Using A Reinforcement System: Building a Positive Token Economy With Tangible Rewards.


Neurodevelopmentalists have discovered that without an effective reinforcement system progress with auditory and visual sequential processing will be slow or non existent.  Thus, it is very important to understand the factors which make an effective reinforcement system and to implement these consistently in your home program.


Be sure your child understands that he or she can earn rewards based on their performance. Non verbal children can learn the meaning of reinforcement if the reward is quickly and consistently given. Keep the system fun!


When reinforcement is listed on your program, give tokens and verbal praise for correctly completing the desired task. For sequencing activities such as digit spans give 3 tokens for getting the correct sequence the first try, 2 tokens for getting the sequence correctly the second try and 1 token for getting the sequence correctly the third try.


Correct performance should be recognized quickly and consistently....enthusiastically place correct digit span cards in his or her "pile" to be exchanged with great enthusiasm for tokens at the end of the sequencing session or you can immediately and enthusiastically count out tokens after every correct sequence.


Praise with positive words and facial expressions are very important reinforcers. Phrases such as "good job", "way to go" (see 100 Ways To Praise Your Child), joyful smiles, cheerful attitude or "happy dances" are powerful rewards. Enthusiasm is important.


Effective reinforcement systems include tangible objects such as tokens, game pieces, tickets, or beans kept in the child's view or a 3x5 card, divided in sections being filled with stars, stickers, or dots. These tangible objects remind the child of his or her progress toward their desired reward. Check or tally marks on a piece of paper or a chart are not as effective. As well as having mercenary qualities, pennies or other money do not work very well because of the connotations of money in our society.


Keep track of the tokens you have given as if they were precious jewels! This adds value to them. A special purse, bowl, basket or display adds value to the tokens or score cards and will allow your child to frequently check his or her progress toward their desired reward.


The token economy must buy something the child wants.


Rewards do not have to be purchased items. TV time, time on nintendo or computer work well. Getting to choose things such as which video the family will watch, choose a favorite meal, choose the bedtime story can be meaningful to the child. Earning a day off from having to do program or a day fishing with dad can be very effective.


If purchased items are desired, often getting to select an inexpensive item (from a 99 cent store) from a reward box can be effective for younger children. For some younger children getting a small healthy snack item (raisin, peanut, cheerio) for each correct sequence is a satisfying reward.


For older children some of the tokens can be saved for larger rewards. Items such as bike accessories, new sports equipment, or special vacation trips have been used successfully.


The reward needs to arrive soon enough that the child does not lose intensity relative to that reward. Rewards must be feasible to obtain with the token economy. The child must be able to hope to get the reward. If the reward is too difficult to obtain or if it takes too long to earn enough tokens to get the reward, the reinforcement system will stop working for that child.


Often having some items which may be earned daily and some other items for which your child can save tokens keeps the system working effectively.


The economy works well if there are not too many freebies in your child's life. If he or she gets a "treat" every day or every time the family goes to the store, it makes no sense to the child to have to work for a similar reward. If TV time is free why pay for it with your tokens?


If there are other children in the family, sometimes it helps to put everyone on a token system so everyone can participate in the rewards and so the child on program is not the only person who must purchase his privileges.


By observing the number of tokens your child can earn in a day, and balancing that with your resources of time, money and what you choose to allow, you can design a system which will work well for your family. You can change this system as necessary to meet your family's needs. Keep in mind that an abundance of anything can cause it to lose value. So be sure that your child can not earn an over abundance of any one thing, i.e., too much TV, too many snacks, too many CDs.


By Marilee Nicoll Coots, Certified Neurodevelopmentalist, copyright 2000.