Using Token Economies to Help Manage Behavior

Health Writer

Parents of children with ADHD often use token economies. These types of behavioral modification programs can help in targeting specific behaviors, using positive reinforcements to increase wanted or appropriate behaviors. Token economy programs allow a child to "earn currency" immediately and then trade that currency for some type of reward later on.

The benefit of such a program is the ability to give a child immediate feedback on their behavior. Token economies can be implemented at home or at school, enhancing incentive programs that may already be in place.

Token economies can be relatively easy to implement and effective, but can be time-consuming and expensive. They should never, however, cause a child to be deprived of basic needs. Food, shelter, bedding and reasonable opportunities for leisure and exercise should be allowed to all children, these should not be taken away as punishment.

Selecting Target Behaviors

In order for a token economy to be most effective, parents must choose a few behaviors to target. Choosing one or two specific behaviors in the beginning can increase the chances of this type of behavioral modification program to succeed. Once your child has succeeded in changing a behavior, you can change

In addition, the wanted behaviors should be specific, concise and clear. For example, if your child is not handing in homework, your target behavior may be "turning in homework on time." Be clear on exactly what behavior will allow a child to earn a token. If he or she hands in homework a day late, will they still receive a token or does the homework need to be handed in on time? The more specific you are on your expectations, the better a token economy will work.

Choose the Type of Token

Tokens can be as easy as check marks on a chart, stickers, play money or poker chips. The idea of a token is to be able to provide immediate feedback and therefore need to be visible and attractive to the person receiving the token. For example, stickers or check marks on a chart may be motivation to a young child but may not hold any motivation for an older child or teenager.

Tokens should not have a value of their own. The theory behind a token economy is to collect the tokens and exchanged later for something the child values.

Choose the Types of Prizes or Rewards

Rewards should be targeted to the child. They should provide motivation to change behaviors.

Rewards, however, do not necessarily need to be expensive. Some examples of rewards are:

  • Having a friend sleep over
  • Renting a movie
  • Staying up late on the weekend
  • Going out for ice cream
  • A special toy or an item the child wants

Determine How and When the Exchange Happens

In order for the token economy to work effectively, there must be a set way for the child to exchange their token for the reward. This can be done on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Again, this should be catered to the individual child. For some children, waiting a month may be too long and will not provide any incentive, for older children, however, a month may work if they are trying to earn something they want.

Parent must also determine how many tokens a child must earn in order to exchange the tokens for the reward.

Implementing the Program

Parents need to be consistent when working with a token economy. Specific goals should be set up before the token economy is implemented and all family members should be aware of the exactly what behaviors will be rewarded with a token.

As children learn the correct behaviors, tokens should be decreased, allowing the child to incorporate the correct behavior in his or her daily life. For example, if tokens are given for handing in homework, for the first week or two, a token should be given each day homework is handed in. Once the child is completing this task on a daily basis, tokens can be decreased, maybe giving a token for handing in homework two days in a row, then three, then once a week. Eventually, rewards for this specific behavior can be eliminated. Parents can then choose a new behavior to begin working on.