A Creative Discipline Approach for Kids with Special Needs

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Finding healthy, effective approaches to gaining children’s cooperation, and improving their behavior isn’t always easy. The tried and true methods often turn out to be true but temporary at best, especially for children with behavior problems stemming from attention deficit disorder or other behavior disorders.

One approach that works well is a token system. With this method, children earn tokens for a variety of good behaviors and lose tokens for misbehavior. Then they purchase rewards or privileges with the tokens they’ve accumulated.

Benefits of the Token System

The token system has several advantages over other forms of discipline and behavior management plans. First, it can be carried out at any time and in any place. Children often act up in stores or public places, leaving parents with few options for immediately settling the problem. But with the token system, you and your child will carry a supply of tokens everywhere you go. Before you head out, just remind your child that good behavior will be rewarded and that inappropriate behavior will result in immediate loss of tokens.

The second advantage is the token system teaches children how to save, budget, and plan expenditures because tokens are used similarly to money.

Next, this system prevents inappropriate or useless measures that parents often utilize in the heat of the moment. The token system makes empty threats a thing of the past. Because your child is aware of the consequences and your ability to administer them immediately, he’s less likely to act up.

Fourth, the token system is a positive approach. It eliminates criticism, yelling, arguing, and other unhealthy and ineffective ways parents often get caught up in dealing with problem behavior.

Finally, the token system can be altered regularly to keep kids’ interest and thereby increase its effectiveness. The token system, or one of its variations, can be used from about the age of three into the preteen years, depending on your child’s level of maturity.

Getting Started

Make a list of the behaviors you’d like to work on with your child. This should include positive behaviors you’d like your child to improve on, such as using good table manners or putting dirty clothes in the hamper. If your child is five or older, also make a separate list of problem behaviors you’d like to reduce, such as name-calling or hitting.

For children under five, the token system should be used only for reinforcing positive behavior. The frustration caused by losing tokens for poor behavior will not be helpful to the preschooler. That said, when a preschooler misbehaves, you can simply tell your child she will not be receiving any tokens as a result of the bad behavior.

Go through each list and prioritize and choose only four or five behaviors to work on at a time. Once your child has improved on a particular behavior, remove it from the list and add a new one.

Next, determine how many tokens to reward your child or confiscate for specific behaviors. Your list might look similar to the one below. Keep in mind the number of tokens assigned to a particular behavior should fit the severity or difficulty of the behavior relative to the other behaviors on which you are working.

Hang up their book bag and jacket – Earn 3 tokens
Eat supper without complaining – Earn 2 tokens
Say please and thank you – Earn 1 token
Complete homework – Earn 6 tokens
Hitting – Lose 5 tokens
Tattling – Lose 2 token

Also, try to estimate the number of tokens your child is likely to earn and lose in a week. Your child should be able to earn enough tokens to pay for problem behaviors. It’s not a good idea for your child to go into debt. If this becomes a problem, adjust the distribution of tokens accordingly.

You’ll also need to choose rewards your child can purchase with the tokens. Determine what will be most enticing to your child. While a trip to rent a DVD might be a real winner with some kids, others won’t be fazed by it.

As you plan the rewards, include privileges your child asks for or does regularly, and would be devastating if the opportunity were lost. Those rewards will be the strongest motivators. To make such rewards effective, you’ll need to place limits on those privileges unless your child has earned and purchased them.

Be sure to set guidelines for rewards that require your time or attention. For example, a trip to the apple orchard might require a two-day notice. While for a board game, you might agree you’ll play within four hours of the request.

Set a Variety of Values to the Rewards.

That way, your child has the option to either make frequent purchases or to save for something big. Small children require frequent opportunities to purchase rewards to maintain their interest.

Poker chips make good tokens. For older kids, assign different point values to each color.

Finally, when handing out tokens, always verbally praise your child. Say you’re proud of his actions or appreciate her thoughtfulness. When your child is no longer earning tokens for the behavior, continued use of praise will reinforce it.


If your child struggles to complete schoolwork and turn in assignments, use the token system for this alone. Ask your child’s teacher to send home a daily report of what your child has completed and turned in, then reward your child’s efforts. Use grade rewards only if your child is capable of achieving high marks without too much difficulty.

As your child approaches the teen years, tokens may be perceived as childish. If your preteen still struggles behaviorally and with completing tasks, offer a checkbook ledger for tallying points instead. When points are earned, your preteen should fill in the ledger with the specific behavior or task and the number of points earned. Then immediately initial to show you’ve approved the points.

Kimberly Blaker is a freelance parenting writer. She’s also founder and director of KB Creative Digital Services, a niche marketing agency for the healthcare and mental health industries at


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