The Magic of the Marble Jar

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Last week we talked about family rules. A family marble jar can be a great add-on to your family rules. It’s a fun, simple way to keep your child with ADHD and other family members motivated to follow the rules. Here’s how it works: Pick one or two family rules that you really want your children to focus on. When a family member is spotted following one of these rules, then they get to put a marble in the jar. When the jar is full, the whole family earns a treat. There are a few tricks to making the marble jar a success:

  • Pick the reward before you start. Make sure the reward is something the whole family is motivated to earn. Ideally, it will be a special activity that doubles as quality family time.
  • Be consistent. The marble jar only works when your kids actually earn marbles! Aim to catch your children following the rules at least once a day. It can actually be harder to notice good behavior than it is to notice bad behavior. So you’ll need to make it a point to keep your eyes and ears open for marble-worthy actions.
  • Pair the marbles with praise. Be enthusiastic when your children earn a marble. Be specific with your praise by telling them exactly what they did well. “Wow, you were so patient at dinner, waiting your turn to speak. You just earned another marble!”
  • Adults can earn marbles too! Model the family rules for your kids by noticing when other adults in the house follow the rules too. If your rule is, “We put things back where we found them,” and your partner puts the TV remote back in the remote basket instead of leaving it buried in the cushions, then go ahead and add a marble to the jar!
  • Try not to go more than two weeks between rewards. Kids with ADHD often struggle with delayed rewards. If you go more than two weeks between rewards, your child may lose motivation. If you think it will take more than two weeks to fill up your jar, draw a line on the side of the jar at point that seems like a more reasonable target. Or consider using cotton balls instead of marbles. Cotton balls will fill up the jar much faster.

When you follow these basic steps you’ll be experiencing the magic of the marble jar in no time! It’s a great way to teach new skills and behaviors, while staying positive and keeping it fun.


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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