[ by Jason M. Wallin ]
What is a token economy?
A token economy is a system in which an individual earns tokens for targeted behaviors. Once he has collected a predetermined number of tokens he can trade them for an item or activity that he desires.
Token economies are one type of secondary (conditioned) reinforcement. That is, tokens begin as essentially neutral stimuli, of little significance in and of themselves. However, as the tokens become increasingly associated with the reinforcers for which they are exchanged, the tokens themselves can become mildly reinforcing, making learning that much more motivating.
Money is probably the token economy system that is most well-known. There is nothing particularly motivating about little bits of green paper. However, because we can use those green papers to buy food, housing, entertainment, etc. they can become extremely reinforcing, and we are willing to do a lot of work to obtain them.
The goals of token economy
Token economies can be used to meet a number of educational and behavioral goals for children:
- Increased ability to delay gratification -- Token systems are a great way to build a child's ability to wait for reinforcing items or activities. They concretely relate to the child just how more he has to do before he gets to do something really fun.
- Increased sense of time -- Token systems can help kids who have little sense of time become more aware of how long they have been at a task and how much longer they will have to remain at that task.
- Lessened satiation -- By increasing the number of responses necessary to obtain a primary (or strong secondary) reinforcer, token economies can lower the rate at which the child becomes satiated with a particular form of reinforcement.
- Increased teaching rate -- Even relatively brief reinforcement can greatly slow down the rate of instruction if you're having to deliver it after every response (as in a discrete trial setting). Rewarding a response with a token is quick, and allows for speedy, more fluid instruction.
- More natural reinforcement -- In most school settings, it's not terribly common to see teachers walking around handing out Fruit Loops, or passing out bubbles after every correct answer. Using tokens to delay the presentation of those more obvious reinforcers can be less obtrusive in the classroom.
- Increased selection of reinforcers -- Because reinforcement is being delivered after several responses than after each response, longer-lasting, possibly more reinforcing items or activities could be chosen for reinforcement. As an example, if one were conducting quick verbal drills, it's probably not terribly effective to use a video as a reinforcer for each correct response. Even just a few seconds of a video after each response can bog down rate of interaction and possibly result in the loss of attention. But, if a child finds a video especially rewarding, he may be willing to work for several (even dozens) of tokens to earn a chance to watch.
What does a token economy system look like?
Token economy systems can take on a wide variety of forms. They can range from very simple, short-lived systems to much more complex systems that require the child to work for days or even weeks before earning his reward. Below are a few examples:
A basic token system
To the left is a picture of a very simple token system (click the image for a larger version). In this system, the child has to make six correct responses before he is able to obtain the reinforcer (in this case he is working for tickles). Before the work session starts, the child gets to pick the reinforcer he'd like and place it at the end of the card. It's difficult to make out in the picture, but the space on the board beneath the "tickle" picture is green. This matches the green paper onto which all of the reinforcers the child can choose from are mounted.
Some teachers prefer to use images of the targeted behavior as their tokens. So, if a child were working on sitting appropriately at carpet time, one might use a token system where he earned pictures of a student with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap. However, you'll notice that the tokens in this example are fairly generic "Good Job!" type stickers. The type of token used should be based on the skills and needs of the child. If you feel that the child would benefit from the added visual support of earning tokens which represent the targeted behavior, than such pictures should be used. Keep in mind, however, that choosing to do so will require that a new token system be developed for each targeted behavior (or at least for each group of behaviors -- like sitting, talking, drawing, or whatever you might be working on). If the child can handle it, I'd suggest using more a more generic system, which can be applied to a wide variety of behaviors and activities. Such an approach is cheaper, certainly, and could result in fewer headaches searching for the appropriate token system when shifting between activities.
I'd likely use a system like this to teach token systems, in fact. I'd start with a board that only required a single response before the reinforcer was delivered. As the child mastered that, I'd move to two responses, and so on until the child was working well through ten responses or more.
This type of system has a few benefits:
- Good for kids just starting with token systems.
- The system emphasizes progressing from left to right, building on an early reading skill.
- A picture of the reinforcer for which the child is working is visible throughout the work session continually reminding the child what he's working towards.
- Can be used with a variety of different activities. A system like this that requires ten responses may be very useful to use, as percent correct data is a lot easier to take on ten-reponse units.
The major disadvantage of this type of system is that it becomes rather awkward as a desk or table mounted system when you get upwards of a dozen or so expected responses. It just begins to take up too much space. Also, token systems like the one pictured can become expensive, if you're making a number of them, the Velcro and laminating (which aren't completely necessary, but are certainly recommended) can add up after awhile.
Cammie was a girl who wanted to be at circle with her friends but who was constantly talking out and interrupting the proceedings. This token system, a punch card, was introduced, along with a social story about carpet time, to help address those issues. Cammie was given punches on the card on a fixed interval schedule. We began with a very short delay between intervals, about ten seconds. After each ten-second interval, if she was sitting and listening appropriately, she was given a punch. After 18 punches (approximately three minutes at ten seconds per punch) she got a piece of candy and moved on to the next activity. As she progressed with the card, the interval between punches was extended, until she was working at five or more minutes between punches. At that point, she'd be working on a card for several days before she was able to fill it up entirely.
