10+1 steps to make reward charts work

Do reward charts work for your kid?

They didn't work for us for a long time. I'll tell you why, and how we fixed it.

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Reward charts are incentives for nudging the direction of a certain behaviour. We all work better if there's a prize at the end. We work for our salaries, we workout for feeling better and being stronger, and if we stick to our own goals, we treat ourselves for the achievement. At least that's how I do it. But we as adults can comprehend the concept of future, and we know without doubt, that the reward will be there waiting for us if we're consistent enough. Children are more spontaneous creatures, and their sense of time doesn't go further than right now until the age of two, and even after that they only slowly develop their knowledge about tomorrows and next weeks. This is an important thing when we want to work with reward charts. When we first tried it, Aron was about three, and he was angry when he didn't get the star when he didn't complete his task. He couldn't connect behaviour and reward, and he was living in the moment. On top of that we weren't consistent enough. Our reward would have been the behaviour change, but since it didn't seem to come this way, ever, we gave up the whole thing almost immediately. So the cute house fairy cards I drew for him ended up in the rubbish. And our struggle began.

What I didn't see at that time was the fact that he simply wasn't mature enough for the sophisticated concept I created for him, even though he was already amazingly bright and seemed capable of understanding. I was also convinced that consistency wasn't that important. Oh how wrong I was! Kids on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum tend to be little geniuses, and it's easy to think that they understand more of the world than they really do. Especially when you have no idea yet, that your child is on the spectrum. We're just proud parents, who think their kid will definitely be the next Einstein. And there's no problem with that. We just have to understand a few basic things first to help them achieve their best.

How to start?

Start by setting up a regular schedule for your child. It doesn't have to be complicated. Do pizza night every Friday for example, and be consistent with it. Seriously. It can be your gluten and dairy free version, or you can switch pizza with anything. The key here is consistency. One day a week, on the same day, every week, for at least two months. Your child will start to have a sense of how a week feels like. Try to do it with something that you haven't done before, so it stands out from your weekly routine.

Put up a monthly calendar on the wall/fridge/whiteboard, mark the special days distinctively, and let your kid cross the day that has passed every night before bedtime. This way they develop multiple things at the same time: a sense of how days are passing by, what one week means and how to be consistent. It took a lot of time for me to fully understand that boundaries and consistent rules for a child are the most important things, especially for children on the autistic spectrum. If we offer too many options, too broad space (I mean mental space here) to wiggle, they won't feel safe. They need our guidance. More than we think they do. I will tell you a story about it at the end.

How to not stop?

For me, this is the hardest part. My self-discipline is excellent. In regards of many things. But when it comes to raising a kid, my patience evaporates and I give up too quickly. So I had to fix (or at least improve) that first. I don't have a bulletproof method that works for everyone, and maybe you're already a star in it. But here's what helps me:

Results

It's a catch 22, but when you see results of consistency, you more likely continue what you're doing. So pay close attention to your child, and try to notice the smallest difference. Celebrate it, and keep going.

Imagination

Paint a vivid picture in your mind about what it would be like to succeed with the ongoing project. Believe me, change will come, but you need to be patient.

Love

I talk about it a lot even though everyone thinks it's the obvious one. Yes, of course we love our kids, no question. But when it comes to pushing our buttons (which they are champions in), our kids can drive us crazy, and amidst those wacky moments we tend to forget that maybe (just maybe) letting it all go, and hugging them would work much better than shouting their heads off. I have to remind myself all the time. Especially when I'm tired. But I feel like I'm getting better and better at it, and it helps a lot. It helps to notice those small changes, I was talking about before. It helps becoming patient, and patience is also a key factor.

How to do this?

Our first reward chart four years ago consisted of a piece of paper with a table on it, drawn by me. It listed at least six things that needed to be done, and the reward was a little star in the correct cell. It was planned for a week, and if enough stars were collected, Aron would get a special card from the house fairy, a creature I invented so I could blame her. It was lame on so many levels. I tell you why, but I'm sure you know by now.

So this is the "how NOT to do this” list:

  • Out of nowhere: no consistent schedule preceded this action. Aron didn't have a clue about consistent schedules or sufficient sense of time.

