Visual reward charts are a powerful tool in helping kids accomplish tasks like potty training, tying shoes, chores, or other tasks, and can be used in conjunction with visual schedules. The use of this hands-on visual schedule can be effective in building intrinsic motivation and even executive functioning skills. Here, we’ll take a better look at visual reward charts, how to create one, and other tips for visual schedules with an identified reward.
In OT, we talk about personal motivators as a therapeutic intervention. We ask our clients what they want to work on as their therapy. We take what is important to them and strive to accomplish personal goals. Visual reward charts that use personal goals as an end result is very much aligned with occupational therapy. A visual reward chart can be a great motivator when integrating a personal goal with therapeutic interventions (or working on specific tasks at home, like chores, making the bed, potty training, or other tasks).
Visual Reward Charts
I discovered early on in my occupational therapy journey that positive reinforcement and visual reinforcement were powerful ways to shape behaviors and to achieve goals. When I become a mom I found that rewarding targeted behaviors also worked incredibly well with my own children.
This tool really appealed to me because I am a visual, goal-orientated person. I love to make lists and tick off the tasks that I have completed and I have the habit of putting a star or smiley face on my calendar when I make it to gym and manage to squeeze a workout into my day.
I gain a sense of achievement when I look back over the month and see the stars dotted throughout the weeks. I am also motivated to try harder when I look back at the month and there are not that many smiley faces staring back at me!
Reward charts can be highly motivating and very helpful in establishing specific behaviours and reinforcing necessary habits. But reward charts have also received a fair amount of criticism from those who are concerned that children will expect to receive a reward at every turn. The worry that children will become completely reward-focused has been followed up with research on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation in the early years of development.
While it is clear that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are necessary in shaping children’s willingness to learn the role of reward charts remains under review.
Why Visual Reward Charts?
Visual reward charts build intrinsic motivation. In my experience each child I work with is completely unique. Some children are self-driven and easy to motivate and reward charts aren’t necessary. Some children are inspired by working towards a goal and visually tracking their progress. In these cases reward charts have been an absolute hit.
Develop executive functioning skills– Visual schedules that offer a personal goal or reward at the completion can be an effective way to shape a child’s actions in a given situation. Visual reward charts can provide a clear outline of the steps toward a goal that the child wants to accomplish. This can be a powerful tool in addressing initiation, task completion, and other executive functioning skills.
Visual schedules improve functioning- You’ve probably seen potty schedule reward charts, chore charts, reading reward charts, or savings charts (kids save up their money in order to purchase a wanted item). All of these visual charts use the concept of a visual schedule; Complete tasks for a certain period of time and at the end a benefit is gained. The benefit is personal autonomy.
There are many forms of reward charts that work to a functional goal:
- Potty training chart
- Chore charts
- Reading reward chart
- Math facts reward chart
- Money savings chart
- Tying shoes chart
- Brushing teeth chart
Visual prompts are helpful in teaching the steps of toothbrushing.
Visual schedules can help with toilet training.
Schedules can get kids organized an on time for morning routines.
Visual charts offer a picture so children can “see” their progress– Working on a task can be abstract, especially for those with communication challenges. Visual chart that show time spent completing each therapy item, first-then charts, and visual schedules for autism or other neurodiverse individuals that need a visual breakdown of where they are in accomplishing a specific task.
Visual reward charts offer multisensory feedback- When children accomplish a portion of a task or complete a job in an activity (such as completing each activity of the therapy session, practicing handwriting for a certain number of trials, or performing steps of a task like potty training, they can move velcro image pieces to a visual chart, place stickers on a reward chart, or mark off that they completed those trials. That physical movement, plus the visual component, plus possible auditory feedback (Good Job!) offers positive reinforcement with multisensory feedback to the child. They will be motivated to continue and feel a sense of pride for moving the needle toward their goal.
How to Set up a Visual Reward Chart
There are strategies that impact how successful a reward chart is when it comes to achieving personal goals.
- The reward chart must be simple and specific. To really gain the benefit of a reward chart you need to engage the child in the process of drawing up the chart.
