Recently, I started a conversation about the ins and outs of token systems/sticker charts systems. However, there is so much to be said about “token systems,” “sticker charts,” etc., I needed a bit more space to fill in some of the gaps. Here is some more background that needs to be said.
Token systems take advantage of several things to help improve behavior. One of the basics is that we are associating a seemingly neutral thing (a piece of plastic we call a poker chip, a random mark on a page called a check, or an oversimplified image of a happy person’s face, etc.) to something that is valuable (candy, time on Wii, movie night, etc.). Two very powerful versions of this concept are money (pieces of colored paper we trade for things we want and need) and poker chips. These things are only valuable on their own because what we can get with them. Think of it this way…lets take away the connection to value and see what happens:
- You are home recovering from your trip to Vegas and, amongst other things you don’t want to talk about, you find a few chips in your suitcase. What do you do with these? Kid’s room as a toy or stashed away as a “souvenir.” Right? Why? It’s not valuable anymore other than as a novelty because it can’t be traded in for anything. Again, that chip goes back to its roots as a piece of standard plastic.
- You are home from your second honeymoon in Mexico and, in between swigs of Pepto, you run across several Pesos. Same thing happens…the money goes to school with the kids as a “show and tell” or gets stowed away in a photo album next to those cool Mexican beer labels you tore off on your last night on the town. It’s not worth anything anymore because it cannot be traded for other things easily. When was the last time you put a $10 bill in a photo album?
A common misunderstanding about these systems is that is it all about the token itself. I have heard parents say, “the stickers didn’t work, but the Dora stamps did for a while” or “anything works for about a week, but then it stops working.” Obviously, there are several reasons why it could have stopped working, but chances are the novelty of the “token” wore off because it wasn’t connected to anything valuable beyond the initial value of that cool stamp or the new CARS 2 stickers on the fridge.
The lesson: the tokens are only as powerful as what they are connected to and how available those things are.