The Ticket System for Corrective Discipline

I developed "Tickets" in response to the observation that time-out only works with children who are already fairly well behaved. (Then again, just about any demonstration of parental disapproval will work with children who generally walk the straight and narrow.) When it comes to children who misbehave fairly frequently—a good number of whom will not cooperate with the instruction to sit still in a chair for five minutes!—you'll find that time-out only works temporarily, if at all. Time-out is simply not a powerful behavioral deterrent, and only powerful messages get through to High Misbehavers.

Tickets send a much more powerful message than time-out and is generally a good place to start a three- to thirteen-year-old child's rehabilitation process (as well as your own). I don't recommend Tickets (or any of the other strategies in this chapter, for that matter) with children who are younger than three or older than twelve. Two-year-olds don't think ahead. Consequently, they are generally unable to predict consequences, which the success of a method like Tickets requires. With teens, a structured approach of this sort may provoke an upsurge in misbehavior, especially defiance. Tickets has brought about positive outcomes with a very select number of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, but the decision to use it with that age child needs to be made prudently.

To begin using Tickets, you'll need: a refrigerator magnet, a magnetic clip, three to five "tickets" (two-by-five-inch rectangles cut from colored construction paper1), and a list of target misbehaviors—misbehaviors that you are "targeting" for elimination. Here's an example:

Target Behaviors
1. Refusing to obey instructions
2. Yelling at us
3. Teasing the dog.
4. Jumping on furniture.
5. Sneaking food into your room.

It's very important that you specify your child's target misbehaviors in terms that are concrete rather than abstract. "Being disrespectful to us" is an example of the latter and will only cause a child to have to engage in a longer period of testing in order to find out what "being disrespectful" actually means. In this case, it will be helpful to all concerned if the target is "Calling us names, like 'stupid' or 'dumb.'" For children who are not yet able to read, simple drawings such as the ones shown below (don't be concerned about artistic quality—stick figures will do) can substitute for word descriptions. However, if parents are consistent with enforcement, this level of concreteness won't be necessary. With repetition, even a young three-year-old will quickly figure out what his or her target misbehaviors are.

In most cases, and especially with three-, four-, and five-year-olds, I recommend starting with one target behavior (in picture form or in bold print on an index card) and five tickets. When the initial misbehavior is pretty well under control and has been for at least a week, a second target can be added to the list. When that's under control, you can add a third, and so on. Even with an older child who is High Misbehaver, I strongly encourage you to resist the temptation to try and eliminate all of a child's misbehaviors at once. If you let your frustration and impatience get the better of you, you are likely to make matters worse instead of better. With a child older than five, start with no more than three misbehaviors that can be clearly identified.

A mother recently asked if she could put "general disrespect" on the target list. When I asked her to be more specific, she said when she reprimanded her eleven-year-old daughter, the child often grinned and/or rolled her eyes.

I said, "Your daughter is trying to tell you that you're using too many words. You're talking too much, going needlessly on and on and on with a lot of yada-yada."
The mother looked at me for several seconds and said, "You're absolutely right."

I said, "Been there, done that."

"So," she said, "you're saying that particular misbehavior is my fault."

"Right, but I'd say it's your 'doing' as opposed to your 'fault.' Therefore, it should not be on the list." I further suggested to her that she make a Target Misbehavior List for herself and put "Yada-yada" at the top.

Things like eye-rolling and grinning are static, white noise. They are not the real problem. Furthermore, they are often (more often than not, in fact) understandable reactions to parents who get bad cases of "motor mouth" when their kids misbehave. Ignore them and they generally go away.

