Using a Positive Behavior Chart with Your Child


You’ve tried sticker charts with limited success. Here are the Dos and Don’ts for using a positive behavior chart with your child correctly.

Being cooped up during Stay Home Orders for COVID-19 has been hard on all of us.  Many parents are seeing less desirable behavior from our children, and it’s totally understandable.  But we need a tool to encourage and teach positive behavior while we are home.

A Smiley Chart for positive behavior does that. It communicates to order children the positive behavior we want to see. And we don’t have to rely on threats, shame or punishment for it to be successful.

So as you’re struggling with a certain particular problematic behavior, try using a positive behavior chart with your child.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links; read more here.

Smiley Chart for Behavior

Make sure you read the first post about Smiley Chart for Behavior.  Here’s the recap, but the original post is worth a read:

  • Positive reinforcement is a type of behavioral conditioning.
  • A smiley chart can successfully positively reinforce a very specific behavioral habit.
  • Behavior charts do not teach skills nor do they address the underlying missing skills.
  • You need to make a plan to teach your child any missing skills.
  • Smiley charts reinforce a positive behavior and increase the frequency of the desired behavior.
  • A smiley chart can have an external reward (like “I watch a cartoon”) but it doesn’t have to have a reward.
  • You need to be very specific with the positive behavior you desire.

use a positive smiley chart for good behavior

How to Successfully Use a Positive Behavior Chart

There are a lot of common mistakes to using sticker charts or smiley charts and there are several best practices.  In order to have success and to use it as a tool for behavioral conditioning, you need a plan to use it well.

The first step is to identify the positive behavior you want to see. In the first post, we were working one of my children using a friendly voice to make a request rather than screeching loudly.

Next, you want to communicate with your child. I said, “We want you to use a friendly voice to ask for something.” We had already discussed how some of his classmates found the screeching scary, and that at home it was simply rude.

After that, watch for the behavior and draw a smiley on the chart. You want to point out the desired behavior in a low-key but positive manner, “You asked to watch Truck Tunes in a friendly voice. Thank you!”

Even within these simple steps, there’s some dos and don’ts you’ll want to consider. So, from trial and error, here’s what I’ve learned about using a positive behavior chart.

To change behavior, model what you want to see.

Do’s for Using a Positive Behavior Chart

This is what you want to do so you can do have a successful experience with a positive behavior chart.

Remember behavior is communication

Please remember your child is behaving this way for a reason.  Usually there are lagging social-emotional or behavioral skills and at the time of publishing, we’re three months into Stay Home Orders for COVID-19. We’re stressed and so are the children.

So while you want to work on the problem behaviors, you also need to be mindful of the underlying concerns.

Make the behavior very, very specific.

Smiley charts will work if they behavior is incredibly specific. A goal like, “I will wash my hands until I sing the ABCs” is more specific than “I do a good job washing hands.”

Make the behavior very achievable

Let’s say your child has been waking up at 5am.  You really need your child to get more sleep.  If you set the behavioral goal “stay in bed until 7:30am,” your child won’t succeed.

You need a goal that is achievable.  The first behavioral goal could be “stay in bed until 5:05am when Mom comes and gets you.”  That way your child is more likely to be successful and you build from there.

Grab this printable pack here

Use a picture of what the desire behavior is

Visuals are incredibly powerful for children.  If your child has any kind of speech or developmental delay, this becomes even more important.

Pictures stay in the mind a lot longer than spoken words.  They also require a different type of working memory that spoken language.

I wanted my son to use his friendly voice so I drew a picture of him using a kind voice.  This way when I remind him to use a kind voice, he can connect those words with the picture.

Praise the behavior as much as possible

Look for the desired behavior and praise it as frequently as possible. Make sure it’s simple and calm, “You washed  your hands independently. You are responsible.”

You want your praise to be early and often.  After you introduce the chart, try to find the positive behavior within the first five minutes.  Even if you have to give your child an easy opportunity to demonstrate the behavior.

Model the behavior

If we are asking our children to change their behavior, it is only equitable that we model the same behavior.

