How to use a star chart to encourage good behavior

Michelle at Scribbit describes how her family uses the ever-popular Star Chart. I love how the rewards take into account each child's particular interests and values.

In an effort to reward our children's good behavior but not promote materialism and multiply the already overwhelming pile of useless toys my children accumulate I came up an alternative reward system I call "Star Charts."

I print out a table for each child, about five or six columns across and a dozen rows down, on the computer with places for the kids to place star stickers in each empty box. Each time I catch the child doing something good without being asked or doing something they dislike without complaint they get one or two stars, filling in the boxes. In the far right column I write the reward that each gets for completing three or four rows of stars.

So far, nothing remarkable but instead of giving physical rewards like candy, toys, etc. for filling in their stars I give less tangible rewards that have come to be much more popular–and it varies according to what each child likes.

Examples include: ordering your favorite meal for dinner, getting to stay up an extra hour, going on a bike ride to a destination of your choice, going on a picnic, etc. The final "prize" for filling in the entire chart is a date night with just Mom and Dad. Dinner, a movie, Discovery Zone, a bookstore trip, rollerblading at the park, ice cream and a hike, whatever they want.

The one-on-one time has been invaluable and the kids enjoy the power of choosing their own date. It's proved to be excellent incentive for good behavior.

Toilet training rewards that don't involve candy
Reusable reward systems


  1. yix says

    As a mother of an 18 month old, I’ve been reading about charts and rewards with more of a theoretical/research/for the future interest. This is the first one, however, that I just LOVE. I love that you are rewarding good behavior without making it a set of specific tasks. And your rewards are wonderful.

  2. Sherry says

    I did this with my son when he was four. He was acting out at school and was getting notes sent home. I drew up a chart on a dry erase board and for every day he didn’t get a note, he got to draw a star on the chart. On the days he did get a note sent home, I erased a star. I only had to erase a star *one* time. When he watched me erase that star, he realized I meant business. No more notes from school the rest of the year!

  3. Alexi says

    Shame. You just delete comments that challenge your worldview. Excellent example to the young’uns.

  4. Alexi says

    In light of your recent correspondance, allow me to be… constructive.

    In short, children should not be rewarded for doing the right thing. The corollary also applies; love and affection should not be withheld when the kid does wrong.

    And yet, that’s sort of what you’re implying if you reward the kid with a picnic or bike ride.

    See, these things should be done regardless. Not as a reward for doing things or behaving the way they ought to in the first place.

    A date with mom and dad? Sheesh. A thousand sugar calories are better than this saccharine.

    What to do instead? Learn to say no. To be firm while maintaining your cool. To not equate your love with the things the kid does.

    When you reward them like this, it makes my life as a teacher a little harder.

    There, constructive enough?

  5. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Alexi: As I wrote to you personally, I don’t delete comments that challenge my world view. Disagreement is welcome on Parent Hacks — parenting is important enough to warrant strong opinions. If we all agreed there’d be no point to a site like this.

    What I won’t tolerate is insulting or mean-spirited behavior. It contributes nothing to the conversation — all it does is drag it down. And, so, as I said in my email to you, I welcome you to repost your comment in a more constructive way, which I see you did at 9:53pm. Now at least people can respond to your point — in your previous comment (the one I deleted), all people could respond to was your inflammatory tone.

  6. Peter S says

    Actually, we started doing this with our 4 year old. Sometimes it works better than others and we don’t completely cut out the fun stuff or reserve it for when she’s been extra good. We treat anything she earns here as an extra treat. She can cash in her rewards for calling a friend or taking a picture or other things we’d let her do anyway, but it’s positive reinforcement for her doing the sort of things she should be doing anyway.

    One of her rewards is a couple of minutes playing a computer game. I may let her do that without needing to turn in a reward card or I might indicate that she would need to behave better to earn that right.

    To Alexi: I think you’re missing some of the point behind this. It works well as a way to encourage good behaviour when normal disciplinary measures may not. It’s hard to be right on the threshold of a great reward and then misbehave and receive your discipline while watching those points disappear. It’s also really easy to stack the deck of rewards to make it very easy for them to attain those levels. A fellow parent of mine described it like this:
    The kids should be reaching a certain level every day (call it level 3). Rewards associated with that level are the typical things you’d be doing with them anyway. Below that is usually because they’ve had an off day and the more fun aspects are lost. Above that means that they’ve had an excellent day and there should be positive consequences.

