Why sticker charts don't work for behaviour

8 March 2017

Dear friend,

Warning this post may be slightly ranty but I am going to say it loud and clear. In my opinion sticker charts do not work! I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I can honestly say I have not had one occasion where behaviour was improved in the long term by using a sticker chart. So why are we still using them? Why are parents and teachers advised to give kids a sticker chart to help improve their behaviour?

Don't get me wrong I love stickers. I have a drawer full of them at home and school. I regularly give them out. The trouble is when I give one out, I want to give one to everyone (and very often do) as I see a sticker as a reward for trying your best not for who is best.  I've also used them during potty training and they worked fabulously with my sticker obsessed not yet verbal, autistic toddler.  I am not anti stickers as you can see...

But I wrote about my discomfort over sticker usage when I first started this blog (you can read it here) and my feelings haven't changed.

What is this system rewarding? 

Why sticker charts don't work for behaviour...
  • I am in the business of teaching and learning. I want my pupils to learn. If stickers are given as a reward for finishing work we produce finishers who are more interested in the reward than in the learning. 
  • They do not change the behaviour. If you can't sit still/concentrate/organise yourself then you can't. It is unfair to expect a child with a specific behavioural problem to magically change because they have been offered a sticker!
  • Based on failure - these charts are based on the assumption that the child is failing. You can not finish your work on time so you've been given a sticker chart.
  • It is singling kids out. Is it any wonder that the child who always finishes on time and concentrates every day questions why s/he doesn't have a reward too.
Why haven't I got a sticker chart miss? 
  • It can cause some kids to stress or worry. 
I didn't get a sticker today mum because I couldn't sit still when we were reading. (Read my previous post.)
  • Using bribery is not teaching right from wrong and relies on children being compliant it will have short term gains but improvements will not last long.
Several Psychologists, such as Warneken and Tomasello have studied the effects of rewarding children for a desired behaviour and concluded that a child’s motivation to repeat a task is actually lowered if they have received a reward for the task initially. Meaning that if you constantly reward your child for something now you are effectively reducing the chance for them to repeat that behaviour again unless they are coerced with more rewards.  (Gentle Parenting)
  • Success should be its own reward - intrinsic motivation. Some activities provide their own inherent reward or enjoyment. As parents and teachers we need to foster the initial intrinsic motivation and then work to help them see the natural rewards that exist.
Children do need consequences for negative behaviour, and we should reward positive behaviour. But I don't believe stickers are the way to do this. The basis of reward charts stems from early behaviourist theory, the same theory that told us holding children too much will spoil them or that you need to ‘condition’ your child to not cry at night by not responding.

If a child is struggling, we should try to understand why and work with them on it. First we need to  make changes to our behaviour to help children succeed. As teachers we should be ensuring that tasks are high interest and that the intrinsic value/reward is evident. We should be sharing our learning goals and our expectations with the children and giving them ownership of their learning. Not bribing them with a piece of sticky paper.

You know where to stick that sticker chart!

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