As the parent of two toddlers, we’ve tried a number of tricks to get them to do what we want. One of the most frequently lauded strategies explained to new parents is “sticker charts”.
So we gave it a try. We got some paper, put it on the fridge, and slapped stickers on it for good behaviors. We promised special toys or trips when the sticker chart was full. Our daughter was excited about the stickers and getting praise for doing good things. Within a few days, we had an over-stickered sheet of paper and a toddler who was losing interest (along with lots of stickered up shirts, pants, and walls!)
The novelty of sticker charts quickly wore off (a rare Disney princess sticker from the doctor is SO cool, 5 to 10 sticker per day quickly loses its appeal). The effectiveness diminished almost as fast. There was no anticipation of the final reward because the “fullness” of a sticker chart was too arbitrary. We’d make it through one or two sticker charts before the idea fell by the wayside. Every few weeks or months, we’d make another go at a sticker chart but the end result was always the same.
While discussing sticker charts with a patient’s family, I pondered how to make it more effective. I tried to analogize (yes, it’s a word) rewarding children’s good behavior to how adults are rewarded. Developing good behaviors, playing nicely, and learning are essentially the work of children. Adults work to get paid. Adults get regular incentives to keep working via paychecks. Praise from supervisors, bonuses, added responsibilities/privileges and promotions are additional motivators for adults. The common denominator: we work harder to get paid more.
I then set off to create something that simulated adult compensation (regular incentives, special rewards, etc.) in a toddler-friendly style that was also easy, cheap, modifiable, and fun. The end result: a sticker map.
As you can see from the picture above, a sticker map is essentially a Candy Land-esqe sticker chart. Your child gets to move forward a space by doing whatever behavior you are working on. A sticker for going potty on the potty, eating their carrots, saying please/thank you, etc. At regularly defined intervals, there are colored squares which represent a special small surprise from a grab bag (think $1 section at your local mega-store). At the end of the map is the big prize which can be a desired toy, ice-cream run, or whatever your child can look forward to and be motivated to achieve.
Kids love sticker maps for so many reasons. For one, the child gets to plot their progress and work towards a defined goal. “Wow, you only need two more stickers before we go get chocolate ice cream!” Via the colored squares, there are built-in small rewards that help get kids to push towards the final goal (imagine having to stay motivated for 20+ squares with nothing until the final prize). “OOOh, if you go potty one more time, you get a special surprise!”
At the end of her map for going potty on the potty, we took our daughter to the store and she turned her completed map over to the cashier in exchange for the lunch box she had been coveting. She loved it and couldn’t wait to get started on the next map (a combo goal of continued potty success along with not getting out of bed in the evenings).
For the parents, there are even more benefits. Kids love praise and attention. Praising them and getting all jazzed about moving forward on the map is a huge reinforcement to continue doing good behaviors. Sticker maps are an easy,fun way to praise your child and get excited to watch them succeed. Rewards help establish and promote good behaviors, but rewards are expensive and frequently add to the junk in your house. Your child doesn’t need a Hello-Kitty bracelet every time they go pee on the potty but a small surprise every 3 times can certainly help develop new habits.
With improving behavior adherence, you can extended out the number of squares between a surprise square. Eventually, you can extend surprises out so far a that it’s easy to transition from a reward-worthy behavior to an expected behavior.
We all want our kids to behave well. Toddlers must be taught what behaviors are good through praise, attention, and role-modeling by parents. If your in a rut and can’t adjust your child’s behavior, a sticker map may help move things in the right direction!
Dr. Phil Boucher is a pediatrics resident physician in Omaha. He is married and has two children. He blogs at www.thedoctordad.com and frequently tweets about pediatrics and parenting topics at @Phil_BoucherMD You can read him here on momaha.com
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