Motivating with Token Reward Systems

Over the years, I’ve successfully used points, stickers, stars, candy, and other various tokens to motivate kids. A token economy (which is the more formal name for a reward system using tokens) can be very simple or deeply comprehensive. But no matter how simple or complex, it can bring remarkable results.

For example, I was a self-employed piano teacher for ten years. During those ten years, I created a point system for motivating my students to practice every day. If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you know that sometimes you just don’t feel like practicing. And even when you do want to practice, learning how to play piano, guitar, or any other instrument is in competition with the latest gaming platforms, friends, your favorite TV shows, and so many other things.

I eventually did figure it out. In fact, I was able to motivate students to such a degree that at times they chose to practice instead of playing with those other flashy and fun things! But in the beginning, I had no idea how to make practicing compete on the same level as other “fun” stuff.

How to Compete…

When I started teaching piano, I was up against big distractions where my students’ attention spans were concerned. “How am I going to compete with all the flashy and fun stuff that kids like to do?” It’s the same question every music teacher asks.

Part of the answer to that question came to me just after my first year of teaching. I started out acting how my own former piano teachers acted. I assumed that this what how piano teachers were supposed to act…mature, a bit on the boring side (much the way kids see many adults), and sometimes a bit inflexible…especially when students started dishing out the same old excuses for why they didn’t practice very much. I didn’t have many students to begin with and a couple of them quit during the first few months.

About a year after I started teaching, I was thinking about giving it up. I wasn’t enjoying it and I was pretty sure the students weren’t either. On the other hand, I had moments when I felt like I had something valuable to offer…like I could be good at teaching. So I made the most important decision I could have ever made as a piano teacher. I decided to throw away the piano teacher’s rulebook.

No Rules = Success

So what does it mean to throw away the rulebook?  Basically, I gave myself permission to be myself and to not act like the piano teachers I had taken lessons from. You see, I have an odd sense of humor and don’t mind acting a little silly from time to time. But how would that go over? I soon found out. When my students came in for a lesson, I made jokes, made faces, acted a little goofy, like I sometimes do. However, I didn’t let my humor distract or take anything away from doing my job.  But the environment was more relaxed, more fun. I wanted the students to enjoy their lesson time. I wanted them to like me because that would make them want to come back.

As it turned out, the results were great. It appeared as though the students were having more fun. And I started getting referrals. In fact, my schedule started growing and kept going. My schedule, at its peak, had reached a maximum of 62 students per week. Yes, 62!

But the question is, did that translate into students practicing on a regular basis? Heck no! I just had more students giving me the same lame excuses… “My dog ate my piano.” Need I say more?

The Birth of Motivation

I am not normal, I’ll go ahead and admit that right now. I say this because I know that most people aren’t constantly doing experiments in their lives. But I reasoned that if I was going to be the best teacher I could be, I was going to need to decipher this “motivation” thing, once and for all. That’s when I changed my focus. The room in which I gave lessons became my laboratory where I conducted years of motivation experiments on hundreds of unsuspecting students over thousands and thousands of lessons. And it paid off…big time!

The first thing I tried was giving out stickers on songs that were successfully completed. Whoop-de-doo! Of course the younger students liked getting stars and stickers, but that did nothing to help motivate them to practice.

Next, I tried giving out candy when students practiced every day. That backfired. I had students telling me they practiced every day of the week. When I checked in with their parents, I was told a different story. But the candy was already jawed and spittled up…accompanied by a sheepish grin and the words, “Oh…I thought I practiced every day. Sorry.”

After many failed experiments, I started to formulate the plan that would finally work. I needed something that would keep students engaged, and something that would allow me to course-correct at any moment. I wanted to do something that would become a more important part of every lesson. And thus, my piano point system was born.

Layers (and Layers) of Motivation

Basically, I started giving out points to my students. They were marked on a sheet that had a grid on it. Points would be added to the next box on the grid. When five points had been added to a box, the student would get a sticker to put over the points and they would get a piece of candy. So every five points meant a piece of candy. But how would the students earn their points? By “doing things that impress me.”  By keeping it open-ended, I could award points to emphasize anything that needed improving or to reinforce things that were being done correctly.

The whole system that I created is far more complex then I have room to explain here (a book is forthcoming). There were still issues that needed to be addressed, like what to do when the home environment doesn’t support my goals for the student? What if parents are unknowingly working against me and are enabling the child to skip practicing sessions without making them up? How do you motivate a child who has some level of Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder (ADHD)? Can this system still work with children who have autistic spectrum disorders? What about competition between siblings, how would that affect student’s motivation using my system? Can this system work with students who have self-esteem issues? In all cases, this system worked like a slide-rule adapting to student-specific circumstances.

This point system, alone, was a good motivator, but to really break the motivation code, I went deeper and explored aspects of students’ family dynamics. I rooted around in each student’s likes and dislikes and used that information to shape and individualize the point system. I used every bit of leverage that I could find to support the point system and encourage consistent practicing. I added layer upon layer to the system…it became nuanced, supportive, fun, and reinforcing of all the best practicing habits. But did it motivate the students to practice every day?

The Big Results

I tweaked my system over a ten-year period. Every time I made a change, I would test it on some students and see what the results were. However, I didn’t use this particular system with my adult students. That’s a different story altogether. But I used it with students in their early teens and younger. Did it work? Absolutely!

By the time I “perfected” the point system, I had established the following rules:

  1. Each student chooses when to practice.
  2. Each student chooses how often to practice.
  3. Each student chooses how long to practice.
  4. Each student shouldn’t have to be reminded to practice.

And here’s the kicker… almost all the students began practicing every day and only missing days when it was beyond their control. When they missed a day, they usually made up that time. Every student practiced a minimum of 15 minutes (which was my minimum). But it was pretty rare that a student only practiced for 15 minutes. The average was 30 to 45 minutes. But many students practiced multiple times per day. So if they practiced for 15 minutes, they often practiced a few times on those days.

There were even some students who had begun practicing  1 to 2 hours per day! Yes, 1 to 2 hours of practicing every single day! And again, let me emphasize that they chose how long they wanted to practice and how often. Needless to say, the parents were pleased to be able to stop fighting with their kids to get them to practice. Typically, students would go a month or more without missing a single day of practicing. Even when they only practiced for 15 minutes, that time had to be spent on the most difficult work, not the fun or easy stuff.

Not For Use in a Vacuum

This is just an overview of the system I developed. But it’s important to note that this system worked because it is dynamic; the fundamentals stayed the same, but some aspects of it changed for every student because every student was different. I had to customize and adapt how I used this form of token economy by adjusting the tokens (in this case points, stickers, candy, prizes. etc.) and rewards for each student. The same is true when trying to motivate yourself.

Motivation is not one-size-fits-all. And motivation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are always variables to consider. What motivates one person may have little or no value at all to another person.  So if you’re going to use a token economy as a method of motivation, it’s important to consider the variables. But every person has his price. There is always something that will motivate each one of us. Finding that something (or multiple somethings) is ultimately the key to success with a token economy.

At its simplest of forms token rewards systems work like this: Follow the rules, get points, and earn a reward when you get enough points. The reward is everything. And the reward doesn’t have to be distributed all at once, and only at the end. Sometimes giving rewards along the way is more effective. Then you could follow the little rewards with a final and bigger reward that’s more of the same or something different.

So if you are interested in trying a token-based reward system, be prepared to tweak it until you’re getting the results you’re looking for. When you find the right reward you’ll get nearly 100% compliance. That’s how you’ll know when you’re on track. Give it a try and you may be amazed with the results.

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