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The "Token System" for Behavior Correction

By Cindy Kelley:

I use a token system for my kids to encourage good behavior and table manners. The token economies used in classrooms are usually more structured than what a parent needs for younger children. My system is very flexible and simple.

For my kids, "good" behavior earns a token, which is a plastic link, and when the chain of links hanging on the refrigerator reaches the floor, they get a small prize. I avoid removing links for "bad" behavior, and find the best results are gained by the earning of links. I always identify the good behavior and immediately give them the link. For example, "You came when I called you the first time. You earned a link!" The first few days you do this, you should watch for the target behavior and reward it as much as possible, then start rewarding more randomly. Youíll have to explain to your child that they wonít always know which time they will get a link. Itís up to you to decide what the reward is, but I find it doesnít have to be much. Older kids can be expected to earn more links over a longer period of time for bigger rewards.

Some parents require the child to pay tokens for any privilege. For example, to watch TV, they pay a predetermined number of links. I think this is a good system, too, but I have a variation for that. I have brightly colored cards with pictures of a TV, playstation, or computer and "30 minutes" written below. I award them two cards a day as long as their rooms are picked up. On weekends, I give them three cards or if I'm feeling really generous, four. The cards have a magnet on the back. I put the card on the fridge under their school pictures when they earn it so we can keep track of who has done what. They turn in a card for each 30 minutes of time and I set a timer. I find this cuts down on arguing about TV/computer time.

The links we use for tokens are about 1 inch long and can be purchased anywhere that sells teaching supplies (try Office Max and Wal-Mart). You can also use poker chips, although they are loud, or even a point system for a much older child, and of course, real money.

This system does not solve all our problems by any means, but it does help. It is not a perfect system and my kids still misbehave at times, but I think it helps reinforce their target behaviors. One rule you must enforce is that if they ask for a link, they lose a link so begging does not become an issue. Remember that since you are the parent, you can change the rules as you go if something about the system doesn't work! I like the fact that the links and cards are visual and right there in the kitchen hanging where we can all see.

Iíve broken this down into steps:

1. Explain your system as simply as possible. Tell the child specifically what behaviors you are watching for. Discuss what the prize will be and how long the chain must be before they cash in the links. If you wish, you can require the child pays links or tokens for all privileges, such as watching TV. The number of links required should be pre-determined. For example, five links might be turned in for 30 minutes of TV. You might have a chart that shows the "price" of each privilege. For my kids, when the chain touches the floor, they get a prize. I use the card system described above for TV and computer time, but using the links is another option.

2. The first day, reward the target behavior every time you see it or as much as is reasonable. If the behavior desired is to come when called, have a link ready when you call the childís name. If the child takes a step toward you when you call his name, immediately say, "You came when I called you! You earned a link." Put the link or token where it will be seen. Set up some more situations where you call the child from nearby and continue to reward them. Set them up to be successful as much as possible at first, and then raise your expectations. For example, eventually, you would expect the child to come when you call from another room.

3. After a day or two, depending on your childís level, you might start rewarding randomly. If your older child asks for a link after they do the target behavior on their own, explain they will not receive it every time and they will not receive it when asked for. For very young children, or those who will be distressed by this because they donít comprehend, you should only choose one or two target behaviors and you SHOULD reward those behaviors every time. As their development progresses, you can reward intermittently. If they do not comprehend the delayed gratification of the prize, you may find you either need to plan for a small reward more often or try a completely different method of rewarding behavior.

4. Change the system to suit you and your childís needs. It may take a few days to determine how many links/tokens you want them to earn over what length of time. Just simply explain the change in rules and follow through.

5. Only remove a link for the worst offenses. I rarely remove a link because it usually results in further deterioration of behavior, such as tantruming. Giving links like for the desired behavior works best. Removal of a privilege or ignoring the child works better than removing links.

6. Rewarding a sibling for good behavior makes an impact. If one child whines about washing up before dinner, ignore that child and calmly give the other child who did wash up nicely and say, "You earned a link for washing up cheerfully when asked." NEVER say to the misbehaving child, "Why didnít you wash up like your brother? He gets a link." This will cause resentment of the sibling. The focus should be on the desired behavior, not what may be perceived as the desired sibling. My kids almost never complain about the other child getting a link when I choose my words carefully.

7. Dinnertime: I am working on my kids chewing with their mouths closed, which has been difficult. I discovered saying over and over, "Please chew with your mouth closed," works for about five seconds. I have had the most success with keeping a pile of links at hand. When I see someone chewing appropriately, I put a link by his plate and say, "You were chewing with your mouth closed." I might give another one ten seconds later or ten minutes later. They donít know when, but they make a big effort to chew appropriately. I intend to continue this rewarding until chewing with their mouths closed becomes natural.

8. You can keep a chain in the car or in your purse if you wish for rewarding away from home.

9. You can put a link in your childís backpack or lunchbox to motivate them to remember to bring home the backpack or lunchbox. If they bring it home, they get to put up the link. Last year when my son had difficulty remembering to deliver notes to his teacher, I hooked a red, coated paperclip to the zipper of his backpack where it was visible to him. We called it his "red reminder". If he remembered to empty his backpack at school, he could turn in the red reminder for a link at home. When he was in kindergarten, I stuck a red star sticker on his hand and called that his "red reminder" for taking notes out of the backpack. The younger the child, the more visible the reminder needs to be. Now that he is older, I can put the link in his backpack or lunchbox. I rarely need to do this now.

10. As your child gets older, your system can change. If the child is able to handle delayed gratification, he can earn a large number of links over many days for special outings such as going to a local amusement park. If the links seem too juvenile for older children, a search for "token economies" on www.google.com will give you more sophisticated systems.

Here are some links that discuss token economies and give more options on implementing them:

Guidelines for Establishing and Maintaining Token Economies

Using Token Economies to Teach Children with Autism

Here is a link that discourages the use of token economies:

Problems With Extrinsic Motivation

My goal is to NOT have to use our link system someday. Some days we donít even think about the links, yet other days I give out many links to reinforce a behavior that needs attention. I do not want tokens or money to control our daily life, but only help with a few problem behaviors. A token system should be a tool that helps and if your child does not have the awareness to be motivated by the tokens and the resulting reward, then you need to use another way to reinforce behavior or extinguish undesirable behavior. My sonís responsiveness to the link system improved significantly once he started taking the enzymes that alleviated his autistic symptoms Ė so remember that underlying problems can hinder the effectiveness of discipline. Special thanks to Tara Deckard for her suggestions on implementing a token system.

Cindy Kelley

[my thanks to Cindy Kelley for allowing me to use her token system description on my site]

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