The power of stars

by mssinglemama on January 17, 2011

Disciplining solo is without a doubt one of the hardest things to master as a single mom (if you ever do).

I, for one, have yet to do so–but the older he gets, the easier it gets and when things started getting a little rough before Christmas I created a star chart in the nook.

Super simple and highly effective, so I thought I would share.

I bought some Velcro and pre-cut felt stars at the craft store. Then I took a strip of cardboard and tacked it to the wall with some ultra strong, thick tape. Next, I put the Velcro on one side of the star and the other side on the cardboard strip.

Finally, I tossed a dozen or so $1.00 toys into what I now call “The Toy Box.”

Here’s how it works.

If Benjamin listens (something we’re working on), helps with cleaning up his room or anything else that may come up–he gets a star. If he misbehaves,  a star is taken away. As soon as he hits ten he gets to pick a toy out of the toy box.

I’ve been using the star system for 8 weeks now and it’s been unbelievable. One tip, don’t be over-zealous with giving them. And follow through. One strike and a star is gone. No warnings over and over again. Just take a star away. Be sure to give them the chance to earn one back soon after though.

On average, it takes Benjamin about two-three nights to earn a full ten.

Love it.

Any other tips or tricks?

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Timi January 17, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Great idea! I am going to try it with my 3 and 6 year olds. THANKS!


Lindsey De Leo January 17, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I love, love, and then some more love this idea. My daughter is 4 as well and I like the immediacy of the consequence. Absolutely happening…I will let you know how it goes.


Priscilla January 17, 2011 at 11:25 pm

This is a GREAT idea to have in my pre-k classroom with this one child I’m having problems with right now. We’ve been through a lot with him and I HATE giving up on a child. Thanks a lot for this idea!


DharmaMama January 17, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I do something similar – but it is not as visually appealing as yours. πŸ™‚ We have those red carnival tear off tickets which go into a little box. I giveth, but I do not taketh away, which would just backfire with my DS’ personality. I do, however, remind him that if he wants a ticket, he will need to do X. I also give him a treat when he accumulates 10, and then we go back to 0. It is also stunningly effective for my DS, who I believe is the same age as yours πŸ™‚ I’m milking it for as long as it lasts.


Heather January 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

I’m a first grade teacher and a solo mama to a 7.5 year old.

I use such a system on a daily basis in my classroom, BUT I do not take away their stars. They ‘earned’ them, so it’s not fair for me to take them away.

I have learned that it is significantly more useful to focus only on the positive behaviors, which have proven to lessen the negative behaviors more naturally and in the longer term… plus it doesn’t leave the child feel like a failure for making the wrong choice. Kids are suppose to make wrong choices from time to time… they are learning.

Additionally, not receiving a star is the natural consequence of the system and if they don’t earn the star, there is no treasure basket for them.


Ms. Single Mama January 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm

You are SO right. Will implement this adjustment immediately. Thanks so much.


Eva January 18, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I am a behaviorist and use this with all of my clients (second him keeping tokens he earned)

I think it’s great you are usig it and it is working πŸ™‚


Kelli January 18, 2011 at 11:55 am

I’ve been thinking of doing something similar to this, but I keep wondering if encouraging my daughter’s good behavior so she can “earn” a gift/prize etc is healthy. I can see it from both sides, but I just can’t decide….

When do you expect them to behave nicely without a reward? Is it something that naturally happens as they get older? I just don’t want to create a overall feeling of entitlement in my daughter….

Although, I guess to some extent, as adults we’re still motivated by rewards, they’re just more subtle than a toy we get to pick.

Can someone please make the case on both sides to help me decide?!!


tela January 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm


I’m with you. I don’t really like the the idea of rewarding my son by doing what he should be doing anyway–he’s already so focused on toys and gifts, I wouldn’t feel right rewarding behavior by giving him more toys.

Not to say I don’t bribe on occasion–I totally do! If I have to run to the store and the kiddo doesn’t want to go, I pull out bribes with the quickness. When you NEED milk and there is no one else to turn to get that milk, you do what you need to do.

It’s more of the incorporating gifts into the everyday routine that I have an issue with. What I’ve been focusing on is taking away privileges if he doesn’t behave, and NOT bending. It works, for me, anyway. Yesterday we were at an indoor recreation center, and my son was tired, cranky, and starting getting snippy. I told him the next time he yelled at me, we were leaving. When he lost his patience and snapped, I told him we were leaving and got his coat and boots. He proceeded to run around the recreation center like a mad man–thinking I would chase him like a fool. I didn’t. I stood at the door and waited for him. When he finally got the idea, he came over, I told him by continuing to not listen, he lost video game privileges for the day, and we left. He cried and moaned and stalled, but I stuck to my guns.