At this point I need to say something VERY IMPORTANT: Just like you can micromanage a child's homework or social life or after-school time, you can micromanage a child's discipline. In whatever context, micromanagement creates problems. Sometimes, as is the case when parents micromanage homework, the problem doesn't show up until later (in the form of a dependent child who does not think he or she is capable of solving problems without other people's help). When parents micromanage discipline by picking and harping on static like eye-rolling, they provoke even more insolence and defiance. So ignore this stuff (and stop saying this stuff!):

Eye-rolling ("Don't you dare get that look on your face!")
Slumped body posture ("Stand up straight when I talk to you!")
Lack of eye contact ("Look at me when I talk to you!")
Grinning ("Wipe that grin off your face young lady!")
Incredulous facial expression ("Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about!")

Affix your Target Misbehavior List (TML) to the refrigerator with a magnet.2 The tickets are put in the magnetic clip, then stuck on the refrigerator, right above or alongside the TML. Hold on, I see I have a question.

Q: "How many tickets should I start with, John?"
A: I generally recommend starting with no more than three clearly defined target behaviors and five tickets per day. With three-year-olds, however, start with one target behavior and five tickets. Having too many targets is overwhelming; too many tickets and the program becomes meaningless.

The Procedure: Every time the child exhibits one of his target misbehaviors, the parent closest to the scene . . .
1. . . . takes the child to the refrigerator, points to the appropriate item on the list, and says (for example), "Teasing the dog is on your list, which means I'm taking (or you're losing) a ticket."
2. The parent takes a ticket out of the clip and places it on top of the refrigerator.
3. (Optional) A time-out of five to fifteen minutes can also be enforced (see chart below). If time-out is used, the location should be relatively isolated and the period should be defined by a timer as opposed to the parent saying, "You can get up now." If your child won't cooperate in time-out, or has great difficulty sitting still for any period of time, either dispense with it or simply tell him that he can trade his time-out for another ticket. ("If you'd rather not go to the time-out seat for ten minutes, that's fine. Just let me know and I'll take another ticket instead.") By the way, I know it seems like I'm contradicting myself here. I did say that time-out doesn't work. That's true, but let me be more specific: time-out doesn't work by itself. However, when it's used as a supplement to a program like Tickets, it can be very helpful, if only to give the parent and child a "cooling off" period.

When the last ticket is taken, the child incurs a consequence or consequences. Not something small, mind you, like taking away his favorite toy or one privilege for the rest of the day. The consequence has got to reflect the Agony and Godfather Principles. I generally recommend confining the child to his or her room for the remainder of the day (he can come out to use the bathroom, eat meals with the family, do chores, and leave the house with the family if there's no option) and putting him to bed at least one hour earlier than usual. For obvious reasons, I generally recommend that the "play value" of the child's room be significantly reduced during his rehabilitation. The next day, all of the child's tickets are restored—the proverbial slate is wiped clean. Do not carry unused tickets over to the following day. For example, if your child's daily complement of tickets is five, and he loses only three one day, he still begins the next day with five tickets.

Obviously, all misbehaviors are not equal. Hitting you is certainly more egregious than yelling, "You're stupid!" Outrageous, highly antisocial behaviors—generally, those that are aggressive, hurtful, or destructive—should result in the loss of more than one ticket at a time. In fact, I recommend that any act of physical aggression—hitting, kicking, spitting—toward a parent, sibling, or pet results in the loss of all remaining tickets, regardless of whether the aggression hit the mark or not.

You can also "override" the program at your discretion. Say your child is working on three target misbehaviors and has five tickets per day. You receive a call from his fifth-grade teacher who reports that he called her "stupid" in front of the class. The Ticket system could not possibly have anticipated this. You could take away all of your child's tickets for that day, but spending the rest of the after-school day in his room is not going to be an adequate response to an offense of that nature. So, you override the program. In addition to making him write his teacher a letter of apology and read it in front of the class, you take away all of your child's privileges and confine him to his room (which you have stripped of "play value") for a week.

The success of the program depends on you. In that regard, you absolutely must observe the "Referee's Rule": no threats, warnings, or second chances. When your child misbehaves, it is essential that you not say things like, "Do you want to lose a ticket?" or, "If you don't do what I just told you to do, I'm going to take a ticket." Also, do not allow a child to earn back tickets with good behavior or acts of service. Lost is lost. If your child tries to bargain with you over lost tickets, saying, "If I'm good, will you give me a ticket back?" simply say, "No, because I expect you to be good."

