Reward Systems Made Simple

Exceptional Parent, July 2000

As parents of challenging children, we are all confronted with difficult behavior now and then. At some point or another many of us are advised to use behavior management techniques when parenting our children. And many find, unfortunately, that the technical language, charts, and jargon used by well-intentioned behaviorists are overwhelming and sometimes incomprehensible. Anybody who has sat down to plot the frequency, duration, antecedent and consequence of a maladaptive behavior knows the feeling of frustration that often accompanies behavior management training. However, one need not give up. It is possible to navigate the sea of behavior management confusion by picking and choosing a couple of techniques that are straightforward, easy, and fairly successful. I say “fairly” because the truth of behaviorist methods (and many methodologies in general) is that none of them work forever. Parents and educators must constantly rethink, adapt, and move on. But given that limitation, one can still use certain aspects of behavior reward systems for a reasonable period of time, with a good result. Parents can adapt behavior management techniques in a personal, if imperfect, way that works for their family. The key is to figure out your family’s unique take on it.

The two types of behavior management techniques I have found useful are token systems and picture charts. Token systems are the way you reward good behavior through the earning of symbolic representation of the motivator. In English this means your child has opportunities throughout the day to earn some designated item (a coin, a marble, or a puzzle piece, as in my case), and after he has acquired a certain number of them, he can have his reward. With each token earned, he is praised for following the rules, achieving a part of his daily goal, and the positive behavior has been reinforced.

Picture charts are visual reminders of the desired behaviors. You can also use images of the negative behaviors that you wish to discourage, which is what I chose to use. Throughout the day, the child is brought over to his picture chart where he must go over the goals, the desired behaviors (or behaviors he must not exhibit). The images, the words, and repetition of visiting the chart help reinforce your message. Once you have an idea of what you need to work on, you are ready to begin.

1. Determine Five Goals.

The parent decides on around five goals to work towards. In my son’s case, I want to stop him from ripping, spilling, hitting, screaming, and breaking people’s things (particularly his brother’s). Those are not the only things he needed to work on; they are only the most troublesome of his behaviors.

2. Construct Your Chart.

Find images that illustrate the behaviors. I use the Meyer-Johnson software which is familiar to many people in special education. Meyer-Johnson seems to have a little drawing of just about every situation. However, parents can also take Polaroid photos of their child, either caught in the act of a bad behavior, or the preferred behavior. You may even cut images out of magazines that fit the situation; or draw pictures. Keep the images simple so that your point does not get lost. Once you have your images, print or cut them out and glue them on a long sheet of construction paper (long enough to fit each behavior image). Label the image. Next to the image of the negative behavior I write a large “NO,” so our expectation was very clear.

3. Inform Everyone of Your Intent.

Make copies of your chart for teachers, therapists, everyone who works with your child. Let them know what you are doing and what you’d like them to do. Ask them to let you know what happened during the day so that you can keep track of how your child is doing with this system.

4. Keep Track of Your Progress — But Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy.

Hang a piece of paper next to the image chart and use it to record progress. Write the date and leave a little space for any note you may wish to make. You may want to make check marks for the number of incidents per behavior per day. Or you may want to simply make a check if it was a relatively good day or not. Do not obsess over your data collection. It is only a way to keep track, a reminder of what you already know. Too many people give up on the truly useful behavioral techniques because they can’t bear the record-keeping. Don’t worry about it. After all, what really counts is how things feel to your family, not whether a graph tells you that you have succeeded.

5. Use Tokens.

Token systems go hand-in-hand with behavior charts, further reinforcing the message you want to send. To begin, you must determine what is a true motivator for your child. Consider hobbies, things he talks about, things he likes on TV, and of course, food. Most children can be motivated by something. Sometimes a parent has to be pretty creative to find just what that may be. It may even be something not considered “socially appropriate,” but something you can allow your child to do in limited, monitored circumstances. For example, my son’s motivator at times is to be allowed to “silly talk.” This is the often bizarre self-talk that some people with autism do. I believe that it is all right for my son to silly talk in private and as a reward. It is something he feels the need to do, and it is not too appropriate, yet I feel it is better that he be aware of himself and his need to use silly talk, and to distinguish it from how he talks to others, than to just try to squelch it entirely.