This method works for the most part. He’s four, so he’s always testing boundaries, but “losing privileges” seems to work. Although, now after reading Heather’s post, I’m thinking I need to reward the positive somehow–I just don’t want to do it with toys…

AND…. I just wrote a book.


Ms. Single Mama January 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I hear you. I try to put in coloring books, activities. Like the things you see in that picture are wooden toys he painted… more like activities than toys.

I feel like he’s earning his rewards – like, we earn money. And since implementing this I have completely stopped just buying him toys at the store for no reason. I am guilty of spoiling, for sure.

Good questions by all. I am going to stop taking toys away like Heather recommended.


Anna January 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Kids are not as motivated by intrinsic factors (feeling good about a job well done) as by extrinsic factors (money, stars, etc.) — that’s child psychology. The idea with a system like this or with earning allowance dollars (what we do at our house), is that eventually, as they mature, they will start to understand intrinsic motivation, as well.

I agree with removing privileges for misbehavior.

PS I’m a teacher


Heather January 19, 2011 at 2:35 am

Kids ultimately want to please you, to make you happy… believe it or not. ;o) My son and my students glow when I verbally recognize them for making good choices. So often all they hear are complaints, reprimands and frustration. They are starved for positive affirmations and praise.

Spend a couple of days ONLY focusing on the positive behaviors you see… lay it on thick, make it a big deal. You’d be amazed at how quickly they will try to repeat it over and over again JUST for your praise and happiness.


Kelli January 19, 2011 at 11:48 am

Tela-what is your book about?


tela January 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Oh, ha! I just meant in my reply to your comment–I had written a book. πŸ™‚ Maybe one day I’ll write a “real” book.

All of this has me thinking, though. We have been dealing with the “I don’t waaaannnnaaa go to school.” routine every morning. It drives me crazy, makes me late for work, him late for school, and I hate starting my morning feeling frazzled andtaken advantage of by a four-year-old. I told him we’re going to make a chart, and if he doesn’t complain for ten school days, he’ll get a Vilgax. (Ben 10, anyone?)

I’m still going to expect him to pick up after himself, etc., but focus on the one or two things that are driving me crazy, like Heather said, and try to work on them.


Kelli January 19, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Hahaha…now I get it!

Erin January 18, 2011 at 12:39 pm

We use star charts at my house, too! With three boys four and under, it’s almost like having triplets. I have to keep on top of it to keep them under control! It has saved my discipline system.


Ms. Single Mama January 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm

What are your rewards, Erin? Toys or something else?


littlemansmom January 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm

LOVE it!!!!


LK January 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Great idea. I will keep this in my parent trap (my brain) for when my son gets old enough.


Star January 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Awesome! Thanks! I really need this about now!


nymama January 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Loved your idea πŸ™‚ Thanks


Leanna January 18, 2011 at 11:12 pm

That’s nigh on exactly what I used when J-Bug was younger. The only difference was we used bugs in the place of stars! πŸ™‚ We’ve gradually switched over to a new system as he’s gotten older, but it worked wonders then. Keep up the good work!


Kandi January 19, 2011 at 1:41 am

As a recently single mum of 2 boys 5 n 2 im having a lot of trouble with the disapline (it was their dad that would disapline i was 2 weak) so i will have 2 try this thank you so much


Heather January 19, 2011 at 2:22 am

I forgot to mention, I only use it for 2-3 specific behaviors/activities I find that are most disruptive or in need of attention. Additionally, I am very clear about my expectations and specific about what it looks/sounds like.

With my 7.5 year old son, we are working on cleaning his room & how to deal with his anger/frustration in a healthy manner.

So, first we cleaned his room together and made sure everything had a place; a place that felt natural for him. He was very much a part of the process of determining where things went, how and why. His room, his organizing… BUT I wanted everything off the floor, put away (not cluttering the tops of the shelf, dresser or desk) and his dirty clothes put away. I also explained why this was important, which he completely agreed and understood.

As for verbalizing anger/frustration in a healthy, respectful manner, we role played and together came up with a list of healthy things he can do when he is feeling angry/frustrated.

Also, it’s really important that kids have a say in the process and understand why it is important, as it provides better buy-in and motivates them even more. The process becomes something meaningful to them too… not just “because I said so.”

