The Power of a Token System!

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Motivation is the key to human behavior! When you feel motivated to do something it is more likely that you will do it….plain and simple.

As we are raising children we hope they develop intrinsic motivation to be successful in life. Intrinsic motivation is the internal desire that motivates us to behave in certain ways. Intrinsic motivation may help to develop qualities such as: being kind to others, experiencing joy, building relationships, being independent, enjoying activities such as sports or music, etc.

As children are growing and learning new milestones intrinsic motivation is not always the primary motivator. When you think back to facing challenges throughout your life, it wasn’t always intrinsic motivation that pulled you through. It was often the necessity of having to face it in order to achieve the next step, to avoid an unwanted consequence or to attain an extrinsic reward. This is not a negative concept but the reality of life. Examples may include not skipping school in order to avoid detention or studying to pass an exam or earn a license in order to practice your trade. This may also explain working at a job you don’t care for, just to bring home a paycheck, an extrinsic reward and a reality of life.

When we observe our children facing a new challenge or milestone we can use extrinsic motivators to help them achieve the goal while also developing intrinsic motivation. Using a token system can be a very powerful and exciting tool to help your child achieve these goals. It is a tool that is easily customized to fit the age, developmental stage and targeted goal.

How to Develop a System

A token system is designed to allow a child to earn a “token” for a desired behavior. Multiple tokens can be acquired to earn something the child is motivated to attain. When developing a token system, take time to be very specific and clear on how the system works.

1. Define the Goal

You may have a long term goal that can be broken down into several short term goals. The token chart should target the behavior for the short term goal.

Example: If toilet training is the long term goal, the first short term goal may target attempts at using the toilet; therefore every time the child sits on the toilet (whether they produce or not) they earn a token.

2. Define the Motivation

Think about things that motivate your child (e.g. toys, activities, food, outings, etc.). Consider if there is anything relevant to connect the current goal to the motivating reinforcer (reward). Lastly, pair the level of the task with the level of the reinforcer.

Example of Relevance: If you are encouraging a child to try new foods, allow them to earn a token for every new food they try and the collective reward may be a dinner of their choice. This is an example of making the reinforcer relevant to the current goal, as it is all related to food.

Example of Level/Hierarchy: If the child earns tokens for trying new snack foods, maybe the reward is a snack of their choice. If they are earning tokens for trying new vegetables and this is a bigger challenge, maybe the reward is a dinner of their choice, at home or at a restaurant. Note: If it is a young child, use only 1 method at a time (e.g. any new food vs. new vegetables). Older children can understand more complex concepts such as earning 1 token for a new snack and 2 tokens for a new vegetable.

3. Define the Quantity

Decide the number of tokens the child needs to earn before they earn the reward. Consider the developmental age of the child and the level of difficulty of the target behavior. One clue is to think about how many times the child has successfully done the task or parts of the task already.

Example: A child is perfectly capable of carrying his dinner dishes to the sink but has never done it without being asked. A 3 piece token chart is likely too easy. A 30 piece token chart is likely too long; the child will lose interest before they reach the goal. A 7 piece token chart that signifies one week may be more appropriate.

Helpful Tips for Success

  •  It is critical that the reward (reinforcer) is motivating! Give your child choices of what they can earn.
  • Allow them to change the reward while earning tokens, as long as it is an equal exchange.
  • Start small in your target goal and how many tokens they need to earn. You can adjust the system as they complete the goals.
  • It is important to allow the child to have success and to get their “buy in” to the system.
  • Make it fun! Be enthusiastic and supportive.
  • Create a visual tracking system of the tokens earned (e.g. chart).
  • Use tokens/materials the child will be drawn to such as dinosaur stickers, colored cotton balls in a clear container, rhinestones on a tiara, basketballs on a picture of a basketball court, orseashells in jar to earn a trip to the beach.
  • Follow through and be consistent!
  • Reward the targeted behavior with a token or an earned reward as immediately as possible.
  • Celebrate their accomplishments! “Let’s celebrate your success with (reward)!”

How to Avoid the Feeling of Bribery

Parents often wonder how to avoid the feeling that they are bribing their child. The answer is in the mindset of the parent and in the language used when presenting it to your child. It is important to avoid phrases such as:

“If you……….I’ll give you…………..”

Instead, you want to see this as a celebration of new accomplishments by your child. Focus on the good behavior and the new skills, rather than moments of failure or rebellion. Try marking feelings you hope they have such as pride, enjoyment and happiness. Try using phrases such as:

“I can’t wait to see how many tokens you can earn.”                                                                
“I’m so happy you are really learning to do this.”                                                                  
“Look at all those tokens! You are really trying hard!”                                                          
“You must feel really proud of yourself!”

Skills You Can Encourage

Token systems are extremely versatile and flexible to help support children learn a large variety of skills and behaviors. They can be used to help little children learn skills of independence and more complex systems can be developed to support older children with positive behavior. Once you understand the foundation of the concept, you can apply it to an endless list of behaviors. Here are just a few examples:

  • Toilet Training
  • Learning to get dressed
  • Sleeping alone
  • Learning to eat new foods
  • Asking politely
  • Doing a specific chore independently
  • Getting along with siblings
  • Sharing
  • Agreeing to directives without arguing
  • Gentle interactions with a pet
  • Good behavior days at school
  • Completing homework
  • Practicing an instrument or sport
  • Communicating with parents
  • Trying new activities

As you try out a new token system, remember to focus on it as a celebration of an accomplishment. The whole family can celebrate what the child achieved and watch the motivation grow! Be creative and have fun!


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