Token Economies: How We Get our Kids to Behave

dollar bill

Our Family’s Experiences with “Token” Economies

We get up in the morning, and I REALLY need Dude to get himself dressed.  He may only be 4, but he’s perfectly capable of dressing himself.  Throughout the day, chores need to be done; pets need to be cared for.  My husband and I both work full time, and when we come home, we’re mentally exhausted.  We can’t manage all the household duties alone, so the kids must help.  Through the 11+ years we’ve been parents, we’ve tried many strategies to get our kids to help out, everything from using a sticker chart to punishing for what doesn’t get finished.

After trial and a lot of error, our therapist recommended a household “token economy”.  A token economy is one in which the kids earn tokens throughout the day for any desired behaviors, and then can exchange them for small items/privileges.   There are as many varieties of token economies as there are opinions about them, and all have their own pros and cons.  We’ve tried many over the years, so I’ll share as much as I can remember about them, and you can decide if one of these will work for your family.

Before I go into how each program specifically, I want to share a few things that we’ve learned about token economies in general.  These little nuggets can help set you up for success from the very beginning.

  • First and foremost, if the kids don’t buy into it, it ain’t gonna work! They need to feel like they’re part of the whole process.
  • Secondly, keep it simple! If it’s too confusing or requires a lot of ground rules, no one will stick to it, not even you!
  • When you introduce the program to your child, make sure you present it in a very positive light! Be sure to explain that it’s a way to reward them for his good behavior.
  • Each kid needs a piggy bank for whatever tokens you choose. Let them pick out their own, but make sure what they choose is suitable for the tokens you’re using.  If you can’t get the tokens out, it won’t work.  Or, if you make banks at home, let each child decorate his.
  • When using a token economy that allows kids to purchase different rewards, you’ll need to create two separate menus. If your child can’t yet read, then create picture menus, either with posters or in a notebook.  One menu outlines the items for which he will be rewarded and includes behaviors, tasks, or skills that you want him to work on.  The other menu defines the rewards for which he can use the tokens.  To feel included, kids should be allowed to add items to both menus, and you can decide together how much he earns/pays for each.  But beware.  Think hard about the values, because if you pay too many tokens, or don’t charge enough for the rewards, it could become very expensive, very quickly.  My four-year-old saved up almost 50 tokens in one week, just by behaving the way we expect him to, like getting himself dressed in the mornings and brushing his teeth.
  • If you reward a child in the moment (instant gratification), she is more likely to connect the reward to the behavior that earned it, and is more likely to repeat that behavior, so tokens should be “portable” so you can give them out at a restaurant, running errands, grocery shopping, etc.
  • On the other hand, systems that make her save up tokens to get something can introduce her to the concepts of saving real money in the future.

Version #1:  The Grab Bag

grab bag stuff

Grab Bags are so simple, making them ideal for young kids or when you’re working on only one goal.  When Buddy was ready to potty train, we decided to use a grab bag of goodies to entice him to use the potty.  After purchasing a bunch of little toys and a gift bag at our local $1 Store, Buddy could choose one of the goodies out of the bag if he used the toilet instead of wetting his pants.  It worked like a charm and he potty trained in less than a week.

Having said that, grab bags do have their pitfalls.  Buddy always took a long time to choose the item he wanted, or he’d pick one out and change his mind a few minutes after he got it.  My suggestion is to wrap each item in tissue/wrapping paper before putting them in the bag, so the kids truly don’t know what they’re getting, or what’s left in the bag.  This does make the program more time consuming and a little more expensive though.

 Pros: 

  1. Very simple, great for young kids
  2. Cheap, in the short term. Find packages with multiple items to make it even cheaper.
  3. Instant gratification

Cons:

  1. Not readily portable
  2. Expensive over the long haul
  3. Lots of crappy little toys floating all over the house

Version #2:  Sticker Charts

sticker chart.jpg

With Buddy and Snix, we created posters showing their morning, after-school, and bedtime routines.  They’d get a star every time they completed a task.  At the end of the day/week, if they had a certain number of stickers, they’d get a reward.  Daily rewards are smaller trinkets; weekly rewards were only slightly nicer.  The boys liked the system and could easily tell what needed to be done and when.

