If you have a child with ADHD, then chances are you’ve tried using a behavior chart with him or her at home. They are one of the first tools parents turn to 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 when they’ve tried behavior charts in the past they haven’t worked for their child.
If research shows that behavior charts are effective, then why does it seem like so many kids with ADHD don’t respond to them? Usually it’s because the charts weren’t designed with ADHD in mind. Kids 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 his or her 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
Write clear and positive behavior goals. Your chart should communicate to your child exactly what it is that he or she needs to do to achieve his or her 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 by telling him or her what to do and when to do it.
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, expectations around how and when they should be completed are clear, and they can eventually turn into habits that don’t require a behavior chart at all. 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. Choose other strategies for these non-routine behaviors.
Break complex tasks down into smaller goals. Very often I see behavior charts that include goals like “Finish Homework” or “Get Ready for School on Time.” As an adult we may look at these goals and think they are perfectly reasonable. After all, they describe exactly what you want your child to do! The problem is that for kids with ADHD, each of these goals actually represents a complex series of smaller tasks. So, if you list “Get Ready for School on Time” on your child’s behavior chart, there is a good chance that you will find your child forgetting to do at least two or three important things in the morning, and if he or she is ready for school on time it will only be because you provided multiple reminders or completed some of the tasks for him or her. 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 place where it is visible to your child. A typical “Get Ready for School on Time” goal for a child with ADHD should be listed as 4 or 5 separate behavior goals representing each of the activities included in his or her typical morning routine.
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 he or she is 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 his or her own with an alarm clock, but he or she has 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 him or her up, then you can adjust the goal further and expect him or her to wake up independently when the alarm clock goes off in the morning.
Include no more than 5 behavior goals on the chart. Most kids can handle only 5 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.
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 kids with ADHD struggle to maintain motivation when rewards are delayed (although some kids 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 his or her goal, and rewards should never be given when they have not been earned. Always involve your child in creating a list of possible rewards ahead of time. This will ensure that the reward options include things that your child truly finds motivating. Since kids’ interests change so often, you should check in with your child frequently to make sure he or she is 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, I have yet to work with a child who has ADHD and did not respond to a well-designed behavior chart! It’s all about following a few key principles of behavior chart design and adjusting the chart over time to match your child’s unique needs.
ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY
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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