So I want to clear up any misconceptions and give you some direction on how to use them effectively if you choose to do so. And I'll also give you some guidance on when the best times to use them are and when you're just kind of wasting your time and energy. Before we get into today's episode, here's a word from our sponsor. The sponsor for today is a Native. Native is a natural deodorant company and up until a couple of years ago I pretty much gave up on the idea of natural deodorant because I just couldn't find anything that worked for me. My husband actually introduced me to Native and I figured if it was working for him that it would in fact probably work for me too because it is unisex. So I'll tell you that it's safe and it's made from ingredients that you know smells good and most importantly it actually works.

I've been a fan of Native long before they became a podcast sponsor and I use it year round, even in the summer, even when I'm exercising, we don't actually keep any other types of deodorant in the house now. So if you want to give it a try, go to and use the promo code simple for 20% off your first purchase. Again, go to and use the promo code simple for 20% off your first purchase. All right, moving on to today's episode on reward charts. Now I'm going to tell you all about reward charts, how to do them, when to do them, when not to do them. But I'm also going to go off on a couple of tangents including talking about swimming lessons. So this is the type of episode you might want to grab a pen and paper for because you might want to take some notes, but you can always go back and relisten to.

So before I dive into this topic, I want to give you a little bit of a background on my education and my experience and where I'm coming from. When I introduced this topic. So I'm a clinical social worker. I started out my career doing child and family therapy, focusing on kids with behavior and then I went back and I did a postgrad specialization in behavior analysis and intensely studied behavior modification techniques. Now prior to having kids, these types of traditional behavioral modification techniques like timeout and reward charts were things that I really believed in and things that I definitely thought I was going to be using in my parenting. But then once I went back after this and did my PhD in child development, I learned a lot about the development of a child and more about the relationship between the parent and a child and what a child really needs to thrive.

So coming into motherhood, I had a pretty well rounded basis. I know a lot about behavior management techniques. I knew a lot about social and emotional wellbeing. I knew a lot about discipline and the way those things came together in my job as a parent, I've really been kind of like a mishmash. I'll tell you that. Positive parenting, which a short way of explaining that is really as a parent, you using your relationship with your child to teach them and to discipline them. That's been above all my leading main approach to that I use in raising my kids, so I lead with positive parenting, but I do have some tools and strategies that help us to get through the day to help things flow more smoothly. Now, the thing about positive parenting is I do feel like there's part of it that you just have to trust the process.

Sometimes it feels like you're being a little inactive or it feels like you're not doing enough, especially if you're coming from a background where your own parents or people in your family and friends have used other more traditional techniques. It might feel a little woo. You're using your relationship with your kids to discipline them. What does that even mean? I get it. It is a little hard to understand, especially at first glance. Now I did an episode like this on timeout a long time ago, episode 113 so if you go to kind of laid out all the research and the basic philosophies that underlie timeout and put those all together for you so you could better understand how to use timeout effectively if you choose to. But again, timeout isn't something that I lean on too heavily. So if you want to listen to that episode, go to so you can think about this episode as sort of the flip side or the other angle of the timeout episode.

So timeout is a method of behavior management that is used to decrease negative behaviors. To cut back on things we don't want to see a reward chart or a reinforcement system is used to increase good behaviors to get more of what we want to see. So if you think about behaviors in early childhood or in later in childhood or even adult behaviors, there are certain behaviors we want to cut out, we want to cut back on. And there are certain behaviors we want to increase, wanting to increase cooperation. We want to increase motivation. We use timeout or other types of punishment to decrease behaviors we don't want to see anymore, and we use reward charts or other type of reinforcement to increase behavior. We want to see more of, that's a highly oversimplified way of explaining that, but I just wanted you to kind of get the gist of it.

So when it comes to kids, most of their behaviors, most of the most difficult, frustrating behaviors revolve around the lack of cooperation, the lack of motivation to do what we want them to do. We have an agenda for them. They don't seem to be on our agenda. They don't seem to be listening. I hear that word a lot. They're not listening, but the reality is they're not cooperating. They're not motivated to cooperate. So if we punish them for not listening, it's generally not very effective. So if you tell a kid go clean up your toys or you're going to time out, don't be surprised if your kid says, okay, I'll go to timeout because going to timeout is a heck of a lot easier than going to clean up your toys. You can't use a punishment like timeout to increase a behavior what you want to see more ups.

