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WVU researcher offers chart to help parents during pandemic

Nonstop family time during the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified challenges for parents caring for young children around the clock.

Using research-backed therapies that she helped pioneer, a West Virginia University psychology professor has quick relief strategies for parents struggling with child misbehavior during the lockdown.

Cheryl McNeil’s Cooperation Chart is a tool parents and caregivers can use to help communicate with their children about their behaviors, using praises and warnings to identify positive and negative actions, respectively.

“The demands of parents have grown exponentially because of COVID-19. Social distancing has challenged families with managing a healthy work-life balance. Parents are struggling with disruptive behaviors from their children more so now than ever,” McNeil said. “When families are under stress, as is the case during a pandemic, extra motivation may be needed to make positive sibling interactions​, household chores and cooperation with parent requests a priority. The chart is a helpful tool for encouraging that motivation.”

The chart can be printed from the Cooperation Chart website or drawn by families as an engaging art project. It has two columns per child, one for happy faces and one for sad.

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to acknowledge behavior with their children throughout the day by identifying both positive and negative actions and tallying them on the chart. If a child receives mostly happy faces at the end of the time period, they receive a surprise reward.

McNeil said it is important to place the chart where both the caregivers and children can easily see it and interact with it throughout the day.

The key to using the chart is consistency, so caregivers should review behaviors after each meal, McNeil said.

“We want to tally the happy and sad faces at three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. By providing rewards after each meal, it helps us to remember to reinforce our children’s positive behavior throughout the day,” McNeil said. “Dividing the day into three segments also allows our children to work on improving and maintaining positive behavior since they’ll have opportunities to earn rewards multiple times each day. By being consistent in your responses to your child’s positive and negative behaviors and introducing brief, free and fun mystery rewards, children will become motivated to behave appropriately.”

While some parents and caregivers may have concerns about the frequency of the rewards, McNeil stressed that they are not intended to be elaborate, expensive or require an extensive amount of time. Instead, free activity awards like a game of tic-tac-toe or follow-the-leader are encouraged. The mystery component of the rewards is also engaging because children look forward to the element of surprise.

McNeil even used the Cooperation Chart with her own children when they were young.

“I used it during challenging parenting times, like long car rides or when my boys were stuck indoors because of bad weather. When the boys were getting wild, being disrespectful or fighting, and my husband and I were just at our wits’ ends, I would pull out the Cooperation Chart,” McNeil said. “It always helped to motivate all of us to focus on being more positive and more cooperative as a family.”

McNeil is one of the world’s leading PCIT scholars, authoring several books and more than 100 research articles on PCIT. She is one of only 21 certified PCIT master trainers in the world, as designated by PCIT International. Her research focuses on toddlers with autism and children with severe defiance and aggression — the kids most likely to be expelled from daycare.

McNeil is active with the West Virginia Opioid Response Plan, coordinated by the state Department of Health and Human Resources. With support from a State Opioid Response grant through WVU, she will train about 80 therapists in PCIT over the next two years.

For more information, including an instructional video, reward ideas and printable charts, visit

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