I can’t use a nasty, frustrated voice and then expect my three year-old to have the self-control that I’m lacking.

So I’ll look for opportunities to model it: “I’m so frustrated but I’m going to use my kind voice.”

Work on one behavior at a time

This is one that trips up the most parents.  It’s really important to focus in on one behavior at a time.

You want to reach mastery of the new behavior rather than overwhelm your child with all the things he or she is “doing wrong.”

Make a list of the problem behaviors and chose the one that is most annoying to you or that will be the easiest to solve.

Behavior charts won’t address underlying emotional issues

Don’ts for Using a Positive Behavior Chart

There are a lot of common mistakes to using positive behavior charts. This is what you want to avoid.

Don’t use it as a bribe

You don’t want to say, “If you do xyz, then I’ll give you a smiley.” That’s a bribe. Instead you’re looking to catch the good behavior.

This is a subtle difference.  But what we don’t want is children who become only motivated by external factors like prizes and rewards.

Many children benefit from the support of behavioral conditioning while they learn a good habit.  Then the new habit becomes a reward in itself.

Don’t expect it to teach a skill

All people have lagging skills as Ross Greene, Ph.D. discusses in The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings.  Do you get frustrated in traffic? Do you snap at your spouse or children?

If so, you have lagging skills around emotional regulation in managing frustration just like your child.

Thus, with your child you need to work on strategies for the lagging skills for month and see some progress before you’d put it on a behavior chart.

Otherwise, you’re setting everyone up for failure.

Don’t expect it to address an emotional concern: anxiety, anger, or sadness

If your child has underlying emotional concerns (and most do!), don’t choose a behavior goal that expects your child to overcome that challenge.

A classic example is staying in bed all night.  First, that is too broad a goal. Second, it’s pretty likely your child is getting up from an emotional concern.

You’re going to need to dig into the underlying emotional concern for your child and work on that.

Eventually, you can try a behavioral goal that works better for your family like, “I will sleep on Mom and Dad’s floor when I wake up.”

(Side note: your sleep and your child’s sleep is important. Please speak with your child’s doctor if this is on-going as there are medical conditions that contribute to poor sleep in children.)

Don’t use it as a threat

You want to avoid saying, “If you do xyz, you won’t get your smiley.” That’s a threat.

It’s more powerful and effective to be acknowledged for successes. Plus you want to avoid using the positive behavioral chart as the motivator.

It’s a tool, but you want the desired, good behavior to be the reward eventually.  It feels good to be good.

Don’t work on a bunch of skills at once

When you try to work on a bunch of behavioral skills at once, you’re setting your child and you up for failure.

It’s too much for you to keep track of and it’s too demanding for your child.

Choose to address the easiest problem to solve or the one that’s annoying you the most.

Don’t use it to shame or determine your child’s worth

I want this to be the last thing you remember. Your child is not the sum of his or her worst behavior.

You don’t want to be judged that way either, and I believe you are not the sum of your worst parenting moments either.

Listen, your child really wants to please you (unless they have a personality disorder which is incredibly rare).

It’s easier to be “good,” than it is struggle.  Society rewards the better behavior and kids know it’s more desirable.  They don’t want to act out.

So remember, your child is worthy of love, care and affection. ALWAYS.

So while it’s easy to shame (and I’ve made this mistake) by saying,  “You screamed at me again!”, avoid that.

Recapping Using a Positive Behavior Chart with Children

Here’s the quick rundown on using a positive behavior chart for all you busy parents:


  • Remember behavior is communication
  • Make the behavior very, very specific
  • Make the behavior very achievable
  • Use a picture of what the desire behavior is
  • Praise the behavior as much as possible
  • Model the behavior
  • Work on one behavior at a time


  • Use it as a bribe
  • Expect it to teach a skill
  • Expect it to address an emotional concern: anxiety, anger, or sadness
  • Use it as a threat
  • Work on a bunch of skills at once
  • Use it to shame or determine your child’s worth


Positive behavior charts can be an incredible tool to help your child focus on an achievable and specific behavior.  But there are several Dos and Don’ts that parents need to manage in order for a sticker or behavior chart to be effective.


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