As for rewards, I don’t give toys, candy, etc. My students use their stars to earn free choice time each week or 10 minutes of extra recess. And, my son will often get to choose where we eat out on our weekly dinner night out, 20 minutes of video game time, choose one fun activity (geocaching, zoo, ride the BART or the the ferry into SF) for the weekend, etc.

Btw: I am definitely NOT a behaviorist. But, in my many years of working with children, I have found that reward systems, when used sparingly, in collaboration with the child(ren) and set up to reward positive behaviors, can be a wonderful tool.


mssinglemama January 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm


Can you just move in with us? You are amazing. Thanks for sharing all your wisdom with us.


Heather January 20, 2011 at 1:57 am

Aww, thank you.


Pretty Mama January 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I also use the star system with 3-5 specific areas I want to work on. We agree on the prizes to be received by each of the 3-5 activities on the chart. Whenever she reaches 6 stars on any of them, she gets the prize. 6 stars, because I work on a weekly basis: you’ll see, I began with the toys prizes as well, but have also included prizes that have to do with the kid spending quality time with me. Not that I think I’m so great that being with me its a prize, but for example she loves to play chess, and she specially likes when she plays against me. So, if she brushes her teeth (before I remind her to do so) before going to bed Mon-Sat she gets to play 3! matches on Saturday. It has helped me as well because of time restraints of having a full-time job and a million errands to run, it forces me to spend nice time w/her.
It works!!


Kirby January 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I am definitely going to be trying this in the next few months. My son loves to throw temper tantrums if he has to go to the grocery store or clean his room. Hopefully he will learn to earn some stars instead of throwing a fit!


singlemamalife January 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

The stars look so cute! I love the idea πŸ™‚


Mysterious Mamma January 20, 2011 at 11:19 am

What a great idea! I think this would work wonders with my 4 year old! Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚


Nicola Roberts January 21, 2011 at 12:44 am

I am a big fan of your blog!! And I LOVE this idea!
I live in Australia with my two children, 2 & 4, and I am having troubles getting them to listen to me at all, let alone do anything I ask of them. I think the ‘visual star chart’ would be a hit with them so thank you.
Off to the craft store tomorrow!
Thanks again! πŸ™‚


mgarcia January 25, 2011 at 5:10 am

My little guy is still, well, little (1yr) but I think this will be great to try when he gets a little older. My mother is my co-parent (she lives with us), and I’m not to sure how to get her to follow this once I try to implement it. She is a very old school “do it because I said so” type. Any ideas on getting her to follow along would be very welcome.


Katy January 26, 2011 at 1:24 am

Well I love the chart and everyone’s comments have given me more advice and great ideas to start our own.But whats wrong with taking away a star for misbehavior?? Im talking about when my 4 yr old hits his brother or vice versa?? I just don’t know what to do about their bickering and fighting sometimes!! It drives me crazy!! They are 3 and 4 year old cats and dogs!! Any advice would be great… Thanks Ladies


Dustie February 6, 2011 at 7:08 am

i love the chart and everyone’s thoughts and personal testimonies, but I have a 14 year old son and a 12 year old daughter and sometimes they act like there 3 and 4. Actually quite often. They fight and argue with eachother and don’t listen to me. I was hoping maybe someone on here could give me some advice that would work for my older kids? I have been a single mom to them on and off for most of there lifes and I let them get away with alot because I thought they deserved to be cut some slack since there dad was never there nor did he care to be. I now know that was a very bad decision on my part now. I can tell you single parents that no matter how bad your kids situation is or how sorry you may feel for them never cut them slack on there behavior it will come back to bite you in the rear! Any advice will be greatly appreciated


mssinglemama February 6, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Dustie. Thank YOU so much for pointing this out. I should write an entire blog post about it to get some feedback. And because this is something I know a lot of us do, but we shouldn’t.


Angela February 7, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I like this idea! I’ll have to try to figure out how to work this into our routine. Right now I’m trying to get them to value money so they can start saving for nice things they want. Still trying to get them to see that money can get them more toys. Maybe offering it more for little things. Sometimes I feel like they don’t even do little things. And I don’t want them to start threatening me … “I’ll do it if you’re going to pay me” I want them to do it because I say so.


Carrie February 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

my kids like artworks.. we will try this artworks .
thanks for sharing.


Jessica February 21, 2011 at 1:06 pm

This is a fantastic idea! Once Eli is older I’m totally going to do this! Thanks mama


Leave a Comment