There are four main steps. First, define the “target behavior(s)”, i.e., what is it that you want to change. Discuss this with the child. This is not a guessing game. The child needs to be included throughout the process. Let’s select the issue of an oppositional child who seems to say no to every request, resulting in excessive conflict. Discuss with the child your belief that there is too much fighting and yelling going on and ask for his perception of the problem. Sometimes children will agree and want the relationship to improve. Others will either deny there’s a problem or blame it on your being unfair. Explain to the child that you think one of the reasons for the struggle is that his initial response to virtually every request is to say “No.” Since he will probably disagree with you, this leads directly to the data-gathering stage.
Step Two is creating a “baseline” or frequency chart of the behavior. Write a behavioral description of the specific behavior that is to be changed in a way that is clear to the child and place it at the top of the chart. List the days of the week, and tell the child that for the next week or two you will simply put a slash mark on the chart each time the behavior occurs. Sometimes Step Two produces surprise results. Parents may learn that the behavior doesn’t occur as often as they thought. Sometimes time patterns give clues about causes. Just being able to identify the behavior to the child and marking it on the chart often gives parents a sense of having a way to respond to the behavior and replaces some of the feelings of powerlessness that have often crept into the situation. Meanwhile, as the child sees in black and white how often he actually is doing this, sometimes there is a spontaneous reduction in the behavior. For this discussion, let’s say that the child is averaging 11 no’s a day.
Step Three involves creating a new chart, often with a statement (or drawing) of the desired behavior (so the child knows what to do “instead of”) and, most importantly a specific goal for reducing the frequency of the unacceptable behavior, the achievement of which earns a reward. This is a critical and evolving process. Start with a very small reduction in frequency (e.g., dropping to 8 no’s/day) because you want to virtually guarantee success. This hooks the child into the program. Each time the child achieves daily success for a period of a week (usually defined as achieving the goal 5 or 6 days in the week – you must not push for perfection), then increase the goal by a reasonable margin, e.g., 5 no’s/day. Keep in mind that you want to set goals that you believe the child can achieve including the ultimate goal. In other words, zero no’s is not reasonable since it would not be a normal child behavior to always agree (nor for adults either). In this case you are seeking to reduce the negativity to a level that is acceptable and allows for a more positive relationship.
For complex sequences, such as the child getting ready for school in the morning or getting ready for bed at night, you will typically skip the baseline chart. Instead create a large chart, with the child, that breaks the process into smaller steps, designated by drawings or cutouts from magazines, often with time goals set in large block letters alongside each step. During the morning sequence, for example, the parent makes constant reference to the chart, asking where the child is in the sequence, reducing the element of the parent-child struggle, and turning it into a “follow the chart” game. A second chart collects stickers for successful completion of the individual steps and/or total process.
The final step is choosing the reward. This is where creativity is called for and where much of the misunderstanding about this system occurs. Asking the child what he is willing to work for is often effective, although you may initially need to reject a few outlandish requests. You do not need to buy lots of toys as rewards. In fact I rarely use that approach. Extra parental attention is one of the most powerful reinforcers, especially for younger children. Sometimes daily stickers are sufficient to hold a child until he can turn in the chart for lunch alone with a parent on Saturday. Remember, the younger the child, the more immediate but also the less elaborate the reward. If a child has something he likes to collect (small, inexpensive items) these can be very effective. One of the more creative rewards is sometimes the very thing that is the focus of the chart, e.g., getting extra TV time or staying up later or not having to do a chore for a day or weekend. Another of my favorite suggestions is buying a toy or game that is kept away and the child earns minutes to play with it. This is often very effective.
Some parents claim that their child, who is behaving in unacceptable ways, doesn’t care about anything and nothing has been an effective reward. However, the child is usually involved in some activity that is important to him/her. But when a child is struggling, parents will often defend the need to keep the child in “the one thing he’s doing right.” Sometimes, the parents are also very invested in the activity. However, parents need to explain that these special activities are a privilege for the child to participate in and will be continued only if earned through more cooperative and acceptable behavior. Too often parents are complaining about their child’s extremely unacceptable behavior yet are still running around, turning their lives upside down to make sure the child gets to participate in all of his/her activities. Talk about mixed messages. Next time your child acts up, consider not taking him to his soccer game or Cub Scout meeting. Instead use these activities as rewards for specific improvements in behavior.
Children typically will stay with a reward program for only a short period of time. If it’s not working or stops working, it usually means the reward needs to be adjusted to maintain a sense of novelty that holds the child’s interest. Most important, I find that within a few weeks, most children have made the desired change and continue the improved behavior without any further charting because either they have simply gotten “unstuck” or are happy with the naturally occurring praise and more positive responses from their parents.