5 Common Problems With Token Economy Reward Systems for Kids

Whether your child hits when they're mad or they refuse to do their chores, a token economy system can be an effective tool for discouraging those behaviors. Rewarding your child with tokens each time they exhibit good behavior can be one of the fastest ways to motivate them to change.

Token economy reward systems are a behavior modification tool that can be a little tricky to use at first. If you're not familiar with this type of reward system, handing out tokens and finding the right rewards can seem daunting.

But it's well worth the effort. If you stick with it, you'll likely see a lot of positive results. Here's how you can overcome some of the biggest problems parents encounter with token economy systems.


Your Child Doesn't Care If They Earn Any Tokens

Reward your child's good behavior with tokens.

Derek E. Rothchild / Photodisc / Getty Images

If your child doesn’t care about earning tokens, it's probably because they're not a big fan of the rewards. The good news is, that problem is easily solvable.

Get your child involved in picking out the rewards they would like to earn. Be open to a discussion about how many tokens should be required for various rewards.

If they think it's too hard to earn rewards, they'll lose motivation. Keep some simple rewards on the menu that only require a couple of tokens and remember that rewards don’t have to cost money.

If your child has many privileges outside the token system, they might not care if they earn any more rewards. Try linking privileges, like time playing video games or at the park, with good behavior.


You Lose Track of How Many Tokens They Earn

It's essential to keep track of the tokens your child earns throughout the day. Ask your child to decorate a special cup, bowl or box where they can keep the tokens they have 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 your child.

Write down how many tokens they have earned on a piece of paper that you keep so you can verify how many tokens they should have. You can even include this behavior on the reward system and give them extra tokens if they have the right amount in their container.


Your Child Gets Very Upset When They Don't Earn Tokens

Keep the reward system as positive as possible. Don’t take away tokens for misbehavior. If they whine, beg, or argue about not earning a token, ignore them. Don’t engage in a power struggle about earning tokens either.

Instead, remind them they can try again next time. Tell them you hope they earn their next token soon. Praise them when they handle their frustration well.

While it's okay to ground your child from being able to earn tokens, don’t deduct tokens he has previously earned.


A Token System Isn't Fair to Your 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 interest 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.


Your Child Starts out Motivated but Loses Interest Fast

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.

Change the reward menu often to keep your child interested. The more items on the reward menu, the more likely they’ll stay motivated.

A Word From Verywell

Token economy and reward systems aren't a one-size-fits all, nor do all kids respond to them in the same way. However, rewards can be a great short-term strategy for modifying or motivating behavior.

If you need to help your child stay focused, gain momentum, or promote persistence, they are likely to be highly responsive to rewards. As adults, we are often motivated by rewards as well (paycheck, bonus check, free time, new item, time with friends, sleeping in, breakfast in bed, a trip). Kids can benefit in many of the same ways.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. KidsHealth from Nemours. Using rewards to improve behavior.

  2. Cartwright‐Hatton S, Laskey B, et al. From Timid To Tiger. Wiley. 2010.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to use rewards.

  4. Thomson K, Tey D, Marks M. (Editors). Paediatric Handbook, 8th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. 2011.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.