Duncan Elliot is a life coach working out of Basingstoke in England. He particularly works with people who feel that there must be more to life and are willing to work at it, so that they can feel happier and more in control of their life. He offers life coaching in person, on the phone or via audio or video across the Internet. Click here to contact him.

Sticker charts

Force Four Life Coaching

Catch the wind in your sails!

The recommended child discipline techniques change and develop over the years. Trends come and trends go. Different cultures address the issue very differently. In my culture, one of the most prevalent techniques that is recommended at the moment is the sticker chart. You choose a behaviour that you want the child to exhibit, or actions that you want them to take and then they get a sticker or two when they've done what you want. Often that's then linked to a reward: if you get 10 stickers, your parents or teacher will give you a comic, bag of sweets or a gold star!

As with any theory of childcare there are devotees who insist that this approach must work for all children in all situations. Child won’t brush their teeth? Sticker chart. Child won’t go to school because of persistent bullying? Sticker chart. Child won’t eat Brussels sprouts? Sicker chart. If it doesn’t work, there must be something wrong with the way that you’re applying it.

My experience is that sticker charts work for some children in some situations, but that it depends very much on the child. With children who've experience trauma its effectiveness is far from certain.

The first problem is motivation. For some children, a sticker is motivation enough. It’s a symbol of love and approval and so they will work for the sake of the sticker itself. For traumatised kids, particularly those with attachment difficulties, this is unlikely to be enough: they're not going to be able to receive a sticker, translate it as love and internalise it. To them, it's just a sticker. Some even express it: “And what am I supposed to do with that?” they say, contemptuously.

For them – and the same can be true of other children – there has to be a tangible reward at the end: the comic or the bag of sweets: they're unlikely to covet the gold star, unfortunately.

That’s fine if you can find something that the child wants, but traumatised children's motivation doesn't always follow the norms that you'd expect. It can be incredibly hard to think of anything that they want enough and in the right way and at the right price. A comic or a bag of sweets may well not have enough attraction for them: they're thinking mobile phone or BMX bike. The sorts of rewards that are meaningful to them could be, in the parents' currency, worth many hundreds or thousands of stickers. Few parents would feel that they could be shelling out for a phone or a bike each week!

The issue here is that the reward that you're prepared to give isn't, to them, worth what they have to give up or change. Jerome K. Jerome sums this problem up neatly in Three Men in a Boat:

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who “have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.” Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Another issue is that the child needs quite mature thought processes to link what they're doing now to a sticker and then to link the sticker to the concept of a reward some time in the dim and hazy future. If your child can’t do that then sticker charts just aren’t going to work. Many traumatised children simply can’t make that connection. Their inappropriate early experiences means that their reasoning ability has not developed as you’d normally expect and so this sort of cause and effect thinking is completely foreign to them.

Even if they do make the link, often they are working at a level well below their chronological age. A toddler can't hold a thought over a week! The idea of an action now giving them a reward in a few days time doesn't compute with them. And when you do give them the reward, if it isn't done straight away, they've totally forgotten doing what it was that triggered the reward. For toddlers, the rewards have to be pretty much immediate, and it's the same for many traumatised kids, because they're operating at a similar age level.

You also have to consider why the child is doing the behaviour that you wish to modify. If it’s something that’s impulsive, again, sticker charts are likely to be pretty ineffective. The child gets the urge to hit their sister. They hit her. If there is no thought process in between the urge and the action there’s no opportunity for the sticker chart to work its magic. For many traumatised children, their inadequate early parenting has meant that they haven't learnt to control their impulses, and so the sticker chart isn't going to work.

And finally sticker charts rely on the child being cooperative. Normally it’s enough that you’ve found the right reward and the right time scale. With many traumatised children, though, that’s not enough. They see sticker charts as a way to manipulate and control them. As they’re the ones, they feel, who should be doing the manipulation and control, they’re not too keen. And that's an understatement! They often feel incredibly strongly that they can only be safe when they are in control. With sticker charts they sense a trap and so they resist.

Or they co-operate on their own terms. You get a sticker in school for doing a maths worksheet. OK, so they will only do a maths worksheet if they want a sticker that day. They may well scribble some random answers on the grounds that you’ve said they get the sticker if they complete it. You didn’t say that they had to get it all right. So they've done what you said and now they’ve got time on their hands, but they’re not going to do any more unless they get another sticker. The sticker, in this case, isn't going to change their behaviour at all and has instead become a bit of a battleground.

You may even find that the child has amazingly and subtly changed the sticker chart to become a behavioural modification tool for use on you! If you, as the parent or teacher, do the right thing then they'll cooperate so that you get the pleasure of giving them a sticker and so you're rewarded. Hence your behaviour is reinforced, via the sticker chart, for doing what they want!

Now don't get me wrong: sticker charts can have their uses. With the right kids in the right situation, they can work really well. But with traumatised kids, they may not be a suitable and effective option.

One way of using sticker charts that I personally found really good was with me. If I was a good dad, I got a sticker. When I filled a chart, it was worth £10. When I’d collected enough, I bought a guitar amplifier. I was able to see the long-term result; I could hold that in mind over a long period (in my case, over a year); I have the control to put the thought between the impulse and the action; and I was doing it for myself: I wasn't being manipulated by anyone else. I was the sort of person for whom it works. It certainly made me modify my behaviour on a number of occasions, and that DID benefit my kids!

Contact me if you want to work through the implications of this, come up with your own ideas based on your particular situation, or to give me your own ideas and comments.