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5 Common Problems with Token Economy Reward Systems for Kids

Learn how to avoid them and help kids change their behaviors

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Token economy systems are an excellent behavior modification tool. However, parents who are not familiar with this type of reward system sometimes struggle to make them work. There are steps parents can take to overcome the most common problems with token economy systems.

1. My Child Doesn't Care if He Earns Any Tokens

Child putting gold coin on stack
Derek E. Rothchild/Photodisc/Getty Images

If your child doesn’t care about earning any tokens, it’s likely he’s not all that motivated to earn the rewards. Get him involved in picking out the rewards he would like to earn. Be open to a discussion about how many tokens should be required for various rewards. If he thinks it is too hard or impossible to earn rewards, he will lose motivation. Keep some simple rewards on the menu that will only require a couple of tokens and remember that rewards don’t have to cost money.

The other possible reason may be that he has so many privileges outside the token system that he doesn't care if he earns anymore or not. For example, if you go to the movies once a week but one of his possible rewards is to rent a movie, he might not care about earning that privilege. Instead, you can make him earn a trip to the movies and only take him if he has earned enough tokens.

2. We Lose Track of How Many Tokens He Earns

It's essential to keep good track of his tokens, otherwise he's likely to grow frustrated quickly. Allow a child to decorate a special cup, bowl or box where he can keep the tokens he has earned. Then, decide together where you will keep the container. When kids can shake a container and hear their tokens jingle, it often fuels their excitement to earn more.

Sometimes parents state that kids steal tokens or aren't honest about them. Keep the tokens in an area that is not accessible to the child. Write down how many tokens he is earning on a piece of paper that you keep so you can verify how many tokens he should have. You can even include this behavior on the reward system and give him extra tokens if he has the right amount in his containers.

3. My Child Gets Very Upset When He Doesn’t Earn Tokens

Keep the reward system as positive as possible. Don’t take away any tokens for misbehavior. There may be times that you ground your child from being able to earn tokens based on his behavior, but don’t start deducting tokens he has previously earned.

If he whines, begs, or argues about not earning a token, ignore him. Don’t engage in a power struggle about earning tokens either. Instead, remind him that he can try again next time that you hope he earns his next token soon. Praise him when he handles his frustration well.

4. A Token System Isn't Fair to My Other Children

If you have more than one child, you might want to consider giving all of them the chance to earn tokens. Each child can have different behavioral goals and there should be items on the reward menu that interests each of them.

Some parents use healthy competition to motivate siblings. For example, tell the kids once everyone has earned 20 tokens, the family will go to the movies. This can encourage them to cheer one another on as they work toward a reward.

5. My Child Starts out Motivated but He Loses Interest Fast

Token economy systems are only effective if your child is motivated to earn the rewards. However, reward systems that are confusing or too difficult cause kids to lose interest fast. Make sure your child has the opportunity to earn up to several tokens per day.

Keep the reward system simple. Concentrate on one to three behaviors at a time. Otherwise, he’ll grow confused and frustrated and it will be a nightmare trying to pass out tokens. Change the reward menu often to keep him interested. The more items on the reward menu, the more likely he’ll stay motivated.

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