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#87 The worst and best way to use Stickers in Teaching & Practicing

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

By Christy | the Practicing Pro

You can also Watch / Listen to the Live HERE

Hello, Practicing friends,

Stickers can be a powerful tool when practicing, or they can publicly discourage a child. Let's dive into the things to never do with stickers and some ideas to use stickers to motivate your children.

Use stickers to acknowledge WORK, not accomplishments. Use stickers to show your progress and work not to compare children to others.

Let's start with my favourite way to use stickers in music lessons. Wow, this one works like gold! Then let's look at why it works and how it can be good, better and best.

The stickers on the shirt activity

In a practice, the child is given a task with clear and achievable expectations. The student works hard on a task given, and a sticker is put on the front of their shirt to show their hard WORK.

Fun variation

Sometimes if I know them well, I will start at the top of their shirt and try to make it to the bottom of their shirt in a big line by the end of the lesson. You have to know them well enough to gauge the number of tasks and difficulty based on their energy for that day to make sure that they will make it to the end of their shirt. Usually, I don't say anything about this challenge until they are ‘almost there” then like a discovery, I say something like “Oh my goodness! If we do 4 more you can go all the way to the bottom of your shirt! Aaah that's so much work today! We have enough time - let's DO IT!” That way it gives them a little extra spirit of energy to finish up their lesson especially if they are starting to get tired which is often the case!

Here is a walk-through example of “Stickers on their shirt” Johnny, let's play a hardworking sticker game to work on our new nugget in Minuet 3 - this nugget is at the bottom of the second page, so you can follow along in your book and take notes on all of the ways we practice it to do this week at home. Every time we work together on the nugget 5 times, you can point to a sticker you like. I’ll take it off and put it on your shirt. After your lesson, you and your mom can decide where you will put them. For each sticker, we will be working on something specific, and I’ll tell you exactly what it is. First, we will work on hopping the third finger staying on the thumb side corner let's hop it 10 times. After we do it, then you point to it, and I'll put it on your shirt. After our lessons, you and your Dad can decide where you will put your hardworking stickers.

Things to notice here - Johnny is getting a sticker for 5 times working hard NOT 5 times for getting it correct. If you do want to give it to him for getting something correct 5 times, then make it very specific and not an opinion. For example, land at the end of these five notes on a C sharp. Count that 7 times and you be the detective and notice if the c sharp landed on the tape. If it did, then you can count it. Having the child listen and decide is a great way to teach them to “notice” and be in charge. If you did give them this task, you need to make sure you don't disagree or correct them. If you do this one and they don't notice and think things are correct when they are not then look at the task, was it too hard for them? Don't say anything but take note that for this child in this situation, this didn't work.

As the lesson progresses, then you can say things like - wow, look at all this hard work! So many hardworking stickers! This hardworking sticker line is so long!

Avoid saying things like “you are so hardworking” when we say YOU are hardworking then we start to create an identity for our child - “You're so hardworking” gives a “hardworking” identity for the child. This can result over time in them not wanting to try new things because they might not be able to do them or they might feel tired or overwhelmed. Before taking on a new challenge, they might say to themselves oh no, what if I don't succeed, then am I not hardworking anymore? Will I disappoint everyone? You are so…. Any label tells a child that they ARE that thing and are identified by it. I can do this because I am hardworking, which is a mindset. If I can't do this, then I better stop trying. Hard work is not a fixed thing. One day you might be tied or discouraged and might not be as hardworking as another day. What you want to teach them is to work hard and keep trying and if you can't do something, then break it into small pieces and try again. You can say things like - wow how are you having so much energy today to work so hard? And look how much energy you have to work so hard today! (pointing to the long row of stickers)

When using stickers, remember these important things

Give a sticker for work and effort and not for getting something correct. Focus on them to count with or to “see” progress not as a reward like getting a gift from you. Sometimes check with a pencil on a chart as well. Use the time while putting the sticker on the chart to move it to an intrinsic experience. Talk about when putting the sticker on the chart how good it feels that you worked so hard or didn't give up till you got it, or learned it then repeated it when it was easy 7 times which means they will remember it tomorrow easier, etc… make the thinking about what they learned and how hard they worked not “You did something I think was good, and now I am giving you a reward or present”.

