Token Economy: The Magic of Star Charts

The Lake Highlands Area Early Childhood PTA is an organization that is near and dear to my heart. It is a group of families in my area of Dallas with young children as the common bond. We have an extremely active Facebook page and community events as well as age-based playgroups and adult interest groups. The group also host monthly meetings on a variety of topics and our most recent meeting was our highest attended meeting in years. Kristen M. Ohlenforst, PhD spoke on the topic of The Magic of Star Charts: Modifying Behavior via Positive Reinforcements. These are my notes from the meeting.

Dr. Ohlenforst is one of six therapist at Therapy Dallas who specializes in family and children treatment. She spoke to our group last year and was asked to come back to discuss the method behind positive reinforcement through star charts. Dr. Ohlenforst began by discussing briefly why positive enforcement is more desirable in altering behavior instead of punishment. She mentioned that unless the behavior is harmful or destructive, positive reinforcement is a better way to handle altering a child’s behavior than time-outs or removal of activity or object. If a child is hitting, biting, breaking something the use of time-outs and removals should be needed and used.

She read an except from Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman.  She highly suggests any parent read the book as an understanding that parenting is hard and that everyone feels like they are doing a bad job at least some of the time. Dr. O discussed that by rewarding good behavior you are steering a child’s being to WANT to do the right thing, to build autonomy and confidence in their decisions and actions. It gives them more initiative and motivation to do the right thing and to make instant decisions. Her best example is that right now we are building our children’s decision making skills on their actions. When they are in the moment trying to decide if they want to play for five more minutes vs brushing their teeth, they need to start figuring out what the best choice is so that when they are older and are presented with the option to sneak out with their friends or try some drugs, they will be able to know intrinsically what is the right thing to do.

Age: She suggests that if you want to start Star Charts, Sticker Chart, Token Economy or Behavior Maps (whatever you want to call them) the youngest age would be a potty trained child. With younger children (2-5) you will probably use daily rewards and for older children you would move to weekly/bi-weekly/monthly charts. What this will look like for a 3-year old is that you set 2-3 goals per day that the child can be rewarded for. The rewards will be small things and as the child grows you can move to multi-day star/sticker/tokens earnings for larger items. For older kids, you would start with longer time periods like a week at a time with 3-5 goals per day. Again, for younger children they will earn small points (stickers on chart) for the day to win a bigger prize (coloring book) at the end of the day. For older children they would earn points per goal per day for a week for a larger price (lego set). All of these are suggested ages, it is really based on your child and what you think they are ready for.

Setting up the chart: These charts are working pieces of your family. They need to be changed often and regularly. She suggests once a week. You can make it as pretty or as plain as you want, but it needs to be able to modify the goals, daily totals and rewards. It also needs to be in a visible location of your house so that everyone is keeping track of it. If you have siblings it is very important that their charts are VERY different and their goals are different, this is especially important with twins. You do not want this to be a competition between children, they need to learn to monitor their own behavior based on their choices.

What Goals to Use and How to Create Them

When picking goals most parents pick from two categories: something they will do but just don’t do it and something that just drives parents nuts. The difference is maybe between putting their clothes away in the laundry vs. interrupting you every time you speak. There are 5 guidelines for Behavior Goals. To make this easy to understand, I will use the goal “When Mommy or Daddy asks on the first time, brush your teeth before bed”.

– Easily Observable: You should be able to ask 10 people off the street “Did that just happen?” (For example: did the child brush their teeth when asked?)

– Time Limited: Dr. O makes the point that you cannot have a goal that is going to last the whole day….you will be setting up the child for failure. It should be something that is within a time limit, hence the “when mommy & daddy ask THE FIRST TIME”. “The first time” is the time limit. If you have something that is recurring throughout the day the phrasing of WHEN these tasks will be completed are important, i.e.: the first time we ask, within 10 minutes, before dinnertime…..

– Already Occurring Sometimes: You want to build on behavior that is already occurring to build your child’s confidence. If it occurred one time two months ago….that is not going to cut it. It needs to be something that the child knows they can do. Hopefully your child has been brushing their teeth occasionally up to this point.

