Dollar Bin Discipline: Six Ideas for Young Children

I’m not a child psychologist or behavioral specialist. I listen to experts speak, subscribe to parenting newsletters and collaborate with fellow moms, doctors and educators, but when it comes down to it, I’m trial and error-ing my way through motherhood with the best of them. As a teacher’s daughter and (non)stay-at-home mom with a preschooler and toddler, I’ve gotten creative with items found around the house. I print free from online or purchase for a few dollars here and there positive reinforcement and teaching tools to help fill our days with more smiles than tears and good times than time-outs.

What works for my child may not work for yours and different methods work for different madness – new ages and phases call for unique approaches. From bedtime resistance and potty-training trials to instilling a greater sense of responsibility, there seems to always be a new challenge. Consistency is ideal, but change is inevitable. While my five-year-old understands charts and the virtue of patience (usually), my son needs instant gratification, applause and cuddles.

There are different schools of thought on using rewards in parenting, but the CDC and many professionals agree, rewards can encourage good behaviors and help get your child to do more of the things you want her or him to do. They can be used to “increase self-esteem” and “help improve your relationship with your child.” When combined with encouragement and praise (and, of course, clear rules and reasonable expectations), I find a little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

These inexpensive visual aids and strategies have helped us through the early years:

  1. Good Habits/Chore Chart ($3, Target Dollar Spot) – I’m a list-maker who enjoys checking off my accomplishments. Children can track their completion of daily age-appropriate responsibilities using magnets or stickers. This can be taken a step further by assigning a reward for completion over a set period of time.
  2. Traffic Light with Sticker Chart (colored paper plates, ribbon, glue or tape, eyeball stickers, marker and clothespin; painted wood shape $1.29, Michael’s) – A kindergarten teacher friend shared this idea, which works in conjunction with a sticker chart. The child’s marker starts at green (happy face). Keep it there or move it up (to purple/excited) or down (to yellow/caution or red/unhappy face) based on positive or negative behaviors. The highest level is reserved for extra special thoughtful/helpful actions. Sticker values can be assigned to each plate level. Based on where the marker is at the end of the day, you and your child add one or two stickers or keep the chart as is. Once the chart is full – or, if you’d like, for every five or ten spaces – a reward can be offered, such as a special one-on-one parent outing, or trip to a treasure box.
  3. Treasure Box or Goodie Bag (bin/basket filled with Target Dollar Spot or dollar store items ranging from $1-5) – I find it helpful to have an assortment of small “treasures” on hand to save me trips to the store and give me control over what my children select. I typically offer items that promote creativity and learning as opposed to candy or less educational toys. This may be used in conjunction with a sticker chart or combined with an “allowance.”
  4. Proud Shopper (play money from a board game or toy cash register, tickets or felt play money, 3 dollar Target Dollar Spot) – Similar to an allowance for older children, completing age-appropriate chores or consistently demonstrating desired behaviors allows the child to earn coupons or “money” they can spend or save for items of varying, simple values from a pretend store or treasure bin. Not only do I encourage my child to identify needs around the house, propose solutions and initiate the actions, but the “money” concept reinforces decision-making, math and saving skills.
  5. The Last Straw (a plastic cup with three straws) – A speech pathologist friend suggested this “three strikes and you’re out” visual aid, which is reserved for when I’m on my last nerve (hence the name). A straw is removed for undesired behaviors and once the straws are gone, a consequence follows or a desirable item (dessert, etc.) is taken away.
  6. Token Board or “I am working for…” Chart (created with stickers and at-home laminator based on Pinterest images) – This tool is often used in ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), a scientifically proven teaching method to increase desired behaviors by using positive reinforcement. I learned about this chart from a Nashville Moms Blogger who writes about ABA methodology more extensively. She describes the token board working like this: When good behavior is observed (such as playing nicely with a sibling or asking for help vs. whining/screaming), a reward is provided iBad behavior is ignored. Desired behaviors yield tokens on the chart. In the beginning, find every opportunity to hand one out. Once five tokens are earned, the reward is given. The reward can be anything that motivates the child (a cookie, time on the iPad, stickers, etc.), but it can only be given for the token board. If your child is in the middle of an undesirable behavior, you cannot say, “If you stop I’ll give you __”. That’s bribery. Reminding your child what they are working for throughout the day is the correct approach.

I also reinforce behavior lessons with the Toddler Tools® Series of board books by Elizabeth Verdick, which includes Calm Down Time, Sharing Time and Manners Time. While these are the priciest items included here (about $7-8 each online), we have a collection because the simple pictures and catchy verbiage resonate with my kids, plus there are helpful tips for parents in the back.

Not every day is sunshine and rainbows (most of ours aren’t Insta-ready), but maybe these ideas can help you avoid – or at least weather – some storms.

How do you encourage or reward good behavior? Really, I want to know in case these techniques don’t work next week!

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Lindsey Geiss

Lindsey Geiss is a public relations and crisis communications planning professional turned stay-at-home mom and writer. When she’s not handling local early childhood PTA publicity, she’s getting crafty with the kids, researching allergy-friendly toddler snacks, or finding and wrapping that perfect gift. Lindsey is a shoe-lover, jump rope enthusiast and recovering perfectionist. She lives on the West side of Cleveland with her husband and two young children.

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