An example that's easy to see is to focus on effort and not a result.

This basketball is an example easy way to understand focusing on effort and not result. Let's say you got a sticker after you worked hard for 15 minutes getting baskets in the net. You got some and you missed some. The number of baskets were not counted but each miss a small adjustment was made until it went in the basket. When giving the sticker, you say “Wow we both worked hard today on shooting our baskets. How does that feel?”

Something to avoid is counting the balls that go in and giving a sticker if they got ten or more and not giving one when they don’t. This sends the clear message they are valued when they get the ball in but not when they don't.

Another option could be giving a sticker for every 5 baskets they got in and seeing how many stickers they can get in 15 minutes. This is better but really you are saying more is better and less is not as good. They might be afraid to really try since then that's the new expectation. What if they are tired that day they might not want to come? The rest of their day will be better when they get 4 stickers but the day they get 1 sticker, they might lose confidence the rest of the day.

The very first example was based purely on effort.

Let's look at it again.

You got a sticker after you worked hard for 15 minutes getting baskets in the net. You got some, and you missed some. The number of baskets were not counted but each miss a small adjustment was made until it went in the basket. When giving the sticker, you say “Wow we both worked hard today on shooting our baskets. How does that feel?”

This could also work.

You could say - how hard did you work today. You choose based on how hard you worked 1-3 stickers and collect them on a card. This is their personal card not on display.

Remember NEVER compare children and give a sticker to the person who got the most baskets.

Instead of saying what a “hard worker you are”.

You can say you did your nugget carefully 5 times. You did that 10 times today! I see all your work right here and point to the 10 stickers. That's so much work! What do you think about that?

You always want to praise your child, and any praise at all is GOOD instead of criticism. That's the first step. (Sticker comparison charts have unsaid criticism on them.)

BETTER is praise that focuses on specific things they are doing and

BEST praise helps them to grow by focusing on the actions and effort given at the time rather than their innate abilities or accomplishments or labels, “You played that so musically, especially the vibrato you used on the longer notes” instead of “You are so musical”.

Giving praise that’s about what's going on right now and is focused on their actions and not their character will help your children become confident in their abilities. By doing this, eventually, they will grow to be self-directed and do things on their own, being resilient to making a mistake and learning from it instead of getting discouraged from it making it a personal thing.

Key words here - “See your hard work”

Younger children especially don't have a sense of time yet.

If it's boring for them, it feels like hours (like waiting in a line at the store, or a long drive in the car) if it's fun to them then the time zooms by and hours seem like minutes (playing at the park or at a friends house).

By commenting on how much work they did by LOOKING at the long line of stickers for example in the sticker shirt activity, it helps them see and feel the repetitions you did. They can feel the time better 5 times = 1 sticker. That time can be felt. They can do 10 stickers, one at a time = 50 times and it won't seem hard. Compare that to saying we are going to do this 50 times! They would probably freak out and start out at the beginning thinking “Too many I can't do this” and their energy would be low and get lower with time and they would be easily discouraged along the way. Alternatively telling them to keep doing it but not telling the number would also be dreading to them and they will not want to be around the teacher or parent “Who is too hard and asks too much”. The shirt sticker activity though provides a way for 50 to be an easy and fun number feeling good and confident.

To learn more about how your child is motivated I recommend the “Level-Up your practicing” mini-course and challenge from Practicing Pro. It's 5 days of experiments you do in your practices or weekly lessons. At the end, you send me the answers to the questions from the experiments and I'll send you a personal analysis JUST for you about how your child is motivated with a few specific examples to use for YOU when practicing or any type of work like cleaning your room or raking leaves.

Key things - sending a photo or others seeing their stickers

Stickers are an outward thing. You can see them. It's proof of something well done and acknowledged. When I do the stickers on the shirt activity in a lesson, I’ll often say - Oooh! let's take a photo of you with all of your hardworking stickers and send it to your (the parent not at the lesson) Mom so she can see all the work you did today at your lesson.