Advantages of punch cards:
- They are cheap. Run off four cards per sheet of paper, and it's not expensive at all to use even large numbers of punch cards in your program.
- With punch cards it's easy to create token systems for specific activities or behaviors. A few Boardmaker symbols and some standard card layouts and you've got a wide variety of available cards.
- Punch cards are very convenient and rather discrete. Kids can carry cards with them unobtrusively, and it's easy for a teacher to carry around a small hole punch to dole out punches during targeted activities.
A similar card can be developed which uses stars (we all had star charts at one time or another in our elementary schooling, no?) or other stickers instead of punches.
I've used Unifix cubes successfully with children with autism and they've been a big hit in small groups of typical primary school kids as well. Unifix cubes lend themselves easily to a token economy, where the kids get a cube for each correct response, or when caught exhibiting good small group behavior, and can earn prizes for achieving a certain number, but many kids naturally begin to compare the height of their towers to their neighbors'. Even if such comparison isn't spontaneous, you can get kids comparing and counting and measuring pretty easily with this approach.
Money (either actual currency or "school money") can make a very good token system for kids, especially upper elementary or older kids, where stickers and such might not be as appropriate. Working with money is a very functional skill, and using money as a token system lends itself to lots of great math concepts (making change, budgeting, etc.). Token systems can be used to teach or reinforce money skills. For instance, you could set the price for a jump on the trampoline at five nickels, but might only hand out pennies as reinforcement. The child needs to figure out when he's got enough pennies to make a nickel and cash them in.
Guidelines for creating and using token economy systems
Token systems should clearly provide a visual representation of how much the child has accomplished and how much more he needs to accomplish before reinforcement is delivered. One way to ensure this is to use a line of separate squares of Velcro (or magnets, or printed squares, etc.) instead of a solid strip. The discrete spots can help a child better predict how much more work he needs to do before he gets the reinforcement.
I'd argue that token systems are most effective at maintaining positive behaviors when they are specific to each child, address specific, targeted behaviors, and clearly communicate the expectations and rules to the child. This last point is important if you are designing a token system not for a particular work session, but which may encompass an entire day (or week, or other lengthy span), and which rewards a child for exhibiting positive behaviors. For example, several typical classrooms I have worked in use behavior plans wherein students (and often the class as a whole) are awarded tickets for "getting caught being good". When the student (or class) accumulates a certain number of tickets he get some type of prize or special activity. Such systems often work well in these classroom, and may work well with many kids with autism, as well. However, some kids (autistic or no, I'd imagine) may find such a system too vague to really have any educational benefit. For these kids, the system could be improved by awarding tokens for a small number of precisely defined behaviors, rather than the more ambiguous "be good" feeling that often comes from these class-wide systems.
As when using any reinforcement, choice should be as big a part of your token systems as you can make it. With simple systems have the child choose from an array of available reinforcers the item or activity he'd like to be working towards. With more complex systems you may have a "menu" of reinforcement posted along with the prices of various items (bubbles might cost 15 tokens, a video 60, a trip to McDonald's 150).
Pair verbal praise with the presentation of the token. Giving a "Good sitting!" or "Great reading!" will remind the child why he is getting the token and, when tokens have been established as secondary reinforcers, can help establish social praise as a reinforcer, as well.
Token systems are often a good opportunity to introduce some real-world math skills to the child. Asking questions -- "How many stickers do you have?" "What if I gave you one more?" "How many more do you need to get the bubbles?" "Does Nathan have fewer punches than you?" "How many fewer?" -- can get kids thinking about numbers in a new setting.
Velcro is used a lot in token systems. Though it can get a little spendy, it is ideal for making portable systems that can withstand a lot of use. When using Velcro, make sure you have a uniform system across your program (token systems, picture exchange, games, etc.). In all of the visual tools I create, I mount the hook (scratchy) side of the Velcro to the firm surface and the loop (soft) side to the loose items (like tokens, picture exchange symbols, etc.).
Some thoughts on response cost
Response cost is a form of punishment which involves token economies. An individual is fined a specific number of tokens when he behaves inappropriately, with the hope of reducing that inappropriate behavior. As an example, if I were to drive too fast on the highway (which I would never dream of doing) I might happen to be stopped by the police and fined a certain amount of money (tokens). The faster I drive (the more inappropriate the behavior) the higher the fines. Similarly, one could create such a system in an educational setting. For instance, if you've a child who occasionally refuses to work at a task, and you find the task important enough to insist upon compliance, you may wish to respond to the behavior with a response cost. So, if the child were collecting pennies to buy a chance to watch his favorite video, you may consequate his initial refusal with the removal of a penny from his jar. Continued refusals may result in higher costs (two or three or more pennies).
Response costs need to be considered carefully before they're implemented, however. A considerable amount of work might be required to teach a child a token system and even more to get him to consider it a reliable tool. Setting up an aversive situation with a token system, as a response cost may do, can cause the child to lose his trust of the system.
If, however, a response cost is determined to be an appropriate tool to address the targeted behavior, ensure that the child is well aware of what behaviors will result in the loss of tokens, the cost of the various qualities of those behaviors, and how those penalties will occur. If appropriate, ensure that there is a chance for the child to earn tokens back.
Have you a token economy system that you have found to be successful with children with autism? Some hints on using token economies with kids? If so, please contact me about it.