Children's sticker chart

Do stickers motivate children if used as a reward in your children’s martial arts classes?

The answer to the question in the headline is ‘Of course they do, they motivate children to want stickers’. Though the answer to the question may not be what we want when trying to motivate children to try harder, pay attention or even stop playing with that dam equipment…… sorry, I was just having a flash back

Motivation often comes in two flavours, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is where you are motivated by the external outcome of the task such as stickers, trophies or a shiny new martial arts belt. Intrinsic motivation is when someone is motivated due to the enjoyment of the task itself. In general, we want to build intrinsic motivation in our children’s martial arts classes, though there are some subtilities I will go through with you.

The star and sticker charts that are so loved in schools and children’s groups are a form of behaviour modification (sometimes called operant conditioning) similar to the way that dogs are trained. The problem with this model is that once the rewards (stickers) stop, it is usually not long before the behaviour we so carefully crafted stops too. In fact, once you start rewarding activities you want the children to do using an extrinsic reward, you may also find that they start to ask for the same reward for other tasks. You want your child to tidy their toys? “What is my reward”. You want them to finish their tea? “What do I get if I do?”. At this point you are in danger of the rewards becoming currency. This behaviour can also have the side effect of causing the children to be less generous towards their peers as they start to believe that if they do anything for anyone, they should get something in return.

In one study way back in 1984, children were introduced to drink that they had never had before. One group were just asked to drink it, the second group were praised for drinking it and the last group were given treats if they drank it. As you would expect, the children that were praised or were given the external rewards drank more than the ones that were simply asked to drink it. A week later the same children were offered the drink again and the two groups that had previously drunk the most found it the least appealing compared to the ones that were simply asked to drink it, they liked it around the same as they did the previous week. Remove the stickers and you may find that students value your classes less than they did before you started distributing stickers like sweets.

Another classic study dating back to 1973 gave pre school children some paper and a set of markers and they were told to play with the markers (you will know that if you have children, they generally enjoy this activity). One group were told if they played with the markers, they would receive a certificate with a ribbon on it. The other two groups were either given no rewards or a surprise reward after playing. What the research found is that the children given the reward FOR playing were significantly less interested in playing with the markers at a later date. 

Although extrinsic rewards are often thought of as being bad, sometimes it is the way they are used that causes the problem. Many studies have shown that those that are offered an ‘if, then’ (if you do this, then you get this) carrot for completing a task do not perform the task as well as those that were not offered a reward. This is especially the case when it comes to tasks that require any level of creativity. ‘Now, that’ (now you have done this, you can have a sticker) rewards that are given without being dangled as a carrot do not seem to reduce intrinsic motivation the same as ‘If, then’ rewards. Just to be clear, offering stickers or a number of stars on a chart if they complete a specific task is an ‘If, then’ reward but randomly giving all the children stickers at the end of the class for being so well behaved would be a ‘Now, that’ reward.

If you have been coaching children’s martial arts for long enough, you will have come across a parent that bribed their child with a chocolate bar or sweets to take part in their martial arts class. Every time I see this a little part of me dies inside. Besides the child now demanding a sweet treat before they take part in any of their martial arts classes, they are also LESS motivated to want to take part in the classes in future. The parent has just taken something that the child should want to take part in because they enjoy it and created a transactional exchange. 

Child receiving a sweet reward (could easily be stickers too)


Have I ever done that with my children in the past? Yes, of course I have and I have often regretted it too. Having agreed to give an extrinsic reward one week it is pretty difficult to renegotiate the following week. Unsurprisingly, children have very good memories what it comes to times like this!

Recently I came across an interesting theory that suggests extrinsic rewards could be useful when specific tasks are never going to be intrinsically motivation. In this case there is no intrinsic motivation to erode. That said, I think you would probably get more ‘buy in’ if you can clearly explain why you are asking the child to do something not inherently fun. An example of this would be why they have to brush their teeth twice a day.

So if stickers and star charts don’t build the type of motivation, what does? 

I could write a whole book on motivation, decision making and habits but this blog post has already over 1000 words and I fear that adding more content could be too overwhelming to consume in one bite. I will leave you with some tips that incorporate the great work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan that formulated Self Determination theory (SDT). 

1. Make the activities fun and age appropriate. It isn’t that the children have to be able to do everything you ask of them but they should feel that they are capable of achieving anything with practice

2. Create opportunities for the children to spend time with their friends in the class and even build new friendships. You will often see a dip in motivation when children move classes and they don’t know anyone in the new class.

3. Build ‘options’ in your session plans where the children get to make some choices. This could be as simple as picking a colour or choosing which animal they are going to move like (even if they decide they want to be a dinosaur). Don’t spend each session stood at the front of the class shouting at the children like they are the latest batch of recruits for the navy seals programme. While that actually be a fun game as a one off, it does not create a supportive learning environment.

So please, put the stickers back in the cupboard and just teach a great syllabus in an engaging way. Get to know the children and have fun with them. Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t worry when some of the classes don’t look as perfect as a choreographed dance. At some point you will hopefully realise that learning can be messy. 

We also need to accept that if we do everything that we can and the child is still not interested in our classes, it may it is just not be for them. In many cases it’s the parents that chose the activities for the children and occasionally the parents want them to take part more than the child does. In this case it’s best just to have a word with the parent and ask them to have a conversation with the child outside the club environment to see if they do actually want to take part. While I would fully agree that martial art training could benefit almost anyone, this does not mean that everyone it is the right fit for martial art. 

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4 thoughts on “Do stickers motivate children if used as a reward in your children’s martial arts classes?”

  1. Great thought provoking article. I have used stickers in the past(I used them more when teaching PE in Primary Schools)and I do always carry some with me, but I can’t remember the last time I used them for reward in my Martial Arts classes. Maybe my Students are Intrinsically motivated and I don’t feel the need to use stickers ? Love the last paragraph. I had a parent sign up her son the other day but asked if she would get charged if her son didn’t want to attend, after she consulted with him. I asked her to read through the Welcome information and see if it fits with what she would like, then communicate to the son, as I would really want him to make the decision ! I’m sure no of us wants any child in our classes that do not want to be there! It’s not fair on them or us! 😁

    1. Yes, we have also used stickers at the club in the past and still do now and again but normally as a ‘Now, that’ reward. At home, we have used them with my 3 year old daughter to encourage her to brush her teeth. I think i can safely say that brushing her teeth is not a task she is ever going to enjoy intrinsically 🙂

      At some point, it would be great to write some posts for instructors to share with the parents at their clubs. It would just help make sure the parents are on the same page as the coaches.

  2. Christine McGovern

    Very interesting and thought provoking article. I can identify with a lot of what you have written as an educator, parent and in the past helping the younger children in Taekwondo classes. It can be all too easy to use extrinsic rewards to motivate children but in reality as you point out what we all want is for children to be motivated because they are enjoying what they do. Therein lies the challenge for educators and sports coaches alike. I do feel also, in relation to sport participation, it can be the adults that are more motivated for their children to take part rather than the children themselves actually wanting to do it. As a result motivation, behaviour etc can become an issue.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to contribute Christine. I totally agree that sometime’s the parents want the children to take part more than than the children. This is ok as long as the child still wants to take part. Where we have to draw the line is when the child no longer has the motivation to take part.

      Yes, speak to the child to make sure there is nothing untoward but ultimately you can lead a horse to water ……… We go as far as to have the following line in our ‘Parents code of conduct’:-

      4. Never force your child to take part in sport

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