Pediatric Therapy Corner: Think Beyond Gold Stars: Behavior Charts for Young Children that Really Motivate!

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by Stephanie Brown, Certified School Psychologist

My first year as a school psychologist, I said “yes” to everything! I was eager to prove myself helpful, dependable, and full of solutions to anyone in my school. Often times, teachers would approach me about a student’s behavior issues in the classroom. And no matter my workload, I would scramble to come up with some concrete tool I could place in their hands by the end of the week.

The typical request that came my way was for a “behavior chart” — a sort of go-to signature piece that many school psychologists use to help motivate students to improve challenging behaviors. I’m a fan of behavior charts, especially for use in the school setting where staff and supports are limited in scope. But I’m also careful not to use behavior charts as an end-all intervention. This type of tool is unlikely to get to the root of a problem or change anything for the long-term. But when used in conjunction with other techniques, behavior charts can help:

-Bring focus to a problem
-Track behavior in a systematic way
-Place attention on positive (as opposed) to negative behavior
-Inspire excitement and motivation for students to do well

I quickly found that coming up with behavior charts for preschoolers, particular those with significant delays, was more challenging work than I expected. The children with whom I worked often did not have the developmental maturity to delay gratification or to look forward to future incentives. The promise of some token at the end of the week or even at the end of the day was simply not effective. They needed instantaneous, direct feedback on their behavior RIGHT AWAY.

I started experimenting with ways a behavior chart could be modified and used effectively with children at any developmental level. I needed a a chart that would be motivating enough in itself — like a toy or game. That’s when lightbulbs went on and I started incorporating toys into charts. Here’s an example of a chart I made for a child who loved playing with toy cars.


The young boy had difficulties following instructions from his teacher. He also used a lot of inappropriate language in the classroom when frustrated or upset. We used the chart to motivate the child to work on two skills: 1.) Listing and 2.)Using kind words. Our goal was to “catch his good behavior” and to reward it on the spot. When he had a success in either area, he got to celebrate by moving the toy car corresponding to the target skill one velcro space closer to the finish line. The student looked forward to seeing his cars “race.” Through the chart, work to improve his behavior became a fun game . . . that he was eager to win! The chart also served well as a teaching tool by really making the concept of working towards a goal concrete for him.

Here are some tips and ideas to create this type of chart:

1.) Tailor the theme of the chart to whatever the child loves. Toy boats floating down a stream, My-Little-Pony trotting down a path, a Lego man walking through outer space, toy trains on amtrack  . . . the possibilities are limitless!

2.) Keep the chart in full view, but out of reach. This type of chart can easily become an enticing distraction. You’ll need to find a place for it where the child can see and be motivated by it, while having limited access to it — like mounted high on a wall.

3.) Use lots of visuals and fewer words on the chart. Use magazine cut-outs or clip art to display images of the target skill. For instance, if a child is working on listening skills, post a picture of an ear on the chart. Or a chair for “staying seated”, a mouth for “using kind words”, etc. Post these images directly on the chart as visual reminders of the types of behavior expected.

4.) Simplify the chart to meet the developmental needs of the child. Focusing on more than one skill at once might be overwhelming. The chart depicted above could easily be modified to one skill, one car, and one racetrack.

5.) Make sure the child is the one who gets to move the toy manipulative forward — this a great way to provide immediate feedback and to celebrate successes.

6.) If appropriate for the developmental level of the child, add additional incentive for working on new skills by promising some reward for reaching a longer term goal (maybe over the span of a day, a couple days, a week, etc). “Reaching the finish line” might also mean the opportunity for some extra time with a favorite activity or the chance to pull a prize from a treasure box.


About the Author:   Stefanie Foster Brown is a certified school psychologist who currently resides in Tampa, FL. She hosts Preschoology, a blog for parents and school professionals to find fresh ideas, tips, and tools to help young children learn and grow. She and her computer engineer husband, Eli, have a special interest in exploring the synergy of technology and psychology. They are currently developing a series of educational mobile apps to teach young children new skills. Stefanie and her husband are also the proud parents of a spirited 2-yr-old daughter who is in charge of all the pilot-runs of their ideas. They are excited to welcome their second daughter this fall. Follow Stefanie’s parenting adventures and professional projects at:

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