    I don’t remember anywhere in the post indicating that we should withhold love or affection or stop doing things with the kids. My daughter would love a “date with dad” night. She’s still striving for a sleepover night with a friend (which will happen regardless at a certain point, but she can trade that in for another time). You do what works for your kids. This seems to be working for mine as long as we remember to keep up with the chart. That’s probably the hardest part – removing stars for poor behavior and adding them for the good behavior.

    Incidentally, I first heard of this because a teacher did it with her students, using those silly junk-type toys (Happy Meal or perhaps Oriental Trading type stuff) as rewards. The kids love it and are actually striving to do their reading or that little extra to get the rewards.


  7. acm says

    actually, there’s scientific data to back up Alexi’s resistance to this hack — when children are “rewarded” for things they might have felt good about anyway, they attribute more of the good feeling to the reward and less to the thing they did, thus learning exactly the wrong message. (specifically, kids given a cookie as a “reward” for playing with some toys reported them as less fun than did other children who just played.)

    I suspect that paying children for good grades (seemingly common with older children) is counterproductive in a similar way, although to different degrees.

    just a tip from the land of science.

  8. Parent Hacks Editor says

    acm: I really appreciate Alexi’s and your point. There’s something wrong with rewarding kids for things they should be doing anyway. But where that line falls is different for every kid. I find myself grappling with this right now — one of my kids has a hard time phrasing things in such a way as to not sound surly or even disrespectful, when really, he’s just being literal to a fault. My other kid was born with a therapist’s empathy and a diplomat’s tact, and she’s not even four years old. My expectations have to take their individual natures into account, but I also have to be careful to maintain a fair and consistent line. Tricky, and one-size-fits-all won’t work in this case.

    I’d love to hear what other people have to say on this topic.

  9. Suzanne says

    For what it’s worth, there’s an excellent article on this very topic in the most recent Wondertime magazine. Titled “Rewards or Bribes?” or something like that (sorry, I have the mag at home and I’m at work right now), and brings up several arguments for and against. Worth a read.

  10. Matt Grommes says

    On the other hand, intermittent positive reinforcement has been shown to be the best way of instilling behaviors in both animals and people. The key is the intermittent reinforcement, that is not giving the child a treat every time they do a certain thing, just randomly when they do it. Then you’re reinforcing the behavior without getting them to do it just for treats.

    I personally try not to use food as a treat ever. As someone with food addiction issues, I’ve read enough studies that show kids who are given candy or ice cream as rewards for good behavior tend to use those treats to make themselves feel good, leading to potential problems down the line.

  11. Heather says

    Wow, all so much banter over a rewards chart. We started a rewards chart after our son transitioned to a toddler bed and we were having a horrible time getting him to sleep. Now, he gets a stamp when he doesnt get our of bed…80% of the time. 5 stamps equals a toy he wants. Ive started to think about adding to the rewards list…shame, i even thought about McDonalds!

    Now, I have also started giving him a stamp if he tries new food.

    I really dont see what the big fuss is! If I can get my kid to try a new food and realize he likes it, Ill do whatever it takes!

    Arent we overanalyzing parenting a tad? And coming down hard on parents who are using tried and true methods?

  12. LisaS says

    Here’s another great article on training family members:

    I’m in complete awe of you people who can actually make a reward chart work. We’ve tried on several occassions, but it always ends in dismal failure because we adults can’t remember to follow through on it.

    We’ve found that it’s best to always tell them know exactly what is expected from them. We try to ignore bad behavior and let natural consequences take their course as much as we can without endangering anyone or being rude to others. And we reward them intermittantly when we catch them behaving well, just like we do with the cats.

  13. kelly says

    I just read the NYMag article and it really makes sense. We won’t be using sticker charts or rewards like this unless the girl comes up with that as a solution to help her achieve a skill of some sort.

  14. Luke Gedeon says

    Even an adult who works without pay does so with the expectation of getting some sort of benefit–for example, education or a feeling of good will. So it seems quite natural for children to expect some kind of benefit as a result of their doing whatever it is you have asked them to do. This does not mean, however, that you have to give them large rewards for little effort on their part.

