Token systems are versatile systems of reinforcement that can be customized to teach a variety of skills to help to reduce behavioral challenges.
Because of this flexibility, token systems can be adapted for all ages and needs - in fact, you are participating in a token system every day. If you need an example of a large-scale token system, just think about the world economy. You go to work to earn money and exchange that money for things you want. Money is simply a token that has value only due to its ability to be exchanged for items, activities, and resources. Creating a token system for your child is simply a scaled-down version of the economy.
We can use token systems not only to work on the skills your child is struggling with, but also to teach vital money management skills such as budgeting, saving, and counting tokens to pay for items with correct change. Today we are going to review the basic steps for developing a token system to help you get one started for your child.
Step 1: Choose your tokens
When deciding what to use for tokens, choose something that is both age appropriate for your child, and something they will take immediate interest in. For example, if you have a five-year old daughter, you might want to create dollars that have unicorns on them, but if your child is much younger, a sticker chart might be a better choice. For older children, poker chips or point systems may be preferred, and including some aspects of self-management is often appropriate for older teens and adults. I am including templates for a couple of dollars that are appropriate for younger children at the end of this page.
Step 2: Create a reinforcer menu
Next you need to create a list of reinforcers that your child can earn, and assign a price for each of them. Reinforcers can be small items, activities, privileges, etc.
Examples of potential reinforcers are:
Extra iPad/TV time
Access to a special box of puzzles for 30 minutes
A trip to the park, zoo, or other preferred location
Special outing with mom/dad/grandparents
Bath time with special bubbles
Family game night
This is just a short list of examples, but gives you a general idea of the types of reinforcers you should consider. Although putting small items on the reinforcer menu is okay, you want to try to stay away from focusing only on items as this can get expensive, and your child may get bored of the items available for purchase. Activities and privileges are often a better choice as they are cheaper and easier to keep fresh and exciting. If you are struggling with what to put on the list, try asking your child what they'd like to earn. Also pay attention to what they ask for throughout the week. Are they always asking for extra computer time, or to have a sleepover at Grandmas? Consider adding in extra opportunities to earn these are reinforcers. The key thing of note here is we are offering extra opportunities. Try to avoid taking away activities or privileges that your child already has in order to make them earn it back. This will make the system seem punitive and unfair, and can result in your child avoiding instead of engaging with it.
Once you've chosen your reinforcers it's time to create a reinforcer menu. You want to put items on the menu that are both "cheap" and a little more expensive. Your child should have the opportunity to earn 2-3 small reinforcers throughout the day, such as an extra book at bedtime, or 15 minutes of listening to music on the iPad. This helps to keep your child interested in earning. You should also include more expensive items that take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks (depending on your child's age) to save up for. Ideally, on an average day your child will be able to purchase 2-3 small reinforcers, and still have a couple of tokens left over to save for larger reinforcers.
For younger children who don't have a good grasp on how to save yet, it can help to give them two envelopes or jars - one for what they plan to spend today, and one for what they plan to save. This can help them visualize and track what's required to earn those bigger reinforcers.
Step 3: Choose your behaviors
Now that all your materials are prepared, it's time to decide what behaviors you want to target. It's possible to use token systems to both increase appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate ones. For example, your child could earn tokens for being ready for school on time, or they could earn tokens for not having any tantrums all morning. Although both are possible, I recommend always using your token system to increase appropriate behavior rather than decreasing behaviors of concern. Simply telling your child don't do X and you can earn X leaves a lot of ambiguity regarding what you want them to do. Instead, look at the situations that usually cause problems, and figure out why your child is having the issue. Is your child having tantrums because she doesn't want to stop playing and clean up? Consider giving tokens for cleaning up within 5 minutes of being asked. Does your child have a hard time switching from task to task at school? Offer tokens for succesful transitions using a transition timer. Using reinforcers to teach skills will result in much more lasting change than systems that aim only to reduce behaviors of concern.
Ideally, you'd like to choose 2-4 behaviors to reinforce, or, if your child struggles to complete daily routines, reinforce each step of a morning or evening routine. You can either write a list of each behavior and how many dollars can be earned, or create a visual or written schedule that details what's expected as well as what your child can earn for each step. Regardless of what method you choose, be certain your child is clear on what's expected.
Step 4: Implement your system
Implementing your token system is fairly straightforward. All you need to do is explain the rules to your child, and start giving them tokens as soon as they engage in the behaviors on the list. You want to start reminding your child that they can trade in tokens as soon as they have enough to trade. It can also help to have your child plan in the beginning what they'd like to earn for the day so that they know what they're working for. If you start to notice that your child is earning too few reinforcers per day - for example, if they are earning less than 75% of what they have the opportunity to earn, or if they are not able to trade in for those 2-3 small reinforcers, you either need to increase the tokens they receive for each activity to make the "work" worth their while, or make the requirements easier. As your child gains fluency with new skills, or starts to develop good habits around routines, you can fade your token system ( I will discuss fading in a later blog), but in the beginning to want your child earning and trading tokens consistently.
Fillable/Example Token System Materials
The following files are examples of some basic token system components. Feel free to download and edit them to suite your needs. If you are struggling to implement any aspect of your token system, or have specific questions, please reach out via email to email@example.com.