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The Trouble With Sticker Charts

Updated: Dec 18, 2018

Jennifer and Dawn watched with distress as their 6 yr old son came home from school in an apparently good mood, looked at his behavior chart - a thermometer with the mercury rising toward a reward, based on whether he got a good color at school - and threw a major fit, like he did too often lately, before they even had a chance to talk to him.

These moms were at a loss. My advice was, “Take that thermometer down immediately!” At our next session, they told me that when their son saw it was gone, “You could see the relief!” They also said, “He already seems much happier and is doing better at school.”

Here’s my take on why it was possible for this one action to have such a powerful effect.

Imagine your child’s brain is like smoldering embers. The more stress- sensitive your child is - due to developmental age or personal history - the more easily the embers flare into flames which show up in behavior. Little Jason was a very stress-sensitive and easily dysregulated child with difficult things going on in his young life. Going anywhere with him was an ordeal.

When he felt anxious or overwhelmed at school (i.e. dysregulated), his survival brain, the amygdala, was hijacked into a state of fight or flight. In that state, he couldn’t access to his whole brain, in order to self-regulate and behave.

You can’t consequence anxiety out of a child. The inability to get his stars or colors or mercury rising will make him more and more anxious and make him feel worse and worse about himself. It might as well be called a shame chart. It wasn’t that Jason wouldn’t behave, it was that he couldn’t.

To address this boy’s behavior challenges, we had to go outside the popular box of rewards and consequences. He didn’t have the resilience for a reward system to work. Such an approach assumes that your child is able to be rational and think about their behavior enough to connect it to a future reward. This requires a high level of executive functioning, which has nothing to do with intelligence, but everything to do with resilience and self-regulation skills. It also assumes they have the developmental skills and the emotional intelligence to control their behavior when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. As I said, it comes down to the difference between won’t and can’t.

For this child, a reward system wasn’t only ineffective, it made things worse!

Over the next year and a half, Jennifer and Dawn learned how to use their relationship with their son to help him build resilience and develop better self-regulation skills. His behavior improved significantly and they finally became able to enjoy going out, as a family, and doing fun things together. They sent me this wonderful picture he drew of his family at the zoo.

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