    An employer will try to hire the best talent available while paying the lowest salary possible. It is a well-known fact that you do not pay an employee what they are worth but only what they think they are worth. It may sound cruel, but you can do the same thing with your children. Only give them as much reward as is required to achieve the desired results. This will ultimately be different for each child.

    So relying too heavily on rewards or over-rewarding is equivalent to bribery, is unnecessary, and can make things quite difficult for other adults who have to deal with the child. But at the same time, it is naive and impractical to expect children to behave the way you want them to, without associating the behavior with results that the child would desire.

  15. Tom says

    Going back to Heather’s comment about how everyone is getting a little carried away with over-analyzing this chart business…I completely agree.

    Whether you use this chart idea or don’t, YOU WILL NOT BE INFLICTING BEHAVIORAL SCARS ON THE CHILDREN. Raising children is an art unto itself; the delicate art of behavior modification. We try to teach them (our version) of right and wrong, how hitting their little brother/sister is mean and not to pee on the kitchen floor when mommy and daddy aren’t looking. Sometimes we accomplish this though stickers, cheeseburgers or special outings or sometimes, time-outs and (gasp) spankings if they get really carried away.

    Parenting forums, books and magazines are ultimately suggestions for a parent who finds themselves at a loss with a certain problem their child is exhibiting; that’s it.

    (Tom steps off his soap box…)

  16. REdOG says

    I don’t think anyone needs a bribe to compete. Nor a prize. Just the understanding and desire to better their self or just to have fun.

  17. Elizabeth says

    I like reward charts when used in moderation. We have used them very infrequently with our 3 kids, but when they are needed to get through a jag (potty training, anyone?) they can really help.

    I want to say, though, that I feel strongly that dates with mom and dad should occur regularly (monthly in our home) whether there is good behavior or not. They are not a reward. They are a constant. They are a way to show love and affection for who the child is, regardless of one pattern of behavior or another. I like all the other examples of rewards, but special time with mom and dad should not — in my view — be tied to behavior. I feel that withholding from one child also perpetuates sibling resentment of one another.

    Special time with mom and dad is just a whole other thing. Leave it out of the rewards system.

  18. mel says

    I appreciate this discussion and think we can all agree that parents generally are motivated by wanting the best for their children.

    Sometimes I get the impression that what parents think is best for their children is the ability to comply with all requests with unquestioning obedience. It does make our lives easier! But, in my opinion, compliance isn’t necessarily the best thing for a child. As I’ve thought about this idea in the last few years, I’ve come to value (and hopefully, nurture in my children) the ability to be internally (rather than externally) motivated, to feel their own pleasure at having accomplished something, to be able to work with other people to find solutions to problems, and respect oher people’s feelings and opinions without being forced to abandon their own. In my experience, relying on rewards to get the behaviour I want out of kids undermines these goals.

    I had also read the New York Magazine article a few days ago [, and highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in looking at some of the research behind these ideas. This interview [ with Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished By Rewards, is also worth looking at.

  19. Sara in Austin says

    So I keep thinking about my own personal adult psychology here. Am I the only one who uses rewards to encourage my own good behavior? (10 jazzercise classes — download 3 new songs on iTunes… 25 clases — a new workout outfit! 100 classes — those vintage cowboy boots I’ve been wanting!!!) I also think about the pleasure of metrics — checking things off a list is positive reinforcement in and of itself. Isn’t a rewards chart about the same thing as having a checklist? There’s pleasure in putting a star on the chart in and of itself that is not necessarily tied to the ultimate reward. (There’s also a pleasure of working towards a “longer term” goal and achieving it, which I think is a fabulous skill to cultivate in children.)

    Should I point out that Ben Franklin kept a rewards chart for behaviors he was trying to accomplish?
    Maybe what we ought to be doing is rewards charts for everyone, adults and kids, who are trying to improve their behavior in any way. For a kid that might mean not yelling at their sister, and for an adult it might mean working on a side project or eating healthily.

  20. hedra says

    My mom rewards herself for doing her taxes early by buying herself some art glass.

    We’ve been considering reward charts, but have been having trouble figuring out what exactly we want to reward, and how.

