Advice For Parents: Token Economy

token economy

Parents with children who exhibit behavior problems in the attention deficit or oppositional defiant realm, such as refusal to do chores, homework, or participate in family activities, might find the use of token economy useful. To be effective, it needs to be done consistently. The economy needs to be of value to the child and there often needs to be immediate rewards for desired behaviors rather than waiting a week or more; in some cases, waiting a day is even too long. Token economy does not address the negative or problem behaviors; it simply rewards the positive, desired behaviors, as often as possible, with tokens of some sort which can then be used to “buy” treats, activities, special favors, or whatever the parents decide….with the understanding that whatever is available for the child to purchase with his/her token economy is something he/she actually wants.

One of the best tokens to use for this economy is poker chips. They are readily available, they are colorful and they can easily represent different value per color. A list of all desired behaviors must be written out, preferably on a large piece of paper which is placed in an easily visible location. Each behavior is assigned a value, or, in this example, a poker chip color. A list of everything that can be purchased is also available along with exactly how much it costs…how many of what color poker chips are required. The child is monitored closely and everytime he/she performs the desired behavior, he/she receives the appropriate poker chip.

The child may choose to “cash in” a poker chip immediately, if there is something which can be purchased for a minimal amount. It is rare that a child will save their poker chips for a week to buy something of greater value. So, it is important to have items available to purchase with just a few chips as well as larger items which would require saving chips. And, of course, to get the chips to save, or even to spend right away, they must engage in appropriate, and listed, behaviors. And that is often dependent upon them wanting the item enough to engage in the appropriate behavior to earn the poker chips needed.

Although it is possible to institute what is called “response cost,” which is taking away chips already earned for negative behaviors, it is often better to simply disregard that behavior, if possible, and not provide any chips. Consistent positive reinforcement…the distribution of chips for desired behaviors, is often viewed as more rewarding than having something taken away for negative behaviors.

Token economy is a strictly behavioral intervention and needs to be implemented as a matter of fact proposition. There is no elaborate praise for the child engaging in desired behaviors other than the pleasant distribution of poker chips. Likewise, there is no elaborate blame, criticism or complaint for not engaging in the desired behaviors…there is simply no chips earned and, preferably, no attention given to that negative behavior. For many children, negative attention is better than no attention…but, positive attention is far superior to negative attention. If the token economy is set up such that what the child can buy with his/her tokens is of value to him/her…earning the tokens, and buying what they want, is significant positive attention.

The token economy needs to be set up so that it can operate somewhat automatically and consistently. It may take several days, or weeks, before the child adapts to the program, especially if he/she is use to having his/her way through being oppositional and defiant. It all hinges on the child’s sense of value of what can be purchased with the earned tokens. Some of what might be of value are: television time, computer time, specific snacks, special meals or desserts, going to a movie, buying a new computer game….Sometimes simple things are effective…different colored shoe strings are sometimes quite effective as a “cheap” item a child can use their earned tokens to buy. Often the hardest part of designing a token economy is figuring out what motivates the child…what would they work for….what is of enough value to them such that they would want to earn the chips to get what they want. To answer these questions, it may take some observation for although a child may not exhibit interest in anything….there is usually some things that would motivate them. Creativity and imagination can also be useful in coming up with items. Parents may find it worthwhile to visit the local toy store and browse around looking for small, inexpensive novelty items that might prove attractive enough to the child to motivate them earn the chips to buy it.

Token economy is not a panacea. It may work well…and certainly has in many cases. But, it is not the answer to all behavior problems. However, it is certainly worth a concerted effort by parents if they are struggling with a child’s behavior problems.


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