As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) continues to skyrocket, educators and caregivers are searching for strategies that will help these individuals have success in inclusive settings. A great deal of today’s research focuses on positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). Token economies are one type of PBIS strategy that can be used to improve problem behaviors in students with and without disabilities.
A token economy is a system that allows students to earn an immediate reinforcer, such as a sticker or “token”, for displaying a desired behavior. The students then save up their tokens in order to exchange them for a larger reward, or back-up reinforcer. Research indicates that token economies can be an effective strategy to use with an entire class or with individuals to increase on-task behaviors, rule compliance, participation, and others (Nelson, 2010; Reitman, Murphy, Hupp, & O’Callaghan, 2004). However, there are a few tips that educators and caregivers need to know before a token economy can positively impact a child’s behavior.
1. Design and teach clear expectations. The individuals participating in the token economy need to be explicitly taught the academic or behavioral expectations. Comprehension checks should be given to ensure that the participants understand these expectations.
2. Explicitly teach the token system. In order for a token economy to be meaningful, children participating in the system will need to have a clear understanding of what the tokens represent. Once the expectations are established and taught, start by providing one token when the participant meets that expectation. When you give the individual the token, explain why he/she is receiving the token. Then, immediately exchange it for the back-up reinforcer. This allows the individual to pair the token with the back-up reinforcer.
3. Start off strong. When considering how many tokens to provide during a given time period, it is important to note the present level of the behavior and how accustomed the individual is to receiving tokens. Tokens will need to be presented more frequently for appropriate behaviors if an individual often engages in problem behaviors. In addition, if an individual has never experienced a token system before, he/she will require more tokens and back-up reinforcers than someone who is accustomed to a token economy. Remember: the more an individual is reinforced for engaging in a desired behavior, the more likely they are to continue to display that behavior.
4. Back-up reinforcers must be meaningful. Interest inventories and/or preference assessments should be given to determine the most meaningful reinforcers for the individual participating in the token economy. The more desired the back-up reinforcer is, the more likely the individual is to work for tokens. It is important to have several back-up reinforcers so that the reinforcers do not become satiated. A varying points system can also be established so that the individual can choose to “cash in” the tokens for small reinforcers, or save the tokens for larger reinforcers.
5. Fade out. Because life does not come with a built-in token economy for everything, it is important to fade out the tokens and back-up reinforcers as the individual begins to demonstrate desired behaviors more frequently. Natural reinforcers and/or social reinforcers should be paired with tokens and back-up reinforcers. This should carry over into a variety of contexts. The decrease in tokens and back-up reinforcers should be a gradual process until the individual is independently engaging in the desired behavior.
Token economies can be adapted to meet the needs of a variety of individuals in countless inclusive settings. Through the use of token economies, individuals can learn how to independently engage in an endless number of appropriate behaviors. Token economies can also develop into a self-monitoring system. This allows the participating individual to be more aware of his/her own behavior. Whether you are an educator or caregiver for individuals with ASD, or a general education classroom teacher, token economies can be an effective strategy to use when changing behaviors.
Nelson, K. (2010). Exploration of classroom participation in the presence of a token economy. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(1), 49-56.
Reitman, D., Murphy, M., Hupp, S., & O'Callaghan, P. (2004). Behavior change and perceptions of change: Evaluating the effectiveness of a token economy. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 26(2), 17-36.
Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.