A threenager is likely to tantrum to get access to their favorite toy, TV show, candy, a left shoe they can see on the other side of the room- you name it. They are acting a certain way (tantrum) to achieve a certain outcome (getting whatever random thing they want).
What can we do about this? Is there any way to teach them to behave?! Well- we can make sure they get what they want not by having a tantrum, but by engaging in desired behaviors.
We can use positive reinforcement in a more structured and specific way than just handing out praise and rewards willy-nilly.
The definition of a token economy is: ‘a behavior change system consisting of three major components: (a) a specified list of target behaviors; (b) tokens or points that participants receive for emitting the target behaviors; and (c) a menu of backup reinforcer items.’
Token economies can possibly take the form of sticker charts, chore charts, marble jars, etc. You need a physical token that your child can earn when they engage in the desired behavior. You do NOT need to go out and spend $50 at the nearest school supply store making a big fancy chart. You can draw 5 circles on a piece of paper. When they do the desired behavior, draw a check mark in the circle. Done. Grab that piece of junk mail off the kitchen counter and a half-eaten, I mean half-broken, crayon.
The next step is to define the behaviors. Again- you don’t need a big fancy dictionary. Just pick one to three behaviors that will earn the tokens. You need your Little to understand this so it can’t be a big grown up idea like ‘being responsible’ or ‘showing respect’. What does that mean to a Little? Be specific. You earn a token for: (1) following instructions without yelling; (2) eating 5 bites of every food Mom puts in front of you; and (3) putting on your shoes when instructed to.
Pick your battles. You may have a list of 20+ things your Little could stand to improve. I’m pretty sure I have a list of 20+ things to put myself on a token economy. Let’s prioritize and make it understandable by the kiddo.
Lastly- what can they earn with these tokens? You can give choices before earning and they can decide at the beginning or at the end. You can make a fancy menu of reinforcers- Chuck E Cheese is the perfect example of this. This many tickets = this super awesome toy.
Or you can just say: get all the stickers, get 5 check marks, get 10 marbles and earn a fun activity. You can pick from: extra screen time, trip to the library, a new toy from the dollar spot, etc.
All of that in short form:
- Pick 1-3 behaviors and make sure your Little understands what they are.
- Have an actual token they can earn and set a goal.
- Provide the reward when they reach that goal. Make it a big deal!
- When you first start out, set the goal low. If it’s too hard to achieve, that won’t motivate anyone, especially a Little who is struggling with those behaviors to begin with.
- Over time, raise the goal. Make the reward bigger for a bigger goal, smaller for a smaller goal. Play with it to see what is successful for your Little and doable for you in your busy day.
- Make every token earned a big deal- lots of praise and excitement.
- Don’t spend a lot of time and money setting up a fancy system. Like all things we do as parents- as soon as we get a good system down, our Little changes things up on us and we have to be flexible.
- Be creative!
- My aunt gave this idea from her life: She had a picture of a poodle and her daughter glued cotton balls on it. When she filled the picture, they actually got the poodle!
- My sister let her oldest pick out his marbles for a marble jar on a special shopping trip to the craft store (less than $5- don’t go crazy folks!). That helped him buy into the process form the get go.
- Cut up a picture of the prize like a puzzle. They get a puzzle piece as a token. The finished puzzle earns the prize!
- Look in the app store. Seriously- there are apps for reward charts.
- Google ‘behavior chart’. You’ll find a gazillion cute templates if that’s what you’re into- cutesy.
- I once made a necklace for a student who was really into jewelry. It was a laminated sticker chart necklace and she LOVED it.
One last thought: Someday you will find that things are going well and the token economy goes by the wayside. Remember it when a new problem behavior crops up and you are once again at your wit’s end. Start over. Pick new behaviors, new rewards, same system.
Research is cool!
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson.
Kazdin, A. E. (Ed.). (1977). The token economy: A review and evaluation. Plenum Publishing Corporation.
Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 15(3), 431-445.
Reitman, D., Murphy, M. A., Hupp, S. D., & O’Callaghan, P. M. (2004). Behavior change and perceptions of change: Evaluating the effectiveness of a token economy. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 26(2), 17-36.
Skinner, B. F., Ferster, C. B., & Ferster, C. B. (1997). Schedules of reinforcement. Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.
Want some more behavior strategies for moms? Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity is available now!