Token Economies – What Are They and Should My Child Use One?

April 10, 2013 2:05 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Token economies are a widely researched and successful behavior change procedure used within ABA programs. Token economies consist of three major components:

  1. A specific list of target behaviors to be reinforced
  2. Tokens for emitting the target behaviors
  3. A menu of back-up reinforcers (preferred items that the child is motivated to work for) that the tokens can be traded in for

Some of the children at BCOTB earn stars, behavior bucks, stickers, points, (all of these items are generally referred to as tokens), for certain target behaviors. After a certain number of tokens earned, they receive their reinforcer, such as time in the playroom, an edible, a favorite toy – whatever functions as a reinforcer for that specific child (as we all know, reinforcers need to be individualized per child!)

The first step in developing a token economy is to identify what behaviors will earn tokens. These can include following directions independently, responding correctly during work programs, making eye contact, playing nicely with siblings, tolerating being told no, and any other appropriate behavior that you want to see more of from your child! Once these behaviors are defined, the token itself should be selected – for example, will the child earn stars, points, or behavior bucks? The token itself should be age-appropriate and ideally a preferred item for the child – for children who like to count you might use numbers, for children who can spell you might use letters, for children who like Nemo, you might use different Nemo pictures, and for older children who understand the meaning of money, you might use behavior bucks. The last step is to identify the back-up reinforcers that the tokens can be exchanged for – will it be a certain toy, the IPAD, or a favorite snack? Ideally the item(s) chosen as the back-up reinforcer(s) should only be available contingent upon receiving all of the tokens – in this way, the tokens will become more valuable to the child because earning all of them is the only way for them to access this reinforcer.

In setting up the token economy, it is also important to determine how quickly the child will receive each token, as well as how many tokens they will need to earn before receiving the reinforcer. For children who have never used a token economy before, it is beneficial to start out with a small amount of tokens (3-5) and to deliver the tokens quickly (1 token every time the appropriate behavior occurs). This will help in teaching the meaning of the token economy and allowing the child to meet with reinforcement quickly. You can then fade to giving a token every 2 responses instead of every 1 response. Always remember, though, that the delivery of the token should correspond to the quality of the response, so if the child only emits one response, but it’s better than they have ever done before (e.g., they said BALL instead of BA) or it’s a response they’ve never emitted before, that should definitely earn a token, or even two!

Token economies can be very beneficial in the following ways:

  1. Using a token system can help children who have difficulty waiting for a reinforcer. A token economy is a visual, predictable way for children to see when the reinforcer will be delivered, as well as how and when they can earn the reinforcer back.
  2. Token economies help create generalized conditioned reinforcers for our kids. This means we don’t always have to deliver specific edibles or toys following appropriate behavior because the tokens themselves become reinforcers as they are paired with the back-up reinforcers. This can mean easier behavior management at school or in the community.
  3. Token economies can also be shaped into more appropriate and naturally-occurring token systems, such as points in a classroom or allowance at home.

The final consideration in using token economies is the plan to fade it out of the child’s program. It is important to pair praise and social attention with delivery of the tokens, so that as the tokens become conditioned reinforcers, so will our social attention. The number of responses required to earn a token should be gradually increased as well, and could be changed to a time-based system – instead of 10 responses for a token, it is now 10 minutes for a token. It is recommended to consult with your behavior analyst on the best withdrawal process for your child.

Do you have any success stories about using a token economy with your child? Please tell us about it in the comments below!

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