With three kids to monitor, this system just became too cumbersome, especially during chaotic mornings and at bed time.  It was hard to keep track of who had done what, who still needed to get stickers and who didn’t, and God forbid if one of the stickers ever slightly ripped!  After a month or two, we basically just gave up on this one.

 Pros: 

  1. Simple enough for young kids
  2. Saving the stickers for larger rewards introduces the kids to the general concepts of saving up for something

Cons:

  1. Works better with fewer kids
  2. Expensive over the long haul
  3. You think stickers would be portable, but when you are running errands and give your daughter one, where is she to put it? My boys always wanted to put the stickers on their shirts and then transfer them to their charts at home, but the stickers wouldn’t stick, or they got washed, etc.
  4. Must have daily and weekly rewards on hand
  5. Lots of crappy little toys floating all over the house

Version #3:  Five-Star Bookmark

5 star bookmark

The Five-Star Bookmark is by far the simplest of all the systems we’ve tried, and is especially suited to very young kids.  We have only used it for Dude, so I have no experience of using it for multiple kids, but we started this after it was suggested by his special ed teacher, who used it for several of her students at the same time.  It was a laminated bookmark with five numbered squares on the front.  On the back were five separate gold stars, roughly the size of the front squares.  They, too, were laminated and had a bit of rolled up tape on their backs.

Every time Dude displayed desired behavior, we’d move a star from the back of the bookmark to one of the numbered squares on front.  Once all five squares were filled with stars, he got some extra special time (we called them “time-ins”) with Mom or Dad, snuggling, reading, or playing with Legos.

The bookmark generally worked quite well, and lasted a month or two before he tired of it.

Pros: 

  1. Simplest version yet, perfect for preschoolers
  2. No purchase required, so it’s also the cheapest version
  3. Very portable
  4. Instant gratification, yet encourages saving too
  5. Can earn multiple “time-ins” throughout the day (could also be considered a “con”.)

Cons:

  1. When the 5th star is earned, the parent has to drop what they’re doing for the “time-in”. What if the child earns his 5th star while you’re driving or cooking dinner?
  2. Can be time intensive for the parent because child can earn multiple time-ins throughout the day
  3. Not necessarily suited to older kids

Version #4:  E-Tickets

pokered chips

I admit it, my kids are addicted to their electronics.  At times, they hate leaving the house because they don’t want to stop playing the Xbox.  If we go out for dinner, they don’t care WHERE we go, AS LONG AS the restaurant has wi-fi.  Electronics cause bedtime to be a fight, and that’s NOT how anyone wants to end the day.  So on the recommendation of a previous therapist, we instituted a token economy strictly as a way to earn electronics time.  I will also admit that this was my least favorite of all programs, but it still might work for other folks.

We used poker chips we found at a local thrift store, and the children could earn chips by behaving as we desired, such as doing their chores, completing homework, holding doors for strangers, etc.  Each chip was worth 5 minutes on the ipad/Xbox.  If you used it as a way to earn a variety of rewards, instead of just one type, it would probably work better.  In fact, if your child is older, each color chip could be worth a different value.

This sounds like a very simple program.  Actually, it’s very similar to what we use now; however, the more we used the program, the more we had to set a whole lot of ground rules.  The ground rules became cumbersome and they caused arguments anyway, so we ended up ditching the whole thing.  Our ground rules were:

  • No ipads at the dinner table
  • You can’t buy e-time after 8 pm (30 minutes before bedtime).
  • You can use ipads in the car for free, but you have to give them up or pay for more time as soon as we get home.
  • You don’t get ipad time on credit. If you don’t have chips, you don’t get electronics.

Here are some of the sticky situations we had to work through.  Note they are all related to the use of electronics, NOT the use of the tokens themselves:

  • At one point, I was working from home and had a conference call. I gave the boys an hour for free, so I could take the call in quiet.  After that, all I heard for a week was “You let me have it the other day for free.”
  • Whenever the boys were grounded from electronics, they temporarily were not interested in earning the chips, thus didn’t try to behave.
  • My kids do NOT self-police very well, and we were notorious for forgetting to take the ipads away when their time was up. We set timers on our phones, but with multiple kids earning varying amounts of time, that because a nuisance.  We bought kitchen timers, but the kids just broke them.
  • And finally, because their little brains are addicted to the stimulation, they’d still argue with us when their allotted time was up.