So you want to see more cleaning up behavior so you can't use punishment to increase that. It doesn't work like that. You can use reinforcement, positive reinforcement rewards to increase good behavior like cleaning up toys. But generally it's not necessary and it is not something that I do with my kids very often because it's unnatural. It's kind of disruptive in the flow of our day. I don't want to have a bunch of complex systems to manage. I don't want to have a bunch of boxes and stickers to deal with. So generally speaking, we don't do a lot of concrete rewards. We don't do a lot of tangible rewards. Most of the quote unquote bad behaviors that you see out of your kids are a result of them being in the depths of the socialization process. They're still learning how to behave. They're learning every day.

They're making mistakes, they're making bad decisions, they're making good decisions. But they are a work in progress. So I'll go ahead and talk a little bit about rewards. There's a lot of scrutiny about giving your kids tangible rewards. And the challenge with that is the belief. And to some degree the research shows that if we give our kids a piece of candy, every time they read a book, they're not developing intrinsic or internal motivation to read a book. That the act of reading the book and the joy that comes from it should be the reward in and of itself. We shouldn't be giving external rewards to get our kids to do things. And I do think there's truth in that and I do agree with that, but I also think that there's some times that rewards can come in really handy. So when I was five years old, I was terrified of putting my head under water in the pool.

So after dealing with this for a really long time, my mother approached me with a bribe. She said, if you put your head under water, I'm going to give you an Italian ice. I don't know if anyone knows, remembers those little frozen cups of Italian ice. But I really love those. So I really wanted it. So I put my head underwater and that's all it took. It completely changed my summer, can maybe even change my life, but that one day putting my head underwater and seeing how much fun it was to swim underwater, my fear was gone. And I got to spend my whole summer enjoying swimming with my friends. So fast forward 30 years, I had the same situation with my five year old and I'm not a proponent of bribing them to do anything. I don't know that I've ever really bribed them in the traditional sense, but I can recognize that there is sometimes value in using powerful tangible rewards to motivate certain behaviors.

So here's where the swimming piece comes into all of this. Now. My son didn't like to put his head under water and we'd been doing swimming lessons for probably about a year and he was holding onto one of those little paddleboards kicking around the pool with his face out of the water and it was fine. He was doing just fine, but I was paying a lot of money for these swimming lessons and we kind of came to this breaking point where I'm like, either you're going to put your head under water and learn to swim or I don't really feel like it's worth it to be paying for the swimming lessons anymore. And I couldn't help but remember my Italian ice bribe and how much I loved swimming after I finally bit the bullet and put my head under water. So this is the story of the first time I used a reward chart with my kids.

Now, after seeing that swimming lessons weren't being very fruitful for us, I started to do some research on swimming because I really needed my kids to learn how to swim. That summer. I had seen three near drowning incidents with kids when their parents were standing right there. I had an experience with my daughter when she was about 15 months old where she was standing at a friend's house, kind of near the edge of the pool, and a ball went into the pool and I turned around and I picked up the net to scoop the ball out. I skipped the ball out. I turned around to put the net back and I turned back around and she was in the pool and I had to jump in and pull her out. And anyone that's ever had to jump in, fully clothed and pull their kid out of a pool, seeing them floundering can attest.

So one of the scariest things that you will ever experience, your heart doesn't stop pounding for days. It's very traumatizing. Even if they're only under there for two seconds, which my daughter was, and after that I started to become very well aware. It's not just unsupervised kids that drowned supervise kids can drown. Another incident later in the summer, we were swimming at a friend's house and the four parents were in the pool talking and three of the kids were in the pool. One little girl was wandering around the outside just kind of playing around and there were four adults in the pool, plenty of supervision. The little girl fell in the pool and none of us saw her fall in. She was probably only under a couple of seconds, but one of the kids said, Hey, she's in the pool and we had to dive in and save her. The fact that this can happen when there are adults right there is terrifying.

So after these incidents, we went to a very strict policy where if there was water any bit in the vicinity, there had to be an adult with eyes on the child or the children at every single second. So after those experiences, I knew that I needed my kids to swim. And I know there's a lot of people that don't agree with survival, swimming or ISR because they think it's traumatic for kids because kids do cry a lot and it is really scary for kids. After having a few of those experiences where I saw kids fall into the pool, even when adults work nearby and present personally for me, I wanted my kids to learn even if they weren't happy about learning. So in traditional swim lessons, you really let the kid come around to the idea of putting their head underwater when they're ready. Now the problem with this is when they're kicking around, holding onto a Kickboard with their head out of their water, their bodies start to immediately go vertical.

