How to Use a Star Chart

How to Use a Reinforcement System: Another Tool for Your Behavior Toolbox 

One of the most effective and efficient ways of letting a child know that he or she is making good decisions is with a reinforcement system.  In a reinforcement system a child gets to see the positive outcome of good behavior.  A reinforcer can be anything that a child will value and like.  Extra time to play outside and a special dessert after dinner are good examples of reinforcement. 

One of the most commonly used reinforcement systems is a star, or sticker, chart.  There are many different kinds of star charts.  In a star chart, the stars and/or stickers represent an actual reinforcer that the child will receive at a later time.  There are many benefits to using a star chart.  On benefit is that you do not have to give the actual reinforcer as many times throughout the day.  A star chart is also useful, because it is a way to show a child how close he is to receiving his reinforcer, and it keeps him motivated to make good choices.  A star chart can be used in many ways.  A common way of using a star chart is having the child earn a specified number of stars before he earns a reinforcer.  For example, the child might have to earn ten stars in order to receive a special book before bedtime.  The child must earn all of his stars to receive the book.
When you begin using a star or sticker chart, you will have to teach your child what the stars mean and how to earn them.  If it is appropriate, you can simply explain the chart to your child.  Let him know what he is earning, how many stickers he needs to earn his reinforcer, and what types of good behavior you will give a star for.  If your child is too young, or will not fully understand a verbal explanation, you can show them what stars or stickers mean. One way to do this is to start by having all of the stars on the chart except the last star.  When your child has good behavior or makes a good choice, you can have him put on the last star and immediately give him the special item or privilege.  Starting this way teaches your child two things: 1) that a star means “good job” or “good choice”, and 2) the stars lead to a very positive outcome.  When your child is accustomed to earning one star to complete the chart, you should set up the star chart with all except the last two stars.  Now he needs two stars to earn a reinforcer.  In this same fashion, continue to reduce the number of stars that you start with until the child is starting with no stars and earning all of them before being reinforced.
The number of stars on a star chart will vary depending on the difficulty of the behavior, the length of the behavior you are reinforcing, the child’s ability to wait, and how motivating the reinforcer itself is.  If the behavior you are rewarding is a relatively easy one for the child, you might require that the child earn more stars in order to earn his reinforcer.  Similarly, if the behavior is a very short and discrete behavior (e.g., labeling shapes and colors) you might consider having the child earn a greater number of stars before he receives his reinforcer.  If the behavior you are reinforcing is particularly difficult or lengthy (e.g., doing homework), you might consider having your child earn fewer stars to get his reinforcer.  In this case, because maintaining good behavior is more difficult, it will be best for your child to earn their reinforcer more often.  Lastly, the type of reinforcer you use can influence how many stars you require.  Small reinforcers (e.g., putting in a puzzle piece) or short and discrete reinforcers (e.g., sensory input or singing a song) can be given more frequently because they are easily delivered. However, lengthy reinforcers (e.g., watching a favorite video or playing in the pool) are not as easily delivered; you may want to require more stars for these activities. 
Keep in mind that reinforcers which are very motivating should not be used too often.  Your child may get used to this reinforcer and it will not be as valuable to the child.  Think of it this way, if you had your absolute favorite dessert, each night for a week, you would begin to get tired of it.  The same thing happens with your child’s favorite privileges or toys.  On the other hand, if you child has a slightly less preferred toy or privilege, you can increase his motivation for that reinforcer by limiting his access to it.  For example, if your child likes computer games, but it’s not his favorite thing to do, you can make computer games more motivating by limiting the amount of time he gets to play on the computer.
As you can see, star charts require a bit of preparation; however, once get the hang of it, star charts can be more effective than simply giving your child his reinforcer many times throughout the day.  Most importantly, by using stars instead of the actual reinforcer, you are preventing your child from becoming bored with his privileges or toys.  Secondly, your child is learning to wait for his actual reinforcer.

Here are a few tips to make your star chart especially successful:
1)   Give a star immediately after the behavior you want to  

2)   Give the privilege or toy immediately after 
      your child has completed her star chart.

3)   Decorate the star chart with your child’s favorite character
      or subject.  She will be very motivated to use it.

4)   Let your child put on the stars.  This will likely be more
      reinforcing than watching you put them on for her.
It is often asked if the stars on a star chart can be removed for undesirable behavior.  In general, it is not recommended to remove stars.  When a star is removed consistently, your child may learn that he loses the stars faster than he earns them.  This will make the stars less valuable to your child and he may not be motivated to earn them anymore.

Lastly, there are some small variations that can be made to the traditional star chart.  One might attach a value to each star.  For example, each star may be worth one minute of a video game.  If your child earns one star, he receives one minute; however, if he earns five stars, he earns five minutes.  This way, the level of reinforcement is comparable with the level of your child’s effort
In conclusion, with a little bit of effort, reinforcement systems can be a very effective and useful addition to you behavior toolbox. 
Good luck!

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