By taking a picture and sharing, you are letting them feel really good about what they accomplished today. Make this even better - one day, take a photo and send it with as much enthusiasm with three stickers as a day in the past with 13 stickers. This will show them that they are celebrated for their efforts and work and sometimes three is just as amazing as 13.

The other key thing here is that you are opening up a conversation with others, and the child to be asked - what are the stickers for? “I worked so hard at my violin lesson today!”

What to NEVER do with stickers - a family, siblings, class or studio sticker chart

This is the worst way to use stickers and I say just DON’T do it.

Never have a sticker chart showing one child's progress against another. Always use sticker charts instead to show one student's work against themselves only.

So a 100-day chart or a review chart is GREAT!

In a public space where stickers show progress in a group - it seems like “healthy competition,” but it is not. The problem is those that have more stickers feel great about themselves and are either motivated to see themselves get the end first OR they won't work as hard seeing they are ahead of everyone else. Either option is not what you want.

Alternatively, if a child is behind with the least stickers, it could motivate them to pull up their socks and keep up to or pass their peers but more likely it will discourage them and they won’t feel good about themselves.

Instead, privately award a student with a sticker. Then it's the best of both worlds - they can be motivated to continue and they are not feeling better than their peers or less than their peers. Weight watchers ( when I went 20 years ago) did a great job at this you get your own chart and you keep it. At a certain point in the meeting anyone that accomplished a certain thing gets a sticker and everyone claps for their hard work. They are acknowledged publicly which feels great and get a sticker (even adults love this) but it's a personal win and it goes on tier own chart to be measured against their own goal and progress not the whole group's.

The power of stickers! It doesn’t matter the age, as proven by my middle schoolers, elementary students, and teachers during teacher training. Stickers are not only nostalgic reminders of childhood happiness (except when I stuck them to the minivan windows — not advisable) but they are tangible expressions of something positive and good.

Privately awarded stickers give confidence and encouragement.

Studio-wide or family activities with stickers

If you use stickers to represent work and want to display it - display without names (names can be on the back)

Christmas trees

We just finished a Christmas tree activity last month for practicing over the Holiday break. This works like a charm. See Blog All of the students in the school participate, it’s their Christmas gift from me. They put on ornament stickers for hardworking tasks - different for all students and decided on by their teachers/parents. No one knows what they are but them. They get a present under the tree for each time they share their music with someone else and I put those all on when they return after break plus a star at the top of the tree for everyone. I put one present on everyone's no matter what. They hang on a line. It feels encouraging to everyone to see all of the other kid’s hard work. The names are on the BACK so it's not a display of who did the most concerts or who practiced the most.

Valentine jewels on hearts

This one is also GREAT! It's one week of hardworking Valentines. Afterwards, they can give it to someone. Actually, IN the lesson (like the stickers on their shirts) they fill the heart with jewels after hard work in lessons. Some teachers do one lesson and others two lessons. The teachers LOVE this week and report back that the students go in ready to work and leave excited to hold their own hearts on the lines. Again there isn't comparing for this one- the name is on the back and the rules for earning a jewel are all different so they don't compare. They also want to do a design or random so it's not a comparison line chart.

Hanging them all on a wall (names on the back)

This celebrates the collective work of everyone as a community and sends the message that all play their part and no one is counting the amount from one person, but the collective result is incredible with all contributing.

100-day challenges - stickers are fun and add variety and something they can “Do” that's very satisfying.

You can also do an activity with stickers and take a photo then share that with everyone in a big group. For example - a 100-day challenge post each time someone finishes it. What is the difference between a single post and a sticker chart? A sticker chart is like someone holding up their done charts up and a child is standing on either side of them with theirs only half done - you would never do that right? So don't use a sticker chart either.

When doing the 100-day challenge take a photo at the end and post it, put it in a book, I had a 100 twinkle photo album for years before social media. The kids would all eventually do 100 twinkles and get their photos in the book. It did say how many days it took them or when they finished, it was a straight-up accomplishment recognition without comparing. This can be very effective.