Pros: 

  1. Poker chips are cheap at your local thrift store
  2. Portable
  3. Works best for older kids who understand time
  4. Works best when there are multiple rewards that can be earned

Cons  

Most of the cons can be attributed to the reward itself (electronics time) rather than the program itself.  But the poker chip program is almost identical to version #5: Toy dollars.  So keep reading for more details.

Version #5:  Play Money

toy money

After trying the aforementioned programs with little success, I was skeptical (and still am, a bit) about yet another token economy when a new therapist recommended it.  But, Dad and I decided to go ahead and try this version just a few weeks ago, so we have no “what ifs” to wonder about.  This one has good and bad parts but it seems to work, FOR NOW.

Instead of using poker chips or some other arbitrary token, I purchased a couple packages of play money at our local $1 Store.  The bills are smaller black-and-white versions of actual money, so the kids seem very interested.  One side note: After thinking about it for all of 30 seconds, I discarded the coins because that’s too much hassle.  We work in whole dollars only!

For their banks, I then gave each boy a tin can that I pulled out of our recycle bin, and supplies to decorate them however they wanted.  As they were decorating, we discussed ways to earn money.  I made sure to include the tasks/behaviors they wanted rewarded for, as well as the ones I needed them to improve on.  We developed a menu of about 15 behaviors and how much each behavior was worth.  The more difficult or time-intensive the task, the more money it’s worth.  Remember to be generous, but not TOO generous that you can’t afford it!

We did the same thing for the rewards menu.  That list has only a handful of items like a trip to the park, or a fancy cupcake, but honestly the kids usually want to use their money to buy a toy.

Here’s where the problem comes in, so you’ll want to be careful.  It’s so easy for them to earn money throughout the day that we’d go broke if each fake dollar was worth one real dollar.  So we created a two-to-one exchange rate. In other words, if something costs $10 in real life, they have to save up $20 fake dollars to pay for it.

Along the way, a few questions came up.

  1. Are there tasks they DON’T get paid for? Heck yeah!  Some things are just expected of them. Buddy does NOT earn money for getting himself dressed because he’s 11 years old, so that’s just expected.
  2. Can each kid have a different “menu”? Yes, but be sure to keep the menus simple.  Our menus are based on age and ability.  Dude is 4 years old, and he earns $1 if he dresses himself in the morning.  Snix and Buddy don’t.  Buddy is the only kiddo responsible enough to take the trash to the curb, and he earns $1 for that.
  3. Can we take money away if they misbehave? According to the therapist, yes.  And I will tell you taking away their money is currently the most effective way yet to get them to behave!
  4. Be careful what you ask for! Funnily enough, this program can work a little too well.  My kids started doing things VOLUNTARILY around the house to earn more money.  Last night, Buddy wanted a new gaming headset at Target.  He already had saved some money, so to earn the rest, he cleaned two toilets, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, folded and put away laundry, took some icky left-overs out to the compost pile, picked up his brothers’ toys and made their beds for them, and folded some blankets on the couch.  That sounds absolutely lovely; however, I ended up making an unexpected trip to Target right before bedtime in return.  We now have a new ground rule that forbids special trips just so buy rewards.  (Also set ground rules like “No buying candy right before bed”.)

 Pros: 

  1. Simple enough that our four-year-old understands the basic concept
  2. Fake money is very portable
  3. Improve counting and sorting skills
  4. A nice blend of instant gratification and saving skills

Cons:

  1. Can be expensive if you don’t design the menus properly
  2. My kids now want to be paid for the smallest spur-of-the-moment task we ask them to do
  3. Preschoolers may have trouble equating the value of money to the value of toys, and with the different denominations. Dude got upset because he was saving his money, but wanted to buy something little at the store, so he just brought one dollar.  It was difficult for him to understand why he couldn’t get a large Lego set for that $1.

So now that you’ve read the pros and cons of the various token economies, do you think any will work for your family?  What other varieties have you used with your family?

