Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Why Star Charts Don't Always Work

We all like the idea of earning a gold star and star charts are available to buy in every stationers or toy shop. But do they really work, and is there a better way?

The theory

A traditional star chart is a grid, with the days of the week along the top and tasks down one side. When the child completes a task, or shows a certain type of behaviour, they earn a star. When the child has a specific number of stars, or a number of days fully completed, they are given a prize. Earning a reward is a positive way to motivate your child, eventually the behaviour should become a habit. A star chart hanging on the wall also acts as a visual reminder, and allows the child to "show off" their stars, taking pride in their achievement.

Could it be better?

There are a few problems with traditional star charts. They only allow you to reward the specific behaviour you have written on the chart, so if your son forgets to make his bed he doesn't get a star - even if he picked up all his toys instead. It can also be too easy to focus on the empty squares, pointing out what your child forgot to do. The chart then becomes a negative form of discipline instead of the positive reward you had intended. If you have more than one child it is tempting to compare them, pointing out who has most stars. Even if you never mention it, the children probably will! Again, the child who has fewer stars can loose confidence and view the chart in a negative light. It is tempting to write things like "be kind to Tommy" which can leave you with a dilemma when your little girl is wonderfully kind for most of the morning but less so later on! Finally, a traditional star chart only lasts a week so every Monday morning the child is back to "square one" with a new chart. This can seem unfair when a child worked hard and only just missed out on a prize, the frustration can make them give up.

A team project

I prefer to have a chart that encourages the family to work together towards a team goal. A picture with several elements, such as a tree with apples to be coloured, is perfect for this. Any member of the family can colour in an apple if they do something worthy of reward. You can discuss in advance any specific things you want to encourage, and remind your child of them when you need to, but any spontaneous wonderful behaviour can also be rewarded. You may even find that children come and ask you what they can do to earn an apple! Completing the tree becomes a real team effort, with the whole family working together and helping each other to achieve success. Your little one will be thrilled if mummy and daddy earn the occasional apple as well.

It is important to choose your picture carefully. If you have a large family including older children then fifteen or even twenty apples might be a realistic goal, while one toddler will find five is more than enough. If you know what your reward will be you can even theme your picture to match. Vary the tasks as well, so that each child is asked to do things appropriate to their age and abilities.

The reward

With a traditional star chart suggested treats are often sweets or small toys. When the whole family are working together I suggest you plan a much bigger reward, something that won't just become another bit of clutter at the bottom of the toy box. Since everyone has put in a lot of effort, why not enjoy a fun day out? After a wonderful trip to the zoo, beach or cinema most children will be clamouring to start a new reward chart and earn another fabulous prize!

Some more ideas for pictures

Frogs in a pond
Flowers in the garden
Sandcastles, buckets and spades
People in the windows of a bus or train
Diggers on a worksite