I admit it. In my earlier years as a therapist and Social Worker I was one of those people to recommend sticker charts for everything. The thought makes me wanna throw up a little now.
Sticker charts can be motivating, kind of, for some kids and for specific situations with short term effects. Generally, though, they fail miserably. There are many more studies and articles that show the perils of reward systems, but this article from the Atlantic sums up a couple of the unhelpful consequences of sticker charts – they decrease intrinsic motivation and lead to people expecting to be “paid” for every little thing they do, and long-term they actually can decrease the likelihood of pro-social behaviors. Additionally, the underlying message that we send to kids is that the behavior we’re asking them to comply with is actually undesirable. We think, “ooh. We want this child to clean their room. Let’s motivate them by giving them a reward.” They unconsciously hear, “Ooh. Cleaning my room is such an awful task that I need to be bribed to complete it. If it was actually a fun or desirable thing to do I wouldn’t have to be paid to do it.” Thus, in the long run, these pesky sticker charts backfire.
And this is with the general population. With gifted/2e kids, those sticker charts tend to backfire much more quickly.
They may just see through the game and outright refuse to play it. “No thanks, mom. I’m good. I don’t need a sticker.”
They may find the loopholes and work the system. I’m thinking of traditional grading systems in schools. You could argue, I suppose that grades are there as an assessment tool, but not really. We can assess a child’s understanding without giving the grade (alphabetized sticker). My brother is brilliant. He hated the slow pace of his trig class junior year of high school. He quickly did the math and discovered he could skip every homework assignment, not show up for class, and if he aced the midterm and final he’d still pass the class without dragging his gpa down too far. And this is exactly what he did. Setup a reward system, and many gifted kids will be more motivated to find the loophole than to complete the task you’re asking.
They may be so driven by the anxiety of perfectionism that the moment they miss a sticker they shut down, crumple up the chart, and refuse to try again. Or, they may refuse to try in the first place.
They may be so lacking in confidence that they automatically “know” they are not going to be able to earn the reward that they simply choose not to care about it. Or they may feel the frustration of learning a new task that when it doesn’t go well they self-sabotage. Parents say, “This is your warning. If you do this again you won’t be able to get your sticker today. You want your sticker, don’t you?” “I don’t care! It’s stupid anyway!”
Gifted kids can feel patronized by simple reward systems and feel unmotivated. They can figure out other ways to get the reward that they are seeking. They may lack the executive functioning skills to actually be able to maintain the long-term focus on earning the stupid sticker in the first place. And then we’ve really just setup a punishment system for their different wiring, haven’t we.
And yet, there are a bazillion and one templates for sticker charts out there on the interwebs. And every parent or teacher has probably tried them at one point in time. Usually out of desperation. I just need this kid to potty train! I need this kid to remember to turn in their homework! I need this kid to be kind, to do the dishes without complaining, to get out of the house in the morning on time!
Yes, we need our kids to comply sometimes. We need them to learn the skills of life that will help them thrive and survive when they are adults. We need them to be respectful. We need them to just get out of the damn house on time.
Kids aren’t born with the abilities to do all these things. They aren’t born with the ability to function well and within our social norms. They aren’t born with the ability to know how to effectively advocate when social norms need to be changed or when their personal needs aren’t being meant. We need to teach them. And at the end of the day, this is what discipline is all about. How do we do this, especially with our differently wired kids?
First (and always) – Mindset. I parent and discipline better when I remember my job is to teach and guide, not create little automatons who just jump when I ask them to. When they aren’t living up to the expectations, my job is to teach and guide, not force them into compliance.
Second – Give Space. I parent much more effectively when I’m not triggered. It’s often helpful to take a moment before we start the actual guidance giving. Prioritize safety. And do whatever it takes to regulate. To regulate yourself and to help your child regulate. When our kids are dysregulated they are literally incapable of using their thinking brain. That is not the time to teach and guide. Help them regulate first. Wait a few hours if needed. (as a side note – if a child has a full on meltdown or flip, it takes about 4 hours for the adrenaline to leave their bodies. Give space. Don’t move to the third step til everyone’s ready. Really ready.)
Third – Identify the Problem. I’m a big fan of Ross Greene’s work. He developed the collaborative and proactive solutions approach to parenting and it works. I’ve never had it not work. With my kids. With the families I work with. The core concept is to trust that kids want to do well. If they aren’t doing well, there’s a reason. It’s our job to work together to identify the actual problem that’s getting in the way of them behaving appropriately. Maybe they are lacking the skills. Maybe they aren’t morning people and need a little extra time to get ready. Maybe they are over tired. Or anxious. Or don’t know how to communicate that they are frustrated. We need to identify the problem. Gifted kids are often more self-reflective than the typical kid, so they can often have these conversations really effectively, which, hey! There’s one positive to hold on to!
Fourth – Teach and Reflect. While you’re moving through Dr. Greene’s CPS approach, teach them why the behavior you’re asking for is important to you. Teach them why the behavior is important in society or to your child. You may need to remind gifted kids that while their brain is advanced, it isn’t as developed or complete as an adult’s brain. Sometimes they’ll just have to trust that adult brains can understand things better than kids’ brains. Give them the neurological basis for this if needed. Reflect together on how things are improving, not improving, things that kid can do differently, things that parent can do differently. Communicate.
Fifth – Prioritize Your Relationship and Your Child’s Wellness. At all times. Discipline is going to be unhelpful if you and your child don’t have an underlying foundation of trust and connection. Yes, there will be times, days, months, where you feel less trusting or connected to each other. That’s normal. But, try not to let those feelings guide your behavior. Eventually the connectedness will return. When those feelings do guide your behavior, apologize and give yourself some self-compassion. Build your child up throughout it all. Prioritize their wellness by reminding them how much they are loved, how much they are worthy, how valuable they are to the world.
Sixth – Burn the F-ing Sticker Charts.