Anything that feels like a treat to your child is something to use. The motivator should not be too large a snack or too expensive or time-consuming. It should be big enough that he looks forward to it all day, like a handful of M&Ms or one TV show (you must make sure there is enough time set aside for this and that the TV goes off right after). It should not be so big that it overwhelms and is too hard for you to repeat, like a whole movie or an ice cream sundae. Ultimately you as the parent will know best what to use.

The reward should not be something he gets easily (for example as a snack as well as a reward). Whatever you choose, it must be given to him in the one instance of reward at the end of the day, or whatever time period you’ve chosen, and at no other time.This makes it more meaningful to him.

6. Find The Best Unit of Time Per Token.

Determine how you want to divide up your day (or hours or week). Figure out what is reasonable for you to accomplish. If your child needs a lot of monitoring, you will need to divide your time up more than if he is working on more long-term goals. If you need to reward him every hour, than you will need to keep track of that many tokens. In my son’s case, I divide the day into four units: morning, school day, after school, night. I suggest as few tokens as you can get away with, while still making a profound impression on your child.

7. Create a Token Puzzle.

Currectly my son’s motivator is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I have a Reese’s wrapper cut into four pieces, with magnets on the back, stuck on my refrigerator. He adds the pieces to the puzzle throughout the day. If he does well in the morning, he gets the first piece. If the reports from school are good, he gets the second piece. After the tutoring session at home, he gets the third piece. And after doing all of his nighttime routines he gets the fourth piece, completes the puzzle, and gets the Peanut Butter Cup. He sees the token puzzle come together throughout the day without actually getting the candy. When he finally gets the candy, he is crazy for it!

8. He Always Gets to Earn Back the Token.

I use the Peanut Butter Cup Pieces to motivate only. I do not punish by removing tokens. If bad behaviors occur, you can bring the child over to his chart and show him what is desirable. Show him the tokens to remind him visually of what he is striving for. Tell him, “The rule is, we don’t rip things. Now you have to try to earn your token, because you have not earned it yet.” If possible, have your child repair what he damaged, and apologize. Or if that only stimulates him to worse behavior, then as calmly as possible, redirect him to a constructive, contained activity; something calming. Teach him what all people must learn: that he has to find appropriate outlets for his impulses. To say “You just lost that token, Buster. No Peanut Butter Cup” may feel better in the moment but you end up losing the opportunity for highly-motivated effort. Your child figures that he doesn’t get anything for the rest of the day so why should he bother being good now? Punishment can affect morale in the family, too. Use the opportunity of a negative behavior to learn what to do in the future.

9. Don’t Worry About the Phase Out.

Behaviorists put a lot of stock in phasing out the reward just right. This can get very tricky, because if you phase out too soon, your child may lose his motivation. I have found that the motivator itself begins to wear thin over time. Your child will get saturated after a while, and you will know when that happens. At that moment, it will be time to let the reward system fade away and you can either go without the motivator or find a new one, if necessary.

We all know that our children can benefit from structure and consistency, from clear rules and the judicious use of praise. But too often parents shy away from setting up structures and systems in their home because they are too complicated to use. What works in a classroom may not fit the more fluid, chaotic atmosphere of the home. By setting up simple charts and a very basic, direct token system, you can organize your homelife in a very dramatic way that will make all the difference to your child. We simply need to remember that it’s okay to adapt and bend the techniques we hear about from the experts so that we can construct systems that work for us, for our own particular and peculiar families. Don’t be burdened by precision and jargon if it is going to keep you from doing anything at all. Keep it simple and you will succeed.