- The targeted task needs to be specified and not unrealistic for the child to achieve. The performance tasks should be discussed with the child and the child needs to understand why they are important for them to complete the activity. Explaining why the behavior is important makes the chart more meaningful for the child.
- Only target one action or behavior at a time and focus on tasks that will have a positive impact on the child and family’s well-being.
- Once the child has a clear understanding of what is expected of them, create a visual reminder of what that task is. Take a photograph of them performing the activity or draw a picture of it.
- For older children’s description can be written on the chart.
- Next decide on the number of times the action needs to be performed in order for them to receive a reward. Keep the number low for younger children and children who are new to reward charts. Expecting them to complete an activity 40 or 50 times before receiving a reward is unrealistic. Chances are they will give up long before they reach their goal.
- Then decide on the reward. Most children have an idea of something they would like to work towards and this should be mutually agreed upon at the beginning of the exercise. A few of my children have said ‘surprise me’ and the added anticipation of not knowing their reward has been motivating for them.
- When deciding on a reward make sure that it’s realistic and in keeping with the task. No trips to Disneyland for brushing your teeth. I try and avoid rewarding with sweets so that I don’t encourage a dependence on unhealthy food. Every child is unique but if you connect with the child you will find the right thing to get them working towards completing their chart.
- Place the chart somewhere that is visible to the child and you are ready to go.
- Make sure that you mark the chart as soon as the targeted behaviour is performed. Children become despondent if they have done their part and they have to wait three days to their action to be acknowledged.
- Next be involved as the child completes the chart and focus on providing positive comments about the targeted behaviour they are performing.
When the chart is complete tell them how proud you are of their efforts and make a fuss of the fact they have worked towards achieving their goal. It is important that don’t become reliant on rewards and but focusing on the process they went through. Then, you can shift some of that extrinsic motivation to an awareness of how capable they are.
For other ideas on how to use positive reinforcement in conjunction with reward charts have a look at this resource.
A reward chart in action
The reward charts that I use are usually tailor made for the child and specific behaviour we are working towards. As I have already mentioned it’s important to keep the reward chart simple and specific.
A recent example of a chart I developed was to encourage a young four year old to get dressed in the morning. We established that he was capable of putting on his underwear, shorts and shirt but was really not interested in dressing himself each morning.
I took a photograph of him in his clothes and we stuck it on a page. This provided a clear simple visual of the outcome we were working towards.
We drew ten circles on the page and agreed that when he woke up and dressed himself in the morning he could color in a circle. This number of circles seemed attainable to the child. Remember that a visual chart with hundreds of blocks on it can be daunting.
We spoke about the fact that once all the circles were colored in he would have dressed himself independently ten times. Here we were focusing more on the process that the reward chart would be encouraging.
He loves dinosaurs and when we discussed a reward he asked if he could receive a dinosaur T-shirt when all of the circles were colored in. This seemed like a relevant reward given the task he was completing! We stuck a small picture of a dinosaur at the bottom of the page so he could remember the goal he was working towards. And that was his reward chart.
He was very excited about his chart and managed to complete the chart in eleven days. He woke up in the mornings and apart from one morning that he was feeling quite grumpy he dressed himself independently! His mom made a big deal of how proud she was and how grown up he was that he had dressed himself so well. She made a show of sending a message to his grandparents to tell them about his accomplishment as well. And she bought him a dinosaur shirt which is a firm favorite of his. What a cool reminder of what he is capable of!
In this case the reward chart worked well. It was presented in a positive way and the child was fully immersed in the process. Adjusting the reward chart according to the child’s age, interest and goal will go a long way towards helping them establish good habits.
Main points to remember about visual reward charts
- Engage the child in the process
- Target a specific behaviour
- Have a visual representation of the behaviour
- Decide on an appropriate number of repetitions of the behaviour
- Decide what the reward is
- Place the chart in a visible spot
- Mark the chart as soon as the behaviour is performed
- Praise the child’s efforts
- Provide them with the reward when the chart is completed
Contributor to The OT Toolbox: Janet Potterton is an occupational therapist working predominantly in school-based settings and I love, love, love my job. I have two children (if you don’t count my husband!), two dogs, one cat, two guinea pigs and one fish. When I am not with my family or at work I try to spend time in nature. The beach is my happy place.