In the 100-day challenge - bigger stickers at stops along the way

Break the stickers up so every 5-10 it's a bigger one or their favourite one.

Success notes when giving out stickers

Note - when giving stickers to a student to “pick” give them a few to choose from NOT a whole page. It’s too much to choose from and they will take too long or get stressed.

Give a few 5 or 6 to choose from.

Have them point and YOU take the sticker off. I tell them we will put them on their shirt in music lesson and they can transfer them after where ever they decide with their parent.

Some materials won't stick and once in a while they say NO but then I'll line them up along the stand for afterward,

Never let them peel the sticker off - too slow- and then they put it somewhere - takes too much time and breaks the teacher-child learning bubble.


Stickers are not just tokens; they are badges of honour. They represent something done. They can represent effort and dedication. Kindness, a student was helping another student to do something. Going the extra mile - and cleaning up the table AND doing the extra and wiping it too! Then the student looks at the sticker later and knows “I went the extra mile” see how that’s more powerful than “I cleaned the table when I was told” that's good “But I went the extra mile.” that's better! They are more powerful when given at random times and privately.

Not only is it a concrete acknowledgment to get a sticker, but it also can be public — like the sticker on the shirt practice activity - one that can be seen by other students, teachers, and family members. Maybe later that day for the basketball example another person will say what are those stickers for? And they can reply “I worked on my basketball shots really hard for 15 minutes”! (instead of I got 10 baskets) Or, the child with a line of stickers down their shirt will say “that's all the hard work I did in my violin class today!”(instead of I did my nugget 50 times).

This is the test :) Their language when asked about them. How they reply is the message that the teacher or parent sent as the giver.

Are you going “Ahhh….I am not doing this right!” no worries. Giving a sticker in any way at all is positive and that's GOOD. Now you can Level up with some of the suggestions I talked about today and go for BETTER, and if you are already doing a lot of these things then you can go for BEST! We are always learning, I am always learning, I learned some new things preparing this Blog and Live today - so I thank you for this opportunity. This is something to always work on and get better at.

If you need more step-by-step help to work on this in your practice, then you can join the Practicing Pro Academy. It’s a 6-week step-by-step, do-at-your-own pace, online course. In Module 3, it includes how to find nuggets and how to make practice charts. In Module 4 one of the lessons is on how to give clearer tasks and another covers dozens of ways to repeat in practice to make it more fun and to accomplish more. In Module 5 in one section I give you a whole bank of words to saying in practice time that is better and best to work on. You learn more about praising effort and also how to give rewards that bring intrinsic motivation.

This is what Corrine said: “…What a lifelong gift I have been able to

give my son by learning to practice effectively

like this. We have had some really fun

practices too with Christy's practice

activities. I can’t imagine now looking

back, our lives without music! It was hard

at the beginning, but we learned from

Christy all of the skills to get started and be

successful and now we can’t ever look back!”

Thanks, Corrine! Hey, you’ve got this, and we’ve got this together!

Have a great week discovering ways to use stickers to build your students' confidence and motivate them in their practices. Give the Stickers on your shirt activity a try and let me work for you. I also love pictures to share!

Check out my Free PDF download Checklist for a Successful Music Practice for teachers and practicing parents.

Your easy checklist for successful home music practices from Christy, the practicing pro. Whether you are a new or seasoned practice parent or music teacher, this checklist will help you organize before, during, and after practices for effective and fun practices.

INVITATION from Christy Hodder:

Speaking of amazing practices, let me tell you all about the digital course, the Practicing Pro Academy. This is for the serious practicing parents and music teachers and is an at-your-own-pace, step-by-step, online course to bring you more effective, positive, and fun home music practices. Registrants receive a special package in the mail from me, and I am with you in person with Q&As to answer all your questions.

Learn more about PPA and join the waitlist HERE for the next Practicing Pro Academy course. It's only offered once a year so you don't want to miss it. The registration will only open for a few weeks and I'll let everyone on the waitlist know immediately so that you can grab one of the spots.

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