Beyond the Sticker Chart: Behavior Plan Pointers by Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.

By January 14, 2014Blog

While behavior charts appear straightforward at face value, it is important to have a broader plan for how this tool will be implemented. I will provide pointers for creating such a plan, but first some background:

Behavior charts are a tool used in reward systems. When using a sticker chart the sticker itself may serve as a reward or it may serve as a token in what is known as a token economy. In a token economy, tokens are earned for positive behaviors and these tokens are then exchanged for rewards. Other common tokens include game chips, coins, and marbles. The intervention is driven by the child's motivation for tangible rewards, such as snacks or prizes, or a special privilege. It is important to provide praise in addition to tangible rewards or privileges.

The purpose of the intervention is to increase the frequency of a positive behavior by associating this behavior with the consequent reward. For example, if Johnny earns extra play time after cleaning his room, and he finds extra play time very rewarding, then this reinforcement will lead to an increase in Johnny s efforts to pick up after himself.

The key factor is motivation. Therefore, a behavior plan requires more than solely going through the motions of completing the chart. It requires selling this plan to your child so that she is engaged and invested in it. Here are some pointers to help make that happen:

1. Consider Environmental Factors
As part of a behavioral assessment (known as a Functional Behavior Assessment), professionals will often perform a functional analysis in order to uncover the reason(s) why a child is engaging in a specific behavior. These analyses have revealed the importance of identifying specific triggers as well as the impact that others reactions to the behavior have on the likelihood that the behavior will worsen or happen again in the future. Once these variables are considered, they can be controlled or altered.

2. Address Skills Deficits and Sensory Concerns
Behavior plans help increase motivation to engage in positive behaviors. However, if your child is genuinely lacking a skill, then motivation alone may not lead to success.

For example, if your child is resistant to completing his homework, investigate whether he needs extra tutoring or other educational services. Organizational difficulties may also be contributing to the problem. If the issue is the result of both a skills deficit and a lack of motivation, modify the task appropriately, and provide rewards for completion of smaller chunks of work. Also, practice sessions, as described below, may be a good approach to addressing certain skills deficits (i.e. preparing a snack or cleaning the bedroom).

Communication deficits are often at the core of behavioral difficulties. Visuals, verbal reminders to use words appropriately to express needs, wants, and emotions, and role-play can help with these issues.

In addition, addressing sensory concerns may help a plan run more smoothly. For example, providing earplugs to a child who is sensitive to noise, cutting off tags on clothing, and attaching Velcro to a desk for sensory input may help set a child up for success.

3. Choose Only a Few Behaviors to Focus on at a Time
Even if there are 10-20 behaviors you wish you could change, you are setting yourself up for frustration if the scope of the plan is too broad. Instead, choose 2-3 behaviors that are the most important and re-word negative behaviors as their positive counterparts. For example, if hitting is a problem, then keep my hands to myself can be one of the behavioral goals. Also it can be helpful to have one of the goals be a positive behavior that the child has already pretty much mastered.

4. Other Ways to Start off Small
It is also important to begin with a low token requirement, and then gradually increase the number of tokens needed for a reward. When you increase demands, you can explain this in a positive way to your child, such as saying You are doing so great with this that we are ready to take it to the next level!

Another suggestion is to begin with practice sessions. Let's say your child is earning stickers for coming to the dinner table the first time he is called, as he tends to be too engrossed in his videogames to respond. During an otherwise unstructured, less rushed time of the day, have him rehearse the sequence of pausing a game, reminding himself I can come back to this later, and walking to the dining room. Reward him with a token for each practice session. These practice sessions can be phased out over time.

5. Frame it Positively
The importance of how a behavior plan is framed to a child cannot be emphasized enough. If a child believes that the plan is a punishment, then she is not going to like it! The mere mention of it will trigger negative emotions. Instead, frame the plan as a game or special project for improving skills the child already has. For example, even if she often hits, there are most definitely times when she keeps her hands to herself! Frame the plan as a way to reward her for times when she is able to show self-control.

6. Consider Varying your Token System
While some children find stickers highly appealing, others may prefer different kinds of token systems, such as filling a small container with coins, attaching poker chips to a line of Velcro, or even printing out multiple copies of your child's favorite cartoon character and placing the characters across a Velcro road from start to finish. Ask for your child's feedback when selecting tokens.

7. Consider Rollover Tokens
By this, I mean have a system in place in which a small reward is earned for every X number of tokens accrued and tokens can roll over to the next day or part of the day. That way, for example, if by the end of the morning, your child has earned only half of the required tokens for a prize, the tokens can be rolled over to the afternoon or even the next day if necessary. This minimizes frustration and prevents resentment of the plan.

8. Involve Your Child in Discussing the Reward System
Behavior charts sometimes do not work because the rewards are not sufficiently motivating. Even though you know your child's preferences, it is still important to have her rank order a few options. For example, perhaps she has grown bored of a computer game she once seemed to never get enough of, or a special treat you are offering her is already being offered to her at school.

9. Make Rewards Reasonable
There are several reasons why rewards should be small and inexpensive. The most important reason is keeping the wheels of motivation spinning. If your child earns an ipad after one week s worth of positive behavior, it is going to be difficult to continue providing equivalent prizes. Although a large prize can be an excellent long term reward, there should be smaller rewards along the way to keep the momentum going. Satiation is another issue to consider. If your child earns a bag of cookies in 15 minutes, then her motivation for cookies may decrease considerably. Instead, try one cookie (or small reward, like a few minutes of computer time) at a time so that satiation does not occur prematurely.

10. Finally, but Most Importantly: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency!
If a plan is not working and you are sure that the rewards are sufficiently rewarding, the likely culprit is lack of consistency. This crucial aspect of a behavior plan is ironically often the most challenging piece. Please know, though, that perfection is not expected of anyone (adult or child), so don't throw away a plan because you do not believe it will be followed perfectly at all times or if it is takes time to get used to.

If you believe that you do not have the time and/or energy to commit to a plan at this time, it might not be a bad idea to hold off for a bit. However, the caveat to holding off is that you risk negative behaviors growing worse with time, which means it may be more difficult to address these behaviors later on. Sharing your concerns with a clinical or school psychologist will help you obtain guidance on making a plan that is more manageable given your current life situation.

Jennifer (Rodman) Keluskar, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist whose areas of specialization include Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities, behavior management, and anxiety disorders. She can be contacted at jennifer@brooklynletters.com or (347) 974-1106.

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Craig Selinger

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