Differences in the ADHD Brain

wooden spoons

Parents of ADHD/ODD kids know the look I’m talking about.  It’s that look from strangers in public that says “You really need to make your kids mind!” We get that look a lot.  I also once had a “friend” on Facebook tell me I needed to use a thick belt with a large buckle on it, and that’d cure anything.

So I started doing some research to find out why spankings don’t cure ADHD/ODD and here’s what I found.  I’m going to simplify it so that if that Facebook friend of mine ever stumbles upon this, he can understand it.

  1. Researchers in Norway used computerized images like MRIs and PET scans to study thousands of brains of people with ADHD, and compare those to brain images of people without ADHD. Those researchers have found that the images of the ADHD brains have certain structures that are significantly smaller than normal.  Those specific structures happen to be responsible for controlling impulsivity and regulating emotions, two hallmark symptoms of ADHD.  You can read more about the study at com, but I’ll warn you, it’s a very technical article.
  2. Verywellmind explains that some types of computerized imaging can also show which parts of the brain are operating during certain functions. These images of ADHD brains show that there is less blood flowing to certain structures, in particular, to areas of the brain responsible for things like planning, organizing, paying attention, remembering, and emotional reactions.
  3. Our brains exchange messages our body parts all day long. All of your senses rely on this exchange of messages.  Is that tag on the back of your shirt bothering you?  If so, it’s because your neck is sending your brain a message.  Is that ice cube really cold?  Your fingers are telling your brain that it’s cold, and your brain is processing that information.  Those messages are sent along our nerves.  The nerves are much like the power lines we have outside our homes all across the nation.  If any of those power lines gets severed, the electricity stops flowing.  Those power lines have junctions that need to be interconnected.  If those junctions aren’t secure, the electricity stops forming.

In our nerves, those junctions are called “synapses”, and instead of using all kinds of mechanical connectors, our nerves use chemicals (called neurotransmitters) within those synapses to keep the messages flowing to and from the brain.  One of the key chemicals (neurotransmitters) is dopamine, and in the ADHD brain, the dopamine isn’t regulated correctly.  There are three reasons for this: either there isn’t enough dopamine there, or the other side of the synapse (junction) doesn’t have enough receptors to accept the dopamine, or the dopamine is there but isn’t used properly.  In any case, the brain doesn’t have enough dopamine to function normally.

And for those of you who aren’t convinced that a lack of dopamine can cause problems, let me refer you to the Parkinson’s Foundation website, regarding Parkinson’s disease.  This too is a disease in which the nerves can no longer produce enough dopamine, causing tremors, limb stiffness, balance problems, and even non-movement symptoms like depression, sleep disorders, loss of sense of smell, cognitive impairment, and eventually complete debilitation.  Michael J. Fox is but one well-known celebrity with Parkinson’s disease.  So you can see that dopamine plays an important role in one’s brain and cognitive functions.

If I use the same theory that the general public adheres to, it makes me wonder if Michael J. Fox has ever tried to cure his Parkinson’s disease by being spanked repeatedly.  You doubt it?  So do I.  So if I can’t cure Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s by repeatedly spanking him, why would spankings cure my children of their ADHD, when both are related to the same chemicals?

Then, if spanking my ADHD child won’t work, what possible strategies can I use to modify his behavior?  You can choose from a plethora of various strategies until you find one that will work for your family.  Or you can opt to use bits and pieces from several different strategies.  I can only tell you what my family has used in the past and how those plans worked (or didn’t, as the case may be) for us.  I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but we’ve always favored a token economy (think earning money for desired behaviors) and counting, even before we knew these programs were favored by many therapists for ADHD kids.

Our first experience with a token economy was using a “grab bag” full of cheap $1 toys for our oldest son, to potty train him. Every time he’d use the toilet instead of going in his diaper, he’d get to choose a toy from the bag.  He was a late two-year-old, or early three-year-old, and it worked in a weekend.

