Creating a Successful Sticker Chart to Reinforce Behavior in Children

How do you create a successful discipline program using positive reinforcement?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): You’ll want to gear this to the age of the kid. Children catch on to this very rapidly.

If it’s a young child you want to have a fairly limited amount of things on the chart. At most, five things on the list for a 2 or 3 year old. When they get to be 4, you can add some more.

The most important thing is that you engage the child in the process of setting up the rewards. What’s interesting to me is that the children will often come up with harsher penalties than a parent will. There’s a lot of interesting things that come out of this exercise. One is that you get to see how your kid thinks.

MOLLY: But the chart isn’t about the consequences or the punishments; it’s focused on the behaviors you want to change and keeping it positive rather than negative. Right?

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: Behaviors like saying “Please” and Thank you”…?

MOM: Yes. With a sticker chart you reinforce the behavior on the positive side.

MOLLY: So we shouldn’t set it up that we mark the chart every time the child doesn’t say Please” or “Thank You”?

MOM: No: you mark the chart when the kid does say “Please” and “Thank You”.

MOLLY: So every time the child says “Please” and “Thank You”, he or she gets a sticker on the chart?

MOM: And then you also want to gently point out times when the kid doesn’t say “Thank You” when he or she should have.  You can say, “This is one of those times when you could have said “Thank You” and gotten a sticker. I know you forgot this time, but next time, I know you will remember.” This is the redemption issue, which is so important. The child must understand that he or she will always be able to redeem themselves in your eyes.

MOLLY: So keeping it really positive.

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: What we did when my daughter was 4 was that after five stickers (which was enough for a kid that age), we went to the bookstore and she got to pick out a favorite paperback book. So it was like a $3 reward.

MOM: You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on this.

MOLLY: Right, it was more the fun of going to the bookstore and feeling like it was her special trip to the bookstore because she earned it.

MOM: Now, for an older child who is, let’s say, 7, 8 or 9, you might think about needing a longer period of time during which to earn the reward. Maybe a month or two months, depending on the age of the child. And then it’s one reward, but maybe it’s a bigger reward. You have to plan this according to the age of the child.

MOLLY: Maybe the child gets to pick a place to go to a special lunch or something like that?

MOM: Yeah, or a game on the computer, or whatever the kid values.

MOLLY: The types of things that we could put on the sticker chart for young kids like mine might be: saying “Please” and “Thank You”, using good manners at the dinner table, not whining and crying when you want something…?

MOM: It depends on what the issues are; this will be different for each kid.

You might have a kid who has terrible table manners. They eat with their mouth open and spit the food out and things like that. I’m a big believer in learning manners at a young age so that when they are older it’s something they don’t even think about. You could use stickers for that like, “I noticed that you ate with your mouth closed all night tonight, that was terrific. That deserves a sticker or star. “

The expectations, durations, and rewards are obviously age related, but it’s all about positive reinforcement rather than negative or punitive consequences.


Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU), and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.

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