We all love it when it’s time to reap the rewards of our efforts. Rewards make us happy. They motivate us to continue with our efforts or do better. When we receive a compliment or see that people appreciate what we do, we are more likely to keep doing it. Rewards work wonderfully for children too. This is why the token economy is a widely adapted system to elicit positive behaviours in children.
What is Token Economy
A token economy is a system that provides positive reinforcement by rewarding desired behaviors. It rewards a target behaviour with a token. The token in itself may not carry any value. Children exchange these tokens for reinforcers such as an activity or item.
Token economy is not unlike the regular economy. We all work to earn money which we exchange for food, a holiday trip, or a movie. Similarly, children engage in desired behaviour to earn tokens which they later use to get an object or activity they like.
Getting the Token Economy Right
It’s easier to get a child to do something by motivating them with tokens that get them their favourite things. However, there needs to be some planning to ensure that this system is successful. Here are a few factors that impact the implementation the token system of rewarding children:
Defining the target behaviour in clear terms is important. If a child engages in challenging behaviours, a more effective replacement behaviour needs to be spelled out
For example, telling the child to behave well in a birthday party doesn’t do any good.
What the child makes of the ‘behave well’ expectation will vary depending on the child’s cognition, prior experiences, etc.
Instead, identify the target behaviour and give specific instructions such as “Wait your turn to wish ‘Happy Birthday’”
Written instructions, visual cues, or social stories may work better for children with developmental disabilities such as autism.
Specifying the Reinforcers
It must be clear to the child what their tokens will earn them. When children know what they are working for, they feel motivated to complete the task.
The significant reason that a token economy is a wonderful system is because you can change what you exchange the token for. If you notice that the reinforcer that worked earlier for a child has lost its charm, you can replace it with another effective reinforcer.
Say, a child had previously exchanged the token for TV time and lately seemed to have lost interest in watching TV. We can identify other reinforcers that are motivating for the child such as Video games, pizza, etc.
The timing of rewards matters. When you give a token immediately after the desired behaviour, it’s easier for the child to understand what behaviour they are being rewarded for.
For children with ADHD, especially, the immediacy really makes a major difference because they do well when they see immediate results of their efforts.
When we use tokens such as Star stickers, fake or real money, chips etc., children can see tangible rewards for their efforts. This is one of the reasons that the token economy system works in behaviour interventions.