    We’ve used a few reward ‘programs’ so far – we charted dry nights and after 2 weeks of dry nights they could skip wearing a pullup/’goodnight’ to bed. But that was really a ‘keeping track of’ method, so they could be aware of the progress (they were gradually sleeping more and more nights between waking up wet, and it just helped them pay attention to the process, and helped us figure out what conditions led to wet nights, too). Not really a ‘treat’ type reward (though we did offer a bike for our oldest if he’d just potty train darnit! – and then he potty trained when he was motivated to do so on his own, bike had nothing to do with it… um, oops.) And we rewarded early completion of homework with cash money, but the child in question has on his own decided that all that money will go into his ‘charity’ box. He’s highly money-oriented, investment-minded, and so forth, therefore the money reqards (in increments of a quarter! woot! LOL!). The money is aimed to be ‘below the level of the intrinsic positive internal reaction’ – that is, a quarter doesn’t feel as good as the teacher saying ‘hey, you got your homework in early again, thanks, that makes my life nicer, I can check yours now and have one fewer to do on Thursday night!’

    What I see being debated here is the intrinsice vs. extrinsic rewards. BOTH are valid and important. Balancing them is the trick. If you work at a job that pays well, has great benefits, perks, and vacation time, that’s extrinsic rewards. If you get to feel successful, proud, accomplished, useful, and like you’re contributing and respected, that’s intrinsic rewards. We can live with just the extrinsic, and live empty lives. We can live with just the intrinsic, and struggle to make ends meet. Or we can find a balance of both.

    I’m wanting to teach my kids to balance both. Have enough vacation, spending money, investing money, vacation, and free time. And have a sense of satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment.

    Sticker charts can be used either way. They typically are not used BOTH ways – they’re usually extrinsic – pay or rewards in a concrete external process. Do these hours, get that pay, earn this many hours of vacation. They’re seldom used as pure intrinsic systems, noting just ‘how good I felt’ or ‘when I felt successful/proud/able’… But they can be used as a blend, which is I think what’s happening here – Some of these rewards are part of the intrinsic system (spending time with family, having power to choose preferred options, those are kind of a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic).

    I think I’d be more comfortable if the intrinsic and extrinsic were more separated, though. I want a list of ‘I tried’ and ‘I succeeded at’ along with a checklist of ‘I felt’ and ‘I’m proud of ‘ … and a list of ‘I earned’. Because that’s what life in the real world includes.

    My mom tried to teach me this. She said ‘in work, there are no intrinsic rewards’ – meaning, you can love it, but you’d better get paid for it, and ask for what you’re worth. Enjoyment is not a trade-off for the paycheck. Nor is loyalty. I didn’t get the point, not really. Not until I’d been working in a place where my soul was being sucked out my eyeballs daily, my DH was starting and ending each day by telling me I should just QUIT the job (even though it was our major income source), etc. Took me ages to get to where I was ready to quit. Extrinsic rewards – great. Intrinsic, rotten. Both, in reasonable amounts and balance, more satisfying, now that I’m working somewhere else. I want my kids to learn that. Do I want them to help around the house, do chores, behave well, comply with reasonable requests? YES! Is that really what I’m teaching with a reward chart? NO. MY goal (maybe not everyone’s) is to get them to understand the complex interplay between themselves and others, and how their behavior affects both their material options (the extrinsic stuff) and their internal satisfaction (the intrinsic stuff). And yes, I’d like a bit more help around the house. But that will come more from them grasping the underlying principles than it will from me trying to enforce the steps. The reward chart is then a teaching tool in a much more complex sense.

    Did any of that make sense?

  21. Sara in Austin says

    Hedra — loved the definition of intrinsic vs extrinsic — sometimes just getting the right vocabulary words in place make doing and talking about things so much easier.

  22. Shannon says

    I decided long before I had children, on the tails of Developmental/Behavioral and Abnormal Psych classes that I would never use a star chart or a token system. Then, being in desperate parent mode I admit to having deployed them in a few instances. The pancake breakfast reward for a no fuss bedtime routine worked exactly once. The same is true every time I have deployed tokens or stars, or a delayed reward in exchange for any kind of consistent routine behavior. That is not to say that the “If you are good in the store we can stop for Ice Cream ,” trick doesn’t work. But, it works only as a reminder, and then cannot really be withheld except in the most extreme instances of bad behavior. I think the trick here is to recognize exactly what a child is capable of, and then to match your expectation to that. It is not really reasonable to ask a 4yo to not run in the department store and to NOT hide in the clothes racks. They are designed as 4yo hiding places, they are just the right height, and stores are SOOOO boring!

