Cincinnati Family Magazine

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February 3, 2023

A Token Economy

“My mom never buys me anything,” my son shared with his friend during a recent playdate. I literally laughed out loud and thought to myself (oozing with sarcasm), “Right. I NEVER buy you ANYTHING.” As I went to open my mouth to “bump his words” and comment on how rough his life is, he finished telling his friend that he “earns the things” that he wants.

I froze. He was right. Absolutely 100% correct. I don’t buy him or his sister the things that they want. Instead, my husband and I purchase items that they have worked hard to earn. My husband and I believe in parenting using positive reinforcement. We have chosen to reward our children for their positive behaviors at home and at school through the use of a Token Economy*. It is simple. We talk with each of our children about what they want to earn. We give them the option of a toy, a book, or an experience. My daughter recently earned a trip to get a pedicure with her favorite Miss Bethany at Beaux Mondes Salon!

After deciding what they want to earn, we discuss the behaviors we would like each of them to focus on. During the school year, our son earned one stamp for every day he remained on “green” (his teacher used a clip-up, clip-down behavior management system) and one stamp for EVERY 20 minutes he practiced piano. Our daughter currently earns one stamp every night she stays in her bed (she decided in May that she is “old enough” to climb out of bed and explore) and one stamp for keeping her hands down (the positive way of saying, “Stop playing with your sensitive hair!”) Rewarding them both with stamps greatly improves the chances we will see the behavior that we desire and decreases the behaviors we don’t want to see.

After they decide on a reward and we decide on goals, I spend some time making a visual token chart for each of them. The chart includes a picture of what they are earning (hello motivation!!!), a sentence about what they are working towards, clearly defined ways they earn their stamps, and a chart for the stamps. We post the charts on our garage door as that is a spot they both see each day.

Not only are our kids working for the things that they want, but they are also learning about how the world works. We live in a token economy. Adults work hard at their jobs, they get a paycheck, then they can purchase the things they need and want. My husband and I vary the size of each child’s chart based on how much money the item/experience they want costs. It helps reinforce that pricier items take more time to save for … which also embeds the teaching of delayed gratification.

A bit of advice if you decide to implement a token economy:

  • Start small – Gain your child’s buy-in to the use of the token economy by having them earn a reward rather quickly. After the first reward is earned, you can slowly increase the amount of tokens needed for each reward.
  • Clearly defined reward – Be specific! “Working towards a Nintendo DS game” vs “Working towards a toy.”
  • Clearly define ways to earn stamps – This shows your children EXACTLY what behaviors earn stamps. Write the goals using positive language and avoid words that are negative such as “stop” and “don’t.”
  • Create a visual place where they can see it each day!
  • Do not remove tokens once they are earned! Your employer doesn’t dip into your bank account after you have been paid.

*A token economy is a system of contingency management based on the systematic reinforcement of target behavior. The reinforcers are symbols or “tokens” that can be exchanged for other reinforcers.

About the Author

Tina Pratt

Tina Pratt is the mom of two littles. She is a former PreK- 5 special education teacher that now works as a behavior coach. She enjoys being a tourist in her own town and finding ways to embed lessons into everyday fun!