How Do Discipline Charts Work?

A chart of consequences can stop the battles over broken rules and turn them into learning experiences.

by Jayme Moye
Originally Published: 
A discipline chart in a school showing how well a child is behaving

A discipline chart, also known as a consequence chart, can be powerful parenting tool. The idea is simple enough: Write down a few behaviors on a poster board or paper that is hung publicly in your house and put a check mark or sticker next to the behavior every day it is completed successfully. But the execution isn’t always so easy. Where parents initially get hung up is with the assumption that the chart will do the heavy lifting for them. The chart is merely a tool, albeit a powerful one, that can make the inevitable broken rules part of a larger learning experience rather than a mishap everyone dreads.

“I’ve been in practice for 23 years,” says, Brad Reedy, Ph.D. and the author of The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle & The Road Home, “and I’ve never heard a child say, ‘You know mom and dad, you’re right, I didn’t maintain a B average on my report card, and I see the consequence is that I don’t get to play video games, and I feel that’s appropriate; thank you.’”

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Kids (and parents) will still get upset when a household rule is broken, or when a family value is disregarded. Kids will still cry, complain, sulk, or lash out when you bust them for it, and do their best to manipulate you to not follow through with the consequence. In other words, even the best discipline chart doesn’t make the act of disciplining your kid easy.

What it does provide is clarity. Which is important for teaching and reinforcing appropriate behavior for kids, and for mom’s and dad’s psyche. “It helps quell the self-doubt and guilt that arise in so many of us when we have to discipline our children,” says Reedy. With a discipline chart, parents don’t have to second-guess themselves: Was I clear in my expectations? Did she understand the consequence? Am I being unfair?

In this way, a discipline chart is more for mom and dad, to remind them that if Sophie doesn’t pick up her toys before horseback riding lessons, then they can’t take her until the chore is done, even if that means Sophie is late or doesn’t get to go at all. Because the only way discipline charts work is if mom and dad implement the consequences. Blow them off even once, and the chart starts to lose effectiveness.

MORE: The Biggest Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Discipline

Here are the best practices for discipline charts. Follow these rules and you will have a tool that will making disciplining a learning experience that everyone can grow with.

  • Be Specific

“Show respect” doesn’t work, according to Dr. Reedy. It’s too hard to define “respect,” even for adults, and children really struggle with the vagueness of these types of broad-thinking terms. Instead, try “swear words and vulgarity are not tolerated in this house.”

  • Use Escalating Consequences

If the rule is “No drugs and alcohol in our home,” the consequence of catching your child on a first offense shouldn’t be rehab. It could be having a family discussion. The consequence of a second offense might be grounding, followed by the removal of privileges, like use of the car, on third offense, followed by a family therapy session. “The idea of a zero-tolerance policy often doesn’t make sense,” says Dr. Reedy, “and is not recommended by most therapists.”

  • Choose Natural Consequences

It’s tempting, especially when creating discipline charts with younger children, to get silly about the consequences: “If you don’t make your bed by breakfast time, you must eat your cereal upside down.” As entertaining as that sounds, it’s better if the consequence is the natural extension of the behavior (or lack there of). If Felix does not put his gloves on, his hands will be cold when he goes outside. “With natural consequences, you do not have to create anything,” says Dr. Reedy. “Your job is to simply avoid rescuing the child from the consequence.”

  • If There’s No Natural Consequence, Choose One That’s Logical

Logical consequences are created by the parent in order to teach. Ideally, they are related to the behavior. A typical example is a kid who is not doing her homework. The logical consequence is that she doesn’t get any screen time until it’s done and a parent has checked it over. “This is usually challenging,” says Dr. Reedy. “It takes creativity and effort to not always fall back on grounding.” Consider having the child help with this, or any other part of the chart.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, punishment, and behavior.

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