As your child's behavior improves, the number of daily tickets can be gradually reduced so as to keep pressure on him or her to continue making progress. Or you can add misbehaviors, one at a time, to the target list. Do not, however, add targets and reduce tickets at the same time. Do one or the other. When your child has managed to keep his misbehaviors under control for three to four weeks, it's time to see how he will do off the program. Generally speaking, full rehab takes six to twelve weeks, after which your child will be perfectly behaved, forever.

Q: Can I use Tickets to deal with misbehavior that occurs away from home?
A: Absolutely. One of the advantages of Tickets is it's portable. Say, for example, that your four-year-old misbehaves in the car or a store. You can simply say, "Refusing to do what I tell you to do is on your list. When we get home, you will lose a ticket and sit for fifteen minutes in time-out."

You can also use Tickets to deal with nothing but misbehavior that occurs in public places. Before going into a public situation with your child—a store, for example—stop and say something along this line: "The rules in stores are very simple. First, you stay with me unless I have given you permission to leave my side for some reason. Second, you don't touch anything without my permission. Third, do not interrupt me when I'm talking with someone else."

At that point, you hand over three to five tickets (the actual number is a judgment call based on the child's age, the length of time you'll be in the store, and the history of the problem) and say, "These tickets are going to help you remember the rules. Every time you break one of the rules, I'm going to take a ticket away from you. When we get home, you must have at least one ticket left in order to enjoy your privileges for the rest of the day. If you lose all of your tickets in the store, then you will not be allowed to go outside, watch television, or play video games for the rest of the day, and I will put you to bed right after supper."

Having a discipline plan enables you to keep your balance, your cool, when a problem occurs. In the past, when your child darted away from you in a store or put his fingers on an expensive breakable item, you became instantly flustered. Now, however, you simply remind him of the rule and take a ticket.

The punitive consequence can be anything your child is looking forward to doing later in the day, but again, it should be a privilege. Do not offer him a reward for behaving properly in public (this applies to proper behavior in any context). Contrary to what most people think, and as I've said in Chapter One, rewards are not effective motivators. The best way to use rewards is to surprise, rather than bribe. For example, if your child behaves exceptionally well in a store and keeps all, or most of, his tickets, you can (but are not obligated to) honor the achievement with a surprise ice-cream cone. But beware! Don't do this so often that he comes to expect a reward, or you just might undo what Tickets has helped you accomplish.

Parents Say It Works!

"I just want to say thanks for the idea of the ticket system and encourage others to use it to eliminate unwanted behaviors. It's been a success with our three-year-old, stopping whining, tantrums, talking back, and saying to 'no' to us. He looks forward to getting his tickets every morning and playing the Ticket Game (which he always wins now!). He started being aggressive toward other kids at preschool. As you suggested, the school called me, I picked him up, and he stayed in his room the rest of the day and went to bed right after supper. He said, 'Mommy, that was not fun. I never want to do that again!' Since implementing your tactics, our son is so much happier, and so are we. Even his teachers have noticed and have commended us. Thanks so much."

"I have a normally very obedient three-year-old daughter, but lately I've had several problems with disrespect and disobedience. After one extremely stressful day with her, I remembered the ticket system, which I had done briefly with her about a year ago. The next day I posted three target misbehaviors. She lost all her tickets by that afternoon and went to her room. By the next day her behavior had drastically improved and has been much better since. I discontinued it after a week. I know that the tickets system usually takes longer and was probably started for more long-term problems, but I just wanted to share how it can also be used for issues that are more temporary. It's just a good way to be more matter of fact and less emotional about misbehavior."

From "The Well-Behaved Child," Copyright 2009, John K. Rosemond

Become A Member To Get More From ParentGuru®

Members enjoy access to all articles.


View All Articles