Thursday 18 January 2018

Rewards that help with interaction and behaviour

Boy with autism on a colourful train

Some kids respond really well to reward charts.  There's a lot to be said for them.  But they require an understanding of what's being rewarded.  For some kids especially those with communication difficulties, rewards work really well, but they need to be instant and they need to have meaning.

David is in a specialist ASD unit attached to a mainstream school. He's making progress, it's brilliant.  One of the key difficulties David faced with education was his self direction. David was interested in doing only what David wanted to do and this not only made it difficult to teach him but even harder to evaluate what he knew and could do to start with.

This was focused on by having a simple target of getting David to follow adult instructions. It didn't matter whether we asked David to touch his nose, put a cup on the table or pick up a ball, what mattered was he got used to the idea of systematically following instructions from an adult.

A token economy

This was being targeted at school using a token economy. If like me you thought economics might be a bit of an advanced subject for him, you'll be glad to know a token economy is actually a type of reward system. I was not very convinced about this ABA style approach as reward charts were completely useless when potty training David for example. But, I've a lot of faith in our specialist unit and it works very well.

Initially upon completing any request David had this behaviour reinforced using an object of his choice - for David he was given an iPad.  This then moved to being giving a token and then switching the token for the iPad straight away.  After a while, David received tokens every time he successfully follows an instruction - but this could be for any behaviour or desired outcome.

Although the tokens can often be an effective reward themselves, in most token economy systems, children are working toward a number of earned tokens which time they can trade in for something better, a reinforcer of some kind. It's a bit like earning money and spending it on something you want. In David's case after collecting X many tokens he got to play with an iPad.

David may be sat doing a puzzle but if he touches his knees when asked by a member of staff he gets a token. If he points to the man when he is asked, he gets a token. If he does anything when asked in a specific setting, he gets a token. Then he gets the iPad. Pretty soon David understands it's good to do what he is asked.

How it's working

David can work for up to nine tokens now without needing his 'reinforcer'. It's not just for his education and at school that this has been helpful. I can't believe he now puts his yogurt pot in the bin. Or gets undressed (sometimes) or puts the iPad away. If you've read 'why sharing shortbread is truly amazing' you'll know what I mean.

Our current challenge appears to be that David has a limited number of reinforcers, he's only interested in the iPad and a few other toys or items so runs the risk of getting bored with his reward.

Whilst the school work on finding David something else he's willing to work for, I'm having lots of fun with David. I get tokens of his affection for free by requesting lots of kisses and I can get him to wiggle his cute nose anytime I ask.  As long as the task adds value to David, they will in the long run continue.


  1. It can be challenging coming up with rewards. I hope your system continues to work for you.


  2. I am so glad you have found a system that is working for you all and that you have such faith in your unit is also fantastic! Well done David. Thank you for linking up to #ablogginggoodtime 🎉

  3. It is so good you recognize the need for this in your son. I think this is true straight across the board. I teach 4th grade and I use a reward system. I try to catch them doing good instead of catching the bad kids. I find when I point out the good kid and reward they all tend to get in line. I also go out of my way to find something in the "bad" kid to praise and bring them some positive rewards as well. We all need to feel good about ourselves!

  4. #TheMMLinky...I always forget to put that!

  5. Interesting post. As one who struggles to get children to follow instructions, I read it with interest but have not decided what I think yet. #TheMMLinky

  6. I'm so glad you've found something that works. x

  7. My son is at a specialist school and they have targets to motivate the children in the school to complete lessons, and reduce unwanted behaviours. This then allows him to be rewarded with target time, and other rewards within the classroom.

    After 2 years, I still have doubts about whether the targets are making much of a difference to my son. Other strategies, such as learning to use his "stop button" seem to work more effectively for him. That said, he does enjoy his target time.


  8. Reward systems are interesting... worked brilliantly for my non-autistic girl but not at all for our PDA girl. The trouble with rewards is that they can still be seen as a demand, and if the child has extreme anxiety about demands then they are not so likely to work. Always worth a try though, and glad it works for David! #TheMMLinky

  9. I like the way you've written about this, it's really helpful in explaining how the token economy system works.
    I have such mixed feelings about reward systems in general... We've used reinforcers a lot with Penguin before, when he was younger and was in a kind of ABA inspired therapy. But I prefer, if possible, to tap into his intrinsic motivation. And I want him to do things because he sees them as meaningful, not because he gets a reward. Still, sometimes the promise of a reward/reinforcer can be the thing that encourages him to try something new, which he might not see as meaningful until he's actually done it once.
    Good to hear that the system your school is using with David seems to be working well for him x


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