    The wonderful additional by product of tokens and rewards was also that since it was the kids’ choice to follow the routine or not, they would often agree to “OPT-OUT” as it were, of the reward in order to continue the behavior that they were enjoying, the thing that I did not want them to do.

    So, if you really really want your kids to do something, the key is really not tokens or rewards. You have to get your kids to buy into the idea, i.e. “We go to bed on time so we will not get sick and cranky and we can have fun at school and with our friends, and most importantly, not take a nap tomorrow.”

    The other alternative is, “Because I say so!” (Please note that this is the extreme end of the spectrum but there just are some times when it is important for a child to follow instructions without argument or consensus.) Use the “parent” voice. “DON’T TOUCH THAT CANDLE!” “Mom! You scared me, why did you yell?” “That was not yelling, honey, that was the mom voice.”

  23. Shannon says

    Understanding Intrinsic/Extrinsic is very important. I apologize in advance if this has already been mentioned, because I did not read ALL of the posts in this thread.

    Rewards can produce quick changes in behavior, so they seem to be effective, but they are not lasting changes. Once the reward is removed, the behavior will revert. The motivation for the behavior needs to come from internal motivations. The job of the parent is to guide and shape that internalization.

  24. Jen says

    Despite being followers of Alfie Kohn at home as much as we possibly can, our eldest daughter did go to daycare until she was 4 1/2.

    Now that I am home with both girls full-time (younger sister 14 mo), I am finding with the eldest that without the carrot-and-stick approach she received at daycare, she is largely disinterested in helping– even things she used to enjoy like helping me set the table for a family meal.

    I don’t want to use conditioning on my child by rewarding “good” behavior. I want to deprogram that methodology.

  25. Lisa says

    To Alex, I cannot help but see your point of view on this ..thanks for opening my eyes to your perspective on the whole reward deal

  26. none says

    While reading about star charts, earning ‘points’ and rewards etc., and I had a thought. While tangible rewards or punishments (erasing a star) help kids visualize and understand the impact of their behavior, it seems it is important not to OVER-codify such a system. If the system becomes overly codified, the child may learn (erroniously) that every good action has a reward and every bad action has a punishment, which isn’t how the world works.

    Also, a codified system will have a loophole, and kids will find loopholes. A more fluid, dynamic, attentive program will help avoid these loopholes and adapt to multiple offspring parents.

    Kids (and adults) needs to learn that good behavior has intrinsic value, and that sometimes bad behavior does NOT have consequences, but is still bad.

  27. Sue says

    I have 3 step-children with many behavoirial problems. I have started a system a few months ago that seems to be working well so far. I got three giant cardboard thermometers from the $1 store and they each have one. It is the behavoir temp. Then I created a list of behavoirs with a negative and positive value. Such as brushing teeth, not hitting, not talking back, following instructions. At the end of each day the positive and negatives are added up and that is how much they move on their therm. (If they had a bad day – they go down, or a good day they will go up)

    There are three sections on the thermometer and where they are on there is what privilages they have for that day. 33 and below is no privilages, 34 to 66 is moderated according to what negative behavoir put them there (I.e. arguing over going to bed would result in going to bed early or not eating dinner – no special snacks) and 67 to 99 is full privileges. 100 earns them a ticket. Then we created a reward list for the tickets. such as 4 tickets gets them an ice cream at Friendly’s, 8 a movie rental, 1 ticket gives them an extra 10 minutes of computer time and so on…

    So far it is working pretty well. They are starting to understand that it is easier to keep points than to earn them back and that means doing more positive things than negative. So slowly the negatives are starting to happen less and less. They still have some bad days, but they are children and even adults have their slip ups. :-)

  28. says

    The behaviourist theory, developed by B.F Skinner in the 1940s, suggests that children will respond to praise and so will repeat the behaviour which gives them recognition or praise for what they do. Children who receive praise or attention for positive behaviour are more likely to repeat this behaviour.

  29. says

    Each time I catch the child doing something good without being asked or doing something they dislike without complaint they get one or two stars, filling in the boxes. In the far right column I write the reward that each gets for completing three or four rows of stars.