And it's really hard to swim any distance when your body is vertical, when it's up and down. So if a child falls into a pool and they go to lift their head out and their body goes vertical, it's going to be very difficult for them to paddle a few feet and get the movement they need to get back to the wall and climb out on their own. But if you teach a child to swim horizontal with their face in the water from the very beginning, they can swim a distance much faster and more efficiently and they're much more likely to be able to get themselves out of the pool. So after I learned this, I knew that I needed my son to get horizontal in the pool, which meant his face needed to get in the pool. We were preparing to start this type of survival, swimming lessons, and I wanted to get him over the hurdle of putting his face in the water before we started.

It just felt a little bit less traumatic than having the instructor put his head under against as well. Now you've probably tried some type of reward chart in the past. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. If they don't work, they're probably not being used correctly. And yes, there is a right and a wrong way to use a reward chart. If they are used correctly, they can be incredibly effective. So here's what I did. I took my kid to target. I let him pick out a toy. He chose rescue bot. We took a picture of him holding the toy at target and I told him we would make four trips to the pool and each time he jumped into the water by himself, he would get a sticker for the day. And when he filled up his chart, he would get the toy. So I had a really simple visual, one paper picture of my son holding blades, the rescue bot and four boxes below it.

So after target we had it to the pool. He was scared, but I told him it was his choice. I said, if you don't want to do it, that's okay. But the motivation was there because he really wanted this toy. So I will tell you, it was incredible. The first day he jumped off the side of the pool and swam halfway across. He had all the skills intact. He just needed a little bit of motivation to push through and to establish the new behavior. And by the end of that first day, he swam the entire length of the deep end completely by himself. So that was the first time I used a behavior chart and we had put four boxes for four trips to the pool. But the truth was after the first day, he had already really established the new behavior and push through the barrier.

But we still made four trips to the pool, got the four stickers, and then gave him the toy. So the second time we used a reward chart was for potty accidents. My son was having small leaks where he wouldn't have an all at accident, but he wouldn't be tuning into his body and getting to the potty when he needed to. So what I needed was I needed to motivate him to start listening to his bladder to start listening to his body. So we did the same thing, picked out a toy, he picked out another rescue bot and we made a reward chart, picture of him with a toy at the top and seven boxes across the bottom. And he needed seven stickers, seven days of being completely dry all day, no wet spots on his pants, and then he would get the toy. It took him eight days.

So he was dry seven out of eight days, which was a huge feat for him at this point. So why did this work? Because he was thinking about that toy. He really wanted that toy. It was very motivating for him. So it helped him to tune into his body and to listen to his bladder and to get to the potty as soon as he needed to go. So he didn't have any leaks. And once he went through the seven days, he was able to keep up with it. Now that's not to say it never happened again, but I will say it improved by at least 80 to 90%. So we used a reward chart for a very specific behavior to increase motivation. The target behavior for this reward chart was stay dry all day. The target behavior for the pool swimming reward chart was jump in the pool five times, which he had to do on each trip to the pool.

So I'm going to give you five tips to using a reward chart effectively. I call them the five S's. So if you're gonna use a reward chart, which I don't think you really need to very often, but if you're going to do it, I want you to do it right. I want you to use a research based approach to make sure that it's effective and not just a waste of energy. So the first tip is to be supportive. Keep it positive, keep it supportive. This is the most important piece to remember. Reward charts are only used to increase or motivate good behavior. They're not used to put an end to bad behaviors. So an example of a time you want to increase behavior is put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket after bath time and you get a sticker. It's a very concrete behavior that's easy to measure.

Either the clothes are in the basket or they're not in the basket, they're in the basket. You get the sticker, the clothes don't make it into the basket. You don't get the sticker. Your kid knows exactly what to do. And it's important to remember they can never lose stickers, they can only gain them. So here's an example of how not to use a reward chart. Stop pestering the dog all day to get a sticker stop pestering the dog all day is a behavior we want to decrease. And remember we can't decrease behaviors with reward chart. We can only increase. We want to decrease the pestering of the doc. Now you could flip this and say touch the dog with gentle hands all day. And then it's a behavior you're trying to motivate. It's a positively phrased request. It's much easier to get a kid to comply with something like this.

