Creating Home Behavior Charts that Actually Work!

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

If you have a child with ADHD, chances are you’ve tried using a behavior chart at home. Behavior charts are one of the first tools parents use when their child has difficulty following through on everyday tasks or needs extra support to manage behavior. Behavior charts are a key tool in evidence-based interventions for ADHD at home and at school. Yet despite the evidence, many parents say that behavior charts haven’t worked for their children.

If research shows that behavior charts are effective, then why does it seem like so many children with ADHD don’t respond to them? Usually it’s because the charts weren’t designed with ADHD in mind. Children with ADHD need systems in place that specifically help them overcome their difficulties with motivation, organization and completing complex tasks. As a result, special attention needs to be given to the types of behavior goals that are included in behavior charts and the way that rewards are selected and provided when a child achieves those goals. The good news is that by following a few key guidelines, you can create behavior charts that will work for your child!

Behavior Chart Guidelines

  1. Write clear and positive behavior goals. Your chart should communicate to your child exactly what they need to do to achieve their goals. Always write the goals in a way that tells your child what to do rather than what not to do. For example, “Sit down at the table and start your homework at 4:15,” is a much more effective goal than, “Don’t put off doing your homework when you come home from school.” The first goal sets your child up for success not failure.
  2. Focus on behaviors that happen consistently and routinely. The most successful behavior charts are those that focus on routine behaviors – things that occur at roughly the same time and in the same order every day. Why? Because these behaviors can be easily tracked and expectations around how and when they should be completed can be made clear. Eventually, these can turn into habits that don’t require a behavior chart. Morning routines, evening routines, homework routines and even mealtime routines are great targets for behavior charts. Behaviors that occur randomly outside of these routine times like whining or arguing with siblings are less appropriate targets and are less likely to improve with a behavior chart. Try other strategies for these non-routine behaviors.
  3. Break complex tasks down into smaller goals. Goals like, “Finish homework” orGet ready for school on time” might seem perfectly reasonable to parents, but for children with ADHD, these goals represent a complex series of smaller tasks. So, if you list “Get ready for school on time” on a child’s behavior chart, there’s a good chance that your child will forget to do at least two or three important things in the morning. If they do get ready for school on time, it will only be because you provided multiple reminders or completed some of the tasks for them. To set your child up for success, break complex tasks down into the smaller steps that need to be completed each day and post the list in a visible place. A typical goal for a child with ADHD should actually be listed as four or five separate goals representing each of the activities included in the typical morning routine.
  4. Choose goals that are within your child’s reach. Create behavior goals that you think your child could achieve at least 80% of the time. Goals should aim to stretch your child from the point they’re at right now, while still being within your child’s reach. This might mean that you focus on intermediate behavior goals that are a step in the right direction rather than the ultimate end goals that you want your child to achieve. For example, if you want your child to wake up on their own with an alarm clock, but they have never (or rarely) done this successfully in the past, then this behavior may be out of reach right now. A more appropriate goal would be to have your child get out of bed after you wake them up and provide just one reminder. When your child has mastered this goal, you can drop the reminder. Once your child is out of bed consistently right after you wake them up, then you can adjust the goal further and expect them to wake up independently when the alarm clock goes off in the morning.
  5. Include no more than five behavior goals on the chart. Most children can handle only five behavior goals on a single chart. This can be challenging for parents, especially when there are so many areas where you’d like to see your child improve. Start by focusing on the highest-priority behaviors first. You can add new goals once your child has mastered the initial list. While it’s best to start out with a single behavior chart, you can eventually create different charts for different times of the day. For example, your child can have a morning routine chart and a homework chart. This helps keep any single list from becoming too overwhelming.
  6. Provide consistent and frequent rewards that your child finds motivating. In behavior charts, rewards are just as important as behavior goals – especially for kids with ADHD who often struggle with motivation. It is important to provide rewards daily, since children with ADHD struggle to maintain motivation when rewards are delayed (although some children ages 10 and up can handle larger delayed rewards). In general, the more immediate the reward, the better. Rewards also need to be provided consistently when your child meets their goal, and rewards should never be given when they have not been earned. Always involve your child in creating a list of possible rewards. This will ensure that the reward options include things that your child finds motivating. Since children’s interests change so often, you should check in with your child frequently to make sure they are still interested in the rewards they are working to earn.

There are many reasons why a behavior chart may not have worked in the past, but that doesn’t mean that a behavior chart will never be a success with your child. In fact, most children with ADHD respond effectively to a well-designed behavior chart. Follow a few key principles of behavior-chart design and adjust the chart over time to match your child’s unique needs.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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