Most parents struggle with getting their children to comply with directions, get chores done, and simply being cooperative. There is a technique called a token economy system that has been around for a very long time and works quite well with most children. It is based on positive reinforcement and a reward system so that if you are a parent who is reluctant to punish and give consequences, this tool should work wonders.

Token Economy System

A token economy system can work with children as young as two and still be effective with kids up to 13-14 years old depending on their maturity level. The principle is fairly simple. The parents select 2-5 targeted behaviors that they would like to see improve, for example putting dishes in the dishwasher or not hitting a sibling. With young children (2-8 years old) we recommend getting a notebook and listing the goals (dishes and not hitting) at the top. Get a supply of various stickers from any craft store; preferably ones your child thinks are cool. Then sit your child down and let them know that you have created a new system where they have a chance to earn stickers each day and eventually earn enough to cash them in for a prize. With older kids (9-14 years old), we recommend using poker chips. Different color chips could have different values, perhaps depending on the difficulty of the goal.

First, explain the goal/rules and that if they are able to go the entire day without hitting, and putting their dishes in the dishwasher, they can earn 2 stickers each night before bed. You can vary the number of stickers daily and even prorate it. For example, since there are three meals daily, they could earn one, two, or three depending on how many times they put the dishes in the dishwasher. Next, explain to your child that once they hit a certain number of stickers in their book, they can cash it in for a prize. We suggest a number of stickers that allows them to get a prize within 4-7 days of acquiring stickers. The younger the kid, or more difficult the child, it may be better to start with them getting a prize in a few days. As behaviors improve and change, we suggest raising the number slowly for future prizes. The prizes you offer need not break your bank. In fact, we find with kids up to about age eight, Dollar Store toys are quite exciting for most kids. Alternatively, if you know your child is highly motivated by a particular toy, such as Match Box Cars, you might get some of those. Other parents have taken the child to pick out the prize of their choice ($1-$10) and then put it up on a shelf so the child can see it everyday but still has to earn it with good behavior.

We encourage parents to pull out the sticker book each night before bed and talk with the child about how their day went and if they earned any stickers, let them pick them out and put the in their book. It is important to reinforce the behavior at the same time. Let your child know that you are proud of them and that are making good progress. One important rule is that children cannot lose stickers for bad behavior. If they hit their sibling, we do not take away stickers, they simply cannot earn a sticker that day. When stickers are taken away, kids quickly lose interest, feel defeated, and give up on this system. It is vital that you be consistent and follow through with this system for it to work. Forgetting every other night or not following through with prizes will render this system ineffective in getting the changes you want.

Incentives & Reinforcement

Many parents have challenged us after hearing this and say, “So, you want me to bribe my kids?” We ask these parents to think of it this way. Do you get a paycheck for going to work and performing certain behaviors? Your company is providing incentive and reinforcement for the things you do. The same can work with your children. We would argue that we are simply providing reinforcement and incentive using an external reward. The goal is to get behavior change, and this usually gets it quickly. The goal is to eventually elongate the time needed to get a prize and slowly and subtly phase out the program. We don’t want the kids only engaging in good behavior, so they get a prize. Over time, we want them to focus more on the internal reward, which is feeling good about themselves. This is why it is so important to be providing positive reinforcement along with it. Telling them how proud you are, how proud they should of themselves and saying things like, “You are a great helper”, or “You are really a good brother.” As kids successfully integrate the behavior change, you can change the goal to something else that needs to be worked out, or simply phase it out.

Contact Us

If you are interested in more parental coaching tips, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or therapists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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