So you can always flip your negative requests or your, your request to decrease behavior and make them positive like this. So moving on to number two, our second S, be specific. Choose only one behavior to target at a time and make sure that the goal is very clear. You could use my example, jump into the pool five times on your own and you get a sticker. A vague goal would be be good all day to get a sticker. Don't make your goals fake. Make them very specific. The third S is short term. My general recommendation is one day per age of life, a three year old should be able to earn a reward in no more than three days, a four year old and about four days a five-year-old in no more than five days stickers each day towards the progress serve as a visual sign that the goal is getting closer.

Now you can definitely deviate from this, but don't go above seven. I chose seven for the potty chart because I knew it was gonna take more than four days to make this new behavior a habit. So this is just a rule of thumb, you might have to play around with it, but I would never recommend using reward chart for a kid younger than three. So when I say short term, make sure that the goal behavior fully achieved and the reward chart will be faded out as quickly as possible. So it's not meant to be a lifetime solution. Once the new behavior is established, the reward chart goes away. You might pick a new target behavior, but it's important to only give the stickers and credit if the goal is actually achieved. So if the target is to go to the pool and jump into the pool five times, they got to do it.

Don't just feel bad and feel guilty because they're sad because they didn't meet their goal. Make sure that you're sticking with what you outlined originally. If you're giving stickers because you feel bad when they don't meet the goals, the system just isn't going to work. So number four, this S is self-driven. Your child has to pick the reward. You don't need to give him or her leeway to pick anything in the world, but the activity or the reward or the toy that they're working towards has to be something that they really want, not something that you think they really want. And I really like the idea of putting a photo of the desired reward right onto the reward chart to keep the motivation up. I'll put a picture of ours in the show notes and the fifth S is sporadic. Personally, I consider this sort of intervention to be labor intensive and it does require you time to set it up, print it, and force it, manage it as parents. We just need to keep it simple. That means that this type of chart should only be used sporadically and when they're used less often they're going to be more powerful and more effective. So let's recap. We're award charts are really only used to establish and motivate new behaviors, behaviors that you want to see more of. They should be supportive. Your statements should be positively phrased.

So if the goal is to put the dirty clothes in the laundry basket basket after bath time, that's the goal. It's a very specific, it's positive, tells them exactly what to do. Now, if the goal is stop leaving your closing all around the house, that's too vague. And remember our second S is to be specific. Be very clear in your goals. Number three is short term. None of these reward charts are intended to last for very long. You're establishing a new behavior and once it's established, you fade off the reward chart. You might have to break the behavior down into multiple parts. If you have a kid who's terrified of the pool and has never done swimming lessons, then you wouldn't want the goal to be jumping and swim across the pool. You might want your first behavior goal might be just to step in and Wade around in the pool, ankle deep, and then after they accomplish that goal, maybe the next reward chart would say, wait in waist-deep.

Now if that sounds silly because most kids will wait in ankle deep or weighed in waist deep, it's because it is kind of silly and that's the reason we don't really need to use these reward charts very often is because often these behaviors develop on their own with time. It's only when we really get stuck that we need to use these charts to help pull us out of a rut to help motivate to get us over a hurdle. That brings us to the fourth S which is self-driven. Make sure your child picks the reward and the reward is something that they really want. It does not have to be a toy. It could be a snack, it could be a special activity with the parent, but it has to be something that really motivates them and you can't predict this. You need to get their input.

And the fifth and most important part is that these are to be sporadic. The are a secret tool to keep in the back of your tool belt for the really tricky circumstances, not something that should be used every day cause man, it's just a lot of work and you don't really need it. Generally speaking, as an advocate for positive parenting, I do believe that developing good behavior in our children comes from having a strong bond and relationship with us. When it comes to discipline, I rely on that lifelong bond and lead by example. To use a golf analogy, positive parenting is more about the long game and focusing on the big picture, the long drives that are important to get you to the green, but sometimes the short game, the putting is important too. Sometimes you need a wedge to get you up out of the sand trap.

The reward chart is an example of a wedge. Sometimes you do need some tools and strategies, and these are the times when I do pull from my more traditional rewards and consequence tools as well. So I do think it's definitely possible to combine a positive parenting approach with some proven more old school tools and strategies. That's what I do at home. So I hope this episode was helpful. If you have questions or comments, screenshot this while, you're listening to it and post it up in your Instagram stories and tag me so I can read about what you have to say there and answer any questions you have. As always, thank you for being a part of simple families. I appreciate you tuning in. Make sure you hit subscribe so you get all the new episodes. I'll talk with you soon.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.