children's book modeling behavior charts

Have you ever struggled with a child who seemed to ALWAYS react with anger? Like when siblings cannot share toys and then arguing and throwing toys ensues? Or maybe you have a child that tends to get aggressive and pinches or pushes or grabs the toy?  In the moment it can be infuriating for the parent who always has to step in to help a child calm down and manage those strong emotions. Especially when it happens again, and again and again.

When I try to use positive parenting techniques in the clinic, not only do we try to figure out the root cause of the issue, but we also try to coach parents on one thing they can do “in the moment” and one thing they can do to prevent the misbehavior from happening again.

When misbehavior happens over and over again, it can feel quite exhausting and you start thinking, “What the heck is going on? My child should KNOW better! How many times do I have to deal with this?” However, one of the first things you can do to help your pediatrician get to the bottom of it is to keep track of what was happening immediately right before your child misbehaved. By keeping a BEHAVIOR LOG of what set off the misbehavior, this helps us understand possible ways to think about preventing it from happening in the first place (more on that in another blog post later). But in the moment, what you can do?

Let’s Talk Behavior Charts (otherwise known as sticker charts, reward systems) & LOW-COST or NO COST Rewards

Behavior charts
Behavior charts and low cost or no cost rewards

I know, sticker charts can often times mean more work for the parent. But with some involvement with your child to make the chart, talking with your child ahead of starting the system and asking them to think about what they would like to earn for “working on learning how to manage their anger” is a great solution to begin to help your child learn this essential skill.

Remember to acknowledge your own feelings by using your words in a calm but firm tone.

We also talk about how to maintain calm when playing referee between quarreling siblings. You can still express your own frustration with your words, “As a parent, my job is to keep you safe and to help you learn to get along. It frustrates me whenever you and Billy cannot share toys. It is not ok to [insert misbehavior word here] when you cannot agree/share.”

By doing this, you are modeling expressing emotions, even though they are those strong negative ones. You are laying down your expectations as a parent that it is unacceptable behavior.

But then what? 

Too often I hear that the truce is fleeting because kids will often do the misbehavior again (sometimes within a few minutes especially when they have not calmed down and are still feeling the anger inside).

But this is where using a system to help children learn to regulate their emotions and sticking to it helps. This is where the power of consistency and follow through counts. Whenever a child reacts a certain way that is responded to with consistent but firm follow through by the parent, the child will eventually “connect the dots” that this behavior will only lead to undesirable consequences and will eventually learn how to navigate those feelings in the future in a more acceptable way. Through role modeling and practicing these skills, children will begin to use the more appropriate strategies that parents help to shape.

Tangible rewards: A system to help children “connect the dots”

One way to continually reinforce acceptable behavior is through tangible reward systems. What are tangible rewards? Things that children can see or touch or hold. If given AFTER a child has shown the ability to do acceptable behavior, it can be a very powerful REINFORCER.

I sometimes get push back about this because parents will ask, “Well isn’t that just a bribe?” OR “They should not get a reward for something they should be doing anyway.”

Bribes versus Rewards

The way I teach future pediatricians about the difference between a BRIBE and a REWARD is simple. Bribes are something that is given BEFORE a desired behavior and a reward is given AFTER a desired behavior. The problem is once you give the bribe, you have no guarantee that the child will follow through on the promise of good behavior. When timed to be given only after the child has performed the desired behavior, the reward is something that reinforces their effort and their actions. They will be motivated to try again next time to earn another reward and thus repeat the behavior.

Now we’re not talking anything fancy or anything that costs a lot of money. If you start giving rewards that are expensive then you can quickly get yourself in trouble. I’m talking about using no cost or low cost rewards.

Examples of no cost or low cost rewards can be:

  • Having an extra story read to them at bedtime
  • Getting 15 minutes of play time at the park
  • Getting to choose the dessert after dinner
  • Getting to sit in “dad’s chair at the dinner table
  • Getting extra snuggle time with mommy or daddy
  • Going to the library

You get the idea. Plus, be open to the fact that the reward may change (even sometimes while working towards reaching the goal) but as long as it is keeps the child motivated to work on the desired skill that is what you want.

RELATED: Tangible and Intangible Rewards for Good Behavior in Children (by Kathryn Matter)

These low-cost and no cost rewards are not substitutes for giving your child praise for a job well done. What we say is equally as important as what we do and by giving them reinforcement both ways, it will actually strengthen the learning.

They should not get rewards for doing what they should be doing anyway.”

When your pediatrician talks to you about sticker charts or reward charts, we are helping them learn the if “a” then “b” rule. I gently remind parents too that we all actually live in a world of tangible rewards. Quite simply when you go to work, you do what you need to do to get the job done and you earn a paycheck, right?

Also, think of it this way, when learning a new or complicated skill, children need to be taught what is expected and how to do it appropriately. It is very easy to assume children should “just know” the “Golden Rule” but honestly, they don’t. They learn this through what they observe and what they see others doing (or not doing). They need explicit instructions from parents who are monitoring their behavior on how they should act, especially when their emotions are running high.

We’ve all been there when we get so upset and frustrated that we lose our cool and we may say or do things we later regret or didn’t mean but was said in the moment. This is even more true for children who are still not good at expressing or knowing what to do with those strong emotions.

children's book modeling behavior charts
Josh’s Smiley Faces: A Story about Anger

I love the book, Josh’s Smiley Faces: A Story about Anger by Gina Ditta-Donahue, because it helps parents “show” their child a simple system to begin to work on their anger. Children learn best when they can understand and “see” what to expect and those of you that have been reading my blog for a while know I am a HUGE believer in using children’s books to do this.

In this 32 page softcover book, Josh gets so upset when his toy robot falls apart while playing and he throws it to the ground and ends up breaking it. He also gets into fights with his little brother Simon when Simon gets into his things and plays with his train.

In the book, Josh’s mother helps him learn other ways of expressing his anger. Notice she does not discount the angry feeling because we all get angry at times but she helps him learn more acceptable ways of handling those emotions. She develops a smiley chart and uses a time out box for the toys that are broken or that Josh and Simon cannot share.

At the end of the book there are some wonderful tips for parents who wish to use the smiley face reward plan with their children and simple guidelines to follow.

The book is published by Magination Press and is ideal for children between the ages of 3 and 6 years of age.


RELATED: How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry Effectively (INFOGRAPHIC) (posted by A Fine





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Written by

Nerissa Bauer

I am a behavioral pediatrician, consultant, child advocate and blogger. I am a wife, mommy to 2 amazing children and 2 golden retrievers. Love cooking, travel, reading, tap and creating.