Our current token economy utilizes toy money (from a $1 store and an old Monopoly game).  We have two menus posted on our home bulletin board.  One has behaviors that earn the kiddos money, ($1 for holding hands in parking lots, $3 for loading the dishwasher), and the other has a menu of things the kids can use the money for ($1 for a small piece of candy, $15 for sprinkler time).  If the kids want something from the store, like a specific toy, our general rule is that they have to save up one and a half times (in fake dollars) the amount of the price of the toy in real dollars.  So if they want a $10 toy at Wal-Mart or Target, they have to save up $15 fake dollars for it.  And taking their money away for poor behavior is, thus far, a very effective way to prevent the unwanted fits and tantrums.  There are pros and cons to this so I plan to make this my next blog topic.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, feel free to share, like, follow, or comment!  I have a feeling some folks will be very passionate, either for or against not spanking, and I can’t wait to see!

Medication Vacation

One topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to is whether or not my kids should have a drug holiday over summer vacation. According to Wikipedia, a drug holiday is not a modern version of Woodstock, but rather when “a patient stops taking a medication(s) for a period of time; anywhere from a few days to many months or even years if they feel it is in their best interests”.

If you’re considering whether or not to give your child her ADHD meds during summer, vacation, you’ll have to weigh pros and cons and decide if it’s right for your child. For example, medications can help your child succeed not only in school but also in social settings with peers, such as team sports, music or dance classes, church, and at home.   For our family, Snix and Dude take medication to help ensure their safety (more on that in a minute). Understood.org has a good article on medication vacations.  Don’t forget to talk to her prescriber to see if a medication holiday is appropriate and if so, how to begin it.

In some cases, it’s made sense for one of my boys to stop taking meds over the summer, and in other cases, it hasn’t. In my research, here are some things we consider any time we’re thinking of giving the kids a break from their meds.

  • Obviously, when a child goes off her ADHD meds, her ADHD symptoms reappear. That’s a no-brainer, but it has to be said.

This summer, we could have taken Snix and Dude off their meds; however, their symptoms are so severe that their safety (and my sanity) depends on it. Yesterday for example, they both ran out in front of a car in a parking lot. Luckily the driver was paying attention and was able to stop, but it could have been much different an ending. Safety issues like this are why the two of them take their meds to start with, and those issues don’t end when summer break begins. So a medication holiday is not an option for them.

  • Self-Esteem considerations are important, too.

The understood.org article doesn’t mention the effects on one’s self-esteem that the drug holiday can have on a child. When the child stops taking his ADHD meds, he may likely get into trouble more often, and we all know that getting in trouble a lot can have a negative effect on one’s self-esteem. Regardless of their planned activities over the summer, it’s important to consider that effect, too.

  • What side effects are bothering my child?

Verywellmind.com reminds us to consider the side effects.

Appetite problems and poor weight gain can be big problems for some children taking stimulants. If his medication is working very well for him otherwise, not taking it on weekends can be a good idea so that he does eat better at those times.

On the other hand, some children do have more side effects on Mondays after being off their stimulant for the weekend, as they get ‘used’ to it again, so be on the watch for that.

Between 4th and 5th grade, Buddy was on both a stimulant and a non-stimulant. He was too skinny and not growing taller as he should have been, and the stimulant was suppressing his appetite. After discussing it with his pediatrician, we decided to give him a medication vacation over summer break. He stayed on the non-stimulant but we slowly lowered his stimulant dose until he was no longer taking any. That summer, he grew taller and was able to put on some weight, something he’s struggled with since he was a toddler. For Buddy, it made sense, and paid off.

  • A drug holiday can let you judge how effective the medication is, after having used it for some time.  

Wikipedia also explains that another reason for drug holidays is “to permit a drug to regain effectiveness after a period of continuous use, and to reduce the tolerance effect that may require increased dosages.” The summer we took Buddy off his stimulant, we realized the non-stimulant managed his symptoms just fine. He started the next school year on only non-stimulant and was able to complete his work and participate in class, without his grades suffering. To this day, he takes the stimulants only on rare occasions or if we forget to give him the non-stimulant.

So, as you may have guessed, there is no right or wrong answer when deciding whether or not your child should teak a break from his medication. But think about WHY he’s taking it. Is it only to be able to focus in school? Does ADHD effect his relationships with family and friends? Will a lack of impulse control put him/his safety at risk? Is he experiencing any detrimental side effects of the medication(s)? After you consider these questions, if you decide to pursue a drug holiday, be sure to talk with your child’s prescriber. There may be specific, important, requirements to wean off the drug slowly. Whatever you decide, best of luck for you and your child!