Throughout my career both as a Behavior Interventionist, and as an OT Assistant, I’ve seen a wide variety of uses for reward charts.
I’ve used them mostly in schools, but often in homes as well, and for so many different reasons, I’ve lost count. Everything from completing homework assignments or doing chores around the house, to using “nice words”. Even outside of work, I’ve seen my friends successfully using them with their children. The main purpose of using a reward chart is to encourage, or reinforce good or “desired” behaviors, in order to earn something highly motivating. Take my 12-year-old nephew for example (pictured below). If he has access to an iPad, he will be on it ALL DAY, neglecting to do anything else around the house. My sister recently started using a reward chart with him to earn iPad time, and it’s been working wonders. While this is a great outcome for her and her family, this may not be the case for everyone.
There are many great things about reward charts, but it’s worth noting that there are also some situations in which another strategy might be better.
Before we dive into why, I want to explain (if you don’t already know) two terms: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation means to be motivated by external rewards such as money, food, or (in my nephew’s case) time watching YouTube on his beloved iPad. It’s why most of us are motivated to get out of our cozy bed and go to work every morning.
Intrinsic motivation means to be motivated by internal rewards like a sense of value/purpose, or doing a task simply because you enjoy doing it.
With that said, here are some pros and cons to reward charts:
- Good for visual learners
- Great starting point for motivation
- Helps understand what the child is most motivated by, their likes and dislikes
- Teaches responsibility and accountability
- Good practice for employment in the future
- Forming good habits
- Positive reinforcement
- The focus is on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation- they will only do it if there is a “reward” involved.
- It can sometimes increase negative behaviors in certain individuals
- It can be difficult to find strong reinforcers
- Using candy or other treats as motivators could lead to an unhealthy relationship with food
Keep in mind that everything is always, always, always dependent on each specific individual’s needs. What works for some will not work for all. Be sure to talk with your child’s therapists (ABA, OT, Speech, teachers) to determine the best solutions and strategies to accommodate your needs, and decide if extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is best.