My Kid Won’t Listen!

A week or so ago, I was listening to myself give the same directions over and over and over again, while my daughter just sat there. Didn’t look at me. Didn’t respond. Just sat, completely ignoring me, playing away with whatever toys she had.

I started to get mad, then I realized it was my fault.

I realized that I was using a really good behavioral tool in a really counterproductive way. I’ve been using the warnings and treat chart with my 4 year old, to help her listen. She had been having trouble listening to me right away when I was telling her to do things, and a lot of times, she just ended up plain old ignoring me when I gave her instructions.

So I had cracked out the warnings and treat chart, telling her that if I told her to do something and she didn’t do it, she would lose a warning token. I started each day off with four warnings, and after that, she would lose her treat for that night. This was working really well, and she lost a lot of warning tokens over the next week, but had never gotten to the point where she lost her treat. She always ended up pulling herself together.

So I had slowly decreased the warning tokens until we stayed at two warnings before she would lose her treat. She did really well for a while, losing a warning every once in a while, but working really hard at listening to me. I kind of stopped paying attention to what I was doing and slowly got more and more relaxed. *Insert obnoxious buzzer noise* This is where I started to go wrong.

My daughter really hated losing warning tokens, even though she never actually lost her treat. I think I started feeling bad, because she really was sorry after she ignored me, and she was being punished (by taking a warning off) anyway. It was way too easy to slip from relaxed to counterproductive.

Every time my daughter ignored me, I’d say, “You need to listen to me, or I’m going to take a warning off your chart.” I didn’t want her to lose her warning tokens, so I started giving her verbal warnings after the behavior already happened, for the next time. And I didn’t take a token off unless the behavior happened again after the verbal warning.

Once I gave the verbal warning, my daughter listened to me right away. She knew I was serious. But if I didn’t give any verbal warnings, she just completely ignored me until I reminded her. I accidentally made the listening behavior dependent on a verbal warning. And she started ignoring me more and more, because she knew she wasn’t going to lose a warning token until she ignored me after her verbal warning.

So instead of punishing ignoring, I was punishing “continued ignoring after a verbal warning.” And I was getting more lenient on “initial ignoring,” so it was increasing. Definitely not what I wanted to happen!

The solution

So here’s how I’ve been fixing it. I started to really pay attention to my behaviors and be consistent in what I’m doing, so that I can actually bring about the behavior change that I want to make.

1. I give a verbal warning at the beginning of the day.

I reset the chart in the morning, show it to my daughter, and tell her that if she ignores me, she will lose warnings and eventually, her treat. I encourage her to do good listening and then let her go off on her way.

2. I give verbal warnings only before my daughter ignores me.

Several times during the day, I remind my daughter that she needs to listen to me or she’s going to lose a warning. Sometimes these warnings come before a time when I think she’s going to ignore me, like if I have to ask her to do something she doesn’t like.  But I don’t give her a verbal warning before every demand I make. Just sometimes.

3. I encourage and reinforce good listening.

I thank my daughter and praise her when she listens to me and does what I ask her to do. When she feels appreciated, she’ll want to do it again in the future.

4. I follow through

If my daughter doesn’t listen, I take away a warning token. When I ask my daughter to do something and she ignores me, she loses a warning token. End of story. I have to do this whether I just gave her a verbal warning or not. The token is the warning, so at this point, she’s getting warned that she might lose her treat. I can even tell her how many warnings she has left and remind her that she’s going to lose her treat eventually.

If my daughter loses her treat on the chart, she really doesn’t get her treat. Whatever it is that we agreed her treat is, if it’s off of her chart, she doesn’t get it. If I start feeling bad and give her the treat anyway, the whole chart just goes out the window, and I might as well not use it.

5. We start fresh the next day.

Even if my daughter loses her treat one day, we start fresh the next day. I reset the chart and remind her to do good listening, and always encourage her. Even if yesterday was a really tough day for listening, I don’t roll over the consequences into today. When the chart resets, it is completely reset.

Now I’m using my chart the right way, and my daughter has been ignoring me less and less, instead of more! The first few days, she lost a lot more warning tokens (not because she was listening less, but because I was doing it right). She cried when she lost them, but I helped her calm down and reminded her that she was still getting her treat, as long as she listened for the rest of the day.

After those few days, she relaxed a little about losing warnings, and started listening to me more and more. Now, she still ignores me sometimes (because that behavior won’t go away completely. She’s still a kid, after all!), but we are well on our way to developing good listening and compliance habits.

The chart is working the way it’s supposed to, and now I’ll make sure to use those tips for using the chart the right way, in order to be productive in making the behavior change I want to make.

Try it out! Download the chart and use it for your kids to see the same results.






2 thoughts on “My Kid Won’t Listen!

  1. Hi,

    In theory, I love the idea of a warning and treat chart, and i’ve been itching to use one, but I’ve been reluctant because I’ve read parenting experts who say it sends the wrong message to kids, which is that we behave for some kind of “reward” and not because we’re internally motivated (

    I’ve no parenting training whatsoever, so I’d love to hear your take on when they work, when to use them, and when they don’t work. If they’re a tool I need in my toolbox, I want to add them!


    1. Hi! I have heard people say that we shouldn’t add rewards for our kids, because they should be rewarded enough automatically, without our intervention. However, the view of behavior analysis is that every behavior is done for some reward. Every behavior has a purpose, otherwise, we would not waste our energy to do a meaningless behavior. It must have some meaning to us. Also, different people have different motivations and different reinforcers. In general, our society (our schools, our parents) have reinforcers in place that work for MOST people. Some people are not motivated by those reinforcers. As a parent, I believe that if my child needs to do a certain behavior to succeed, I need to help them to do one of two things: become motivated by that reinforcer, or find a new reason to do the behavior. When babies are born, money is no motivation for them. We teach them the value of money by using money to buy things, so that eventually, money is a reinforcer (they need money to be a reinforcer so that some day, they will go to work to have money, to survive). The same can be said of many reinforcers. For example, grades in school start of neutral, and students have to learn what they mean. Through pairing with approval and praise, they learn to want to get good grades and avoid bad grades. If that is not motivating enough, we should teach them further, possibly by making the reinforcer (grades) stronger.

      So, internal motivation is great. But I don’t think that kids should be punished if they’re not internally motivated. I think that instead of saying “well that’s too bad,” we need to teach them to find motivation. We need to add motivation. Pairing things that are already reinforcing with something neutral makes the neutral things more reinforcing (we can set this up, but sometimes it even happens in our natural environment!). Eventually, we slowly fade out the extra reinforcer, and the neutral thing is now naturally motivating enough that it might be something we’d call “internal motivation,” even though we had to teach it to our child.

      So here’s my view on sticker charts (which are a type of token system). When my child needs to (or should be) doing something, but does not have enough motivation to do it, I use those charts to add motivation. When I start off, I add in a lot of motivation. I might give her a sticker or a reward every time she does the behavior she should be doing. Then I slowly decrease the amount of the reinforcer I give her. I might give her a sticker every 2 or 3 times she does the behavior. I decrease it even more, and more, until she is more self motivated to do the behavior. At that point, I can stop using the sticker chart and she will continue to do the behavior that she didn’t do before.

      So, sticker charts shouldn’t be used just for themselves. They should be used to teach a behavior, and should slowly be faded out so that the child can continue the behavior in the natural environment. And sometimes that takes a really long time! But that’s part of being a child and learning. Sometimes we need to work really hard to teach our kids something, and they need to work really hard to learn it.

      I hope that answers your question! =) Let me know if I can help with anything else!


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