  • It was way too much to ask for (and it wasn't clear enough). Six tasks for a whole week, every day. Holy shirt. What was I thinking? (And I remember including one: tantrum free DAY. For a three-year-old. I hope he'll forgive me one day).

  • I didn't think of it, but when he started to get the cards, he started to ask questions about this house fairy person. How did she get in? Is she nice? Why would someone sneak in while we aren't home? Why can't he meet her? I told you he was bright. And paranoid. That's why we had to tell him the truth about Santa only a year after this.

I gave up very quickly. I had a few other attempts after that, but they were all very similar, so they failed just like the first one. I didn't sit down to learn from my mistakes, and I was way too frustrated that they didn't work. Probably I should have read up on it before I started to implement it, don't even know why I didn't.

and here are the most important steps:

  • Start with creating one new and fun but consistent routine (e.g. pizza night every Friday), and do that for at least two months. 

  • Use a monthly calendar, mark the special days distinctively and let your child cross the days as they pass (try to do it in the same time every day)

  • Celebrate small wins (when he/she remembers to cross the day; when he/she seems to get the idea of what a week means; etc.) and give them positive feedback often.

  • Create a chart with 1 or 2 tasks per month, or even bi-monthly. Some tasks may even take several months to master. Be patient and let go of everything else. Multitasking is the enemy of productivity.

  • Be precise and clear. The tasks should be simple and your kid should understand them. (e.g. "Wash your hands after you go to the toilet". "Put your clothes to the laundry basket every night"). 

  • Give small rewards every day (a star, a sticker, a heart, whatever your child is interested in), and give one bigger reward every week if at least four smaller ones were collected throughout the week.

  • Set up a "main prize" they can get if they collect the bigger rewards every week for a month. (This will only work with older kids, because younger ones don't get the idea of a month. With them just throw a little celebration after a month, and tell them they did an amazing job). This doesn't have to be an object, I recommend experiences, that you do together with the kids. I will write about ideas in another post, but I'm sure you know a few right away.

  • Make it fun. You know what's fun for your kid, try to incorporate it in the process somehow.

  • Do it with them. I'm not kidding. Make a reward chart for yourself, and tell them about it. They'll love the idea.

  • Remember why you're doing this. Imagine how fun/easy/good it's going to be when you master a task. 

  • LOVE your kid and be patient.

here's a cheat sheet you can print out to stay on track:

And remember: you can do this.

You have to put some work in it, because every valuable thing requires work, but when you'll see the results, you'll be over-the-moon happy. Promise! Do you know how I know? Because just a couple of weeks ago we had a break through moment thanks to our consistency (which by the way is not something we are able to do with everything, but focusing on one thing at a time helps a lot).

A few months ago we decided that our kids will only have screen time twice a week, and that it'll be twenty minutes per day. We discussed it with them, and started. They were never getting too much before either, but we felt like it was too much for them anyway. Of course they didn't like it, and of course it was a struggle in the beginning. But after a few weeks they started to get used to it, and even though they were asking if it was screen day every single day, they didn't throw a tantrum anymore when it wasn't. It became a habit, and it worked well. Then two weeks ago we were going to IKEA on a Friday afternoon after school (it turned out to be a bad decision, so don't try to do it unless you're in zen mode). Peter was driving and the kids were talking to each other in the back. Hanna told Aron that she was going to go to the play area (Smaland), and asked him to go with her. Aron said it was OK, if Hanna didn't watch TV inside. Then Hanna said: "I won't, it's not screen day". BAMMM. I could hug her and do a happy dance, but instead I just glanced at Peter in awe, and we mentally high-fived. That was such a great feeling, I can't tell. Just to make it clear: Hanna is four. This was a clear sign that consistency pays off. And the good thing is, that it's true in every segment of life. (Unfortunately it works with negative things too, even better, but let's stay on the positive side now). So we've got this!

Please note that I'm not an expert. These are only based on my own experiences, and I share them because I'd have been happy to read something like this when I started to plan reward charts four years ago. I understand if these tips don't work for you for some reason, and I'm happy if they do. Either way, let me know how you do it!

Have a nice rest of the week!