The method is based on a reward system with a psychological foundation of positive reinforcement. When the child’s conduct meets the expectations you’re emphasizing, he or she earns points. The child can later trade those points in for prizes.
How to use a token economy
The objective of a token economy is to stimulate and establish desirable behaviors. It addresses the behaviors that the child has a tendency to resist naturally.
Generally, parents use a token economy to promote interest in certain activities that the child doesn’t find interesting. The technique is also useful for regulating socially inappropriate behaviors. The idea is for the child to associate the target action or behavior with something positive.
How to put a token economy into practice in your home
First of all, you need to plan out the system. You’ll need to prepare some materials, as the system needs to be visible. Children are concrete thinkers by nature and need to see their progress.
Choose and create the tokens. For smaller children, stars, smiley faces and stickers are attractive options. As for older children, you can use vouchers or numbers that you can print on paper, cardboard or plastic.
You’ll also need to create a chart where you’ll record your child’s progress. The chart – divided into columns for each day of the week – will show the tokens that your child has won, lost and cashed in. Hang the chart in a spot where it’s easily visible both for you and your child.
Establish what prize your child will receive once he or she earns a certain amount of tokens. It’s important you decide this beforehand. The reward should be something that will really motivate your child.
For example, it can be a toy that your child wants, a visit to an amusement park, going out to eat, etc. You can also ask your child what he or she thinks the prize should be.
3. Basic definitions
Before you start, you’ll need to explain a few key concepts to your child. First, your child needs to understand the indicators of the target behavior. Second, your child needs to know the conditions for trading in tokens for prizes. All of the rules need to be clear and concrete.
When you set up a token economy, make sure to take your child’s age into consideration. Smaller children need more short-term goals, meaning they can earn prizes for a small amount of tokens.
If earning a prize is too difficult, they easily lose interest. At the same time, older children should have to earn a greater number of tokens in order to receive a prize.
“The objective of a token economy is to stimulate and establish desirable behaviors”
Conditions to consider when designing a token economy
- Concentrate on the positive. Sometimes parents make the mistake of placing the focus on the negative behaviors they want to change. For example, they may say, “Don’t leave toys laying around on the floor.” However, it’s much more effective to focus on the positive actions that you do want to see. Find ways to encourage positive behaviors that are incompatible with the negative. For example, “Put your toys away when you’re done playing with them.”
- Make realistic goals. It’s important that the expectations you set for your child are possible and realistic. Remember that there are some things that your child won’t be able to change overnight. For example, if you’re trying to get rid of tantrums. If a child is accustomed to having 5 or 6 tantrums a day, you can’t expect him to have zero the next. You’ll only be setting your child up for failure and frustration.
A more realistic goal would be to gradually reduce the frequency of your child’s tantrums. Once your child is better able to manage his or her impulses, then you can talk about eliminating tantrums altogether.
Here are a few more keys for success when using a token economy:
- Be consistent. Once you’ve established a token economy, you need to be consistent. Otherwise, you won’t get the results you’re looking for. This is your mission as parents.
- Establish prizes according to the number of tokens earned. Parents and children should come to an agreement when deciding on a prize. Some smaller prizes can be easier to earn. However, if your child wants a bigger reward, he or she will have to make a greater effort. Bigger rewards require bigger changes.
- Invite your child to participate in the preparation process. Your child can prepare the chart, choose and design the tokens, etc. This will make your child feel more involved in the process from start to finish.
A token economy isn’t meant to last forever. Rather, it’s a temporary measure to obtain a desired change. Once your child reaches the goal, you should slowly modify the system. For example, you can do this by increasing the tokens needed to earn a reward. You can also opt to introduce new goals.