– Positively Phrase: These behavior goals need to again be motivating an moving the child in a forward motion through positive reinforcement and phrasing. Refrain from using negative words or tones like “Do not”, “stop”, “no”.

After you have created these goals you will then need to have buy-in from your little one. This buy-in is VERY important, if they do not understand or want to do this, the program will probably not work and you will both become frustrated. You will need to find a calm time to discuss this with your child. She did not mention this, but I would say make sure their tummies are full, their bladders are empty and they’ve had some good play for the day but not tired. You use positive, supportive language and be upbeat, curious and excited. You want the child to buy-into this as much as you. Some language she used was “I will make you a deal. If you choose to do this (fill in whatever the goal is) then you get a reward. Let’s talk about what rewards you would like. (Of course you will have a list of suggested rewards to choose from).

Earning vs. Missing Stars/Points/Stickers

When a child earns a point, they can never be taken away. This will cause mistrust for the system and disloyalty to the parent. Give the kid 2 days to understand the system and then tell them you are starting for real. Any opportunity you can point out first time listening, which is crucial for the system to work, they need to know that when you give them the opportunity to earn a point that they need to do what is asked. You need to award the point ASAP, so with a toddler that means having your stickers or whatever with you at all times so they know you mean business.

When a child is not utilizing first time listening and/or choosing not to earn a point, you also must point it out immediately without emotion, blame or guilt. Dr. O uses the wording “You are choosing not to earn your point by doing XYZ, thus you might not receive ABC today (or at the end of the week)”. If you become emotional about this, then your child is confusing their choices with your emotions which is never a healthy spot in any relationship. It might be to you and your child’s benefit to also give them a five minute warning, “Hey, in 5 minutes we are going to bed, so that means you will need to brush your teeth soon”. You will also not negotiate, so no “I’ll be there in a few more minutes”, “Let me do that later”, “What if I do this instead”. Also keep a success rate of 70-90% on any give day or week. It is unhealthy to expect 100% of your child every day.

What are Your Reward Options

Dr. Ohlenforst suggests that there are 2 levels of rewards to go along with the 70-90% range. You have one reward for the 70-90% and one for the 90-100%. You really do want to allow for error and you can even point out to your child, “you choose to give that up right now, we can try again later today (or tomorrow or this week)”. There are so many reward options, you know your child and what motivates them. Never use food or sweets as a reward as this will/can cause a whole host of problems later down the child’s life as they correlate their choices/behavior with food, whether good or bad.

-There are a lot of options for tangible rewards: toys, stickers, books, games, etc.

-You could also offer desired experiences like daddy drop you off at school, going camping in the backyard, going to the movies with friends on Saturday, etc.

-There are also boosted privileges which is adding onto something you already do, getting 10 minutes extra in the bath, one more story at night, 15 more minutes at a friends house, etc.

-Then there is the rewarding of existing privileges as you are downshifting the rewards as the child grows into the chart. This was a little hard for me to understand, but basically I think you start to take away privileges if they don’t reach their goals like watching TV after school, talking to friends on the computer or taking a bath with their sibling, etc. This is not something you use in the beginning but after you have used the system for a while.

You of course want to keep the rewards interesting. I think this goes back to regularly changing the charge and discussing with your child what they would like their rewards to be. As suggestions she mentions grab-bags; prize wall/menu; breaking larger toys into smaller batches to earn over a period of time (think a large lego set that they have to earn points over a month to build the whole thing); marble jar for larger items, etc.

As you gain momentum in the star chart through working it daily and modifying it regularly, you will find a groove in what works to motivate you and your child. Eventually you might find that you can downshift your rewards over time and not use as many high profile rewards as before because again, this will start to build your child’s confidence and autonomy. Ideally they will be developing more initiative and motivation from making good choices.

I contacted Therapy Dallas for Dr. Ohlenforst’s notes but she is out of town until Tuesday, so my sweet husband wrote them up for me. Once I have the correct copy I will replace them, but for now you can find them here. You can also see a photo of the Token Chart that Dr. Ohlenforst provided as a guideline for an older child over the course of a week.

TherapyDallas_TokenEconomy_3goals (This is the PDF of the file)

A photo of the chart for those on mobile devices.
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