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Unintended Consequences of Token Systems and Forced Compliance





This was a resource intended for public school teachers. The first behavior listed was non-compliance. Non-compliance in children is seen as problematic due to safety concerns, societal expectations, potential educational impact, parental frustration, and concerns about developmental issues.


The first intervention listed was for a token reward system. Token systems are criticized for several reasons, the biggest concern is that they are often deemed inequitable as they may disproportionately impact students from different backgrounds. For instance, if the criteria for earning tokens are biased, it could disadvantage certain groups.


An example of biased criteria might be giving tokens primarily for academic achievements without considering external factors. This can disadvantage students facing challenges outside the classroom, such as socioeconomic issues, learning disabilities (diagnosed/undiagnosed), or personal hardships, and reinforce a system that doesn't acknowledge the broader context of a student's life.


Token systems also condition students to focus on external rewards rather than fostering intrinsic motivation. Addressing behavior should involve understanding the underlying causes and working from there, rather than just changing surface level responses, to promote a more comprehensive and equitable approach to education.


It's important to note that while non-compliance is often viewed negatively, it's also a normal part of child development. Understanding the reasons behind a child's non-compliance and employing positive parenting or teaching strategies can be more effective in addressing the underlying issues.


The second intervention is to maintain the demand, and that the student must complete task before moving on.


Forcing an anxious child to complete a task without accommodations can be detrimental because it can escalate their anxiety and negatively impact their mental well being. It can contribute to increased stress, avoidance behaviors, and potentially hinder their ability to cope with challenges. Understanding the child's anxiety triggers and providing appropriate accommodations is essential for creating a supportive environment that promotes their overall emotional and academic development.



Mindfully dealing with non-compliance in an anxious child involves understanding their perspective and employing strategies that prioritize their emotional well-being:


  1. Listen and Validate: Allow the child to express their feelings and concerns. Validate their emotions to create a safe space for communication.

  2. Understand Triggers: Identify specific triggers that contribute to their anxiety. Knowing these triggers can help tailor approaches and accommodations.

  3. Offer Choices: Provide the child with choices whenever possible. This empowers them and gives a sense of control, reducing anxiety.

  4. Use Positive Reinforcement: Encourage positive behaviors by acknowledging and reinforcing them. Positive reinforcement can motivate the child to comply willingly.

  5. Establish Predictability: Create a structured and predictable environment. Consistency can help reduce anxiety as the child knows what to expect.

  6. Teach Coping Strategies: Equip the child with coping mechanisms, such as deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, to manage anxiety in challenging situations.

  7. Collaborate with Supportive Professionals: Work with teachers, counselors, or mental health professionals who can provide additional support and strategies tailored to the child's needs. Remember, each child is unique, so it's crucial to approach non-compliance with sensitivity and an individualized, mindful perspective.


Children may be non-compliant due to developmental stages, communication challenges, a desire for autonomy, environmental factors, lack of understanding, emotional regulation issues, or learning differences. Recognizing these factors helps in addressing non-compliance through positive reinforcement, clear communication, and tailored support.


Here are some sample prompts that shows how adjusting the way demands are communicated, making them more mindful and considerate, can significantly impact a student's motivation and receptiveness:


Scenario 1: A child is running when it is unsafe to do so inside - "It looks like you've got a lot of energy! How about we turn walking into a fun challenge? Let's see who can walk the slowest and sneakiest, like little detectives. Ready to give it a try?


Scenario 2: A student won't stop throwing his water bottle up and catching it, almost hitting other students - "I know that is fun tossing the water bottle, and I love the sloshing sound it makes, but we don't want it to hurt anyone in our small space. If you can set it nicely on your desk, you can keep it with you for drinking. Let's find another way to get that energy out, could you help me pass out these papers to your classmates?"


In both situations, we validate the child by identifying their needs, clarify why the behavior isn't suitable in that context, and then redirect with a mindful suggestion that is neither demanding nor authoritative. This approach fosters understanding, avoids shaming, and crucially, preserves the child's autonomy.


Sometimes, adults skeptical of communication changes may doubt their effectiveness, claiming the child still won't comply. The key is to really investigate and consider the reasons for non-compliance, like observing triggers, environmental factors, and addressing physiological needs such as food, sleep, or emotional regulation.


A child's receptiveness to demands is influenced by their overall well-being.


Knowing a child's safe place is crucial for navigating stress and anxiety. It provides emotional regulation, a sense of security, autonomy, and control. The safe space serves as a proactive coping mechanism, reducing stress and teaching healthy behaviors. Additionally, it opens communication channels, builds trust, and fosters positive relationships between caregivers, educators, and the child. If we know what makes them feel safe, we can use these elements to help them feel safe anywhere. If a child feels safe in his room with a special blanket, it may be helpful to suggest that he brings his blanket with him to use during stressful moments. If a child feels safe swinging in his back yard with the warm sun, and breeze hitting his face, we can consider a fresh air break. While fresh flowers might not be feasible in a classroom, a subtle application of sweet smelling chap stick (like Lipsmackers) on the back of their hand can be a fun and calming alternative.

Get creative incorporating what you know to be effective for them.


Here is a free journal sheet I created to help children communicate to their grown ups what makes them feel safe:





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