Fact sheet on communication issues with Autism,  the most common pervasive developmental disorder


by Tom McIntyre


One of the most often used behavior management techniques, especially in settings for students who have learning or behavioral difficulties, is the token economy system. A token economy involves awarding tokens, chips, stickers, check marks, points, or other items/markings to students who demonstrate desired behaviors identified by the teacher. Students may periodically exchange the tokens for rewards, which are items or activities desirable to them. It is often compared to a national economic system in which we work for money, which has no value in and of itself, and later exchange it for items and activities that are valuable to us.


Token economies are often quite effective for students who are resistant to other types of motivational or behavior management techniques. Other benefits of this system are ease of administration, the use of immediate reinforcement (tokens) while teaching delayed gratification (holding tokens until trade-in time), lack of boredom or satiation for the student due to the availability of a variety of back-up reinforcers, and lack of competition between students as they compete only against themselves.


When a token economy is used for one or a few students only, it is often devised through a contract. Procedures for implementing this variation are presented in the link on the home page (www.BehaviorAdvisor.com) titled "Contracts". In this version, along with a token economy for groups, the tokens are periodically devalued so that the students must perform at a higher level to earn the same value in back-up reinforcers. This stiffening of requirements promotes continual improvement in behavior or performance by the students. Token economies have great flexibility and utility; they have been shown in research studies to be effective with students with various kinds and severities of disabling conditions. Perhaps the reason it is so effective is that a token or check mark is visible evidence of progress. It also reminds the student to display proper behavior, and assures that the teacher will notice appropriate behavior and interact with the student in a positive manner.


How to Use Token Economies


1. Select the behaviors to be rewarded. The behaviors to be reinforced should be in concert with classroom rules and guidelines.


2. State the desired behaviors in specific and observable terms. Phrase them in a positive manner. Be sure to tell the student what to do, rather than what not to do (e.g., "Raise hand before talking" rather than "No speaking out").


3. Decide how you will measure the behaviors (e.g., percentage correct, number of minutes engaged in proper behavior, number of times student displays appropriate behavior).


4. Decide where to monitor the behaviors (e.g., only in the classroom or also in the lunchroom and on the bus).


5. Select the initial reinforcer. Use a reinforcer that is easy to administer and convenient to store. Devise a token/item/marking that will inhibit theft or counterfeiting.


6. Select your back-up reinforcers. Involve your students in the selection to insure that the reinforcers will be perceived as being valuable. (For instance, have the students list things that they would work to obtain, or complete one of the many published reinforcement inventories, or set out possible reinforcers and observe which ones are selected most often.) Be sure that the reinforcers are appropriate. Consider educational value, cost, possible misuse, or danger involved.


7. Place a price (in tokens) on your back-up reinforcers. Record the actual price of any purchased items. Higher priced items will demand more tokens. Place a value on back-up reinforcers (the rewards) that are activity-oriented such as free time, listening to music, or painting. Develop a wall chart that lists the number of tokens needed to purchase each back-up reinforcer.


8. Place a value on the tokens. Give the tokens a value that is worth more now than in the future. As students begin to function more appropriately, tokens will have to be devalued to motivate the kids to improve continually. Next, develop a wall chart that lists the number of tokens to be given for each desired behavior, and decide whether inappropriate behavior will result only in a withholding of tokens or whether you will place a fine and take away tokens for that misconduct. If the latter is the case, make a wall chart that indicates the amount to be fined for each misbehavior.


9. Finalize the details by developing your own monitoring sheet to keep track of awards and fines, and deciding how often and when tokens can be exchanged for back-up reinforcers (e.g., at the end of each day, at the end of each week). Develop storage containers/procedures for yourself and the students and devise a method for displaying the back-up reinforcers.


10. Start your program. Have the materials ready to show to students as you explain the program in language that they can understand. Make your presentation very positive and upbeat. Post the wall charts and review them periodically. Implement the program, providing the tokens as soon as they are earned. Add to your back-up reinforcer menu as necessary.


11. Periodically modify your system to wean your students from the token economy. This change usually involves requiring more positive behavior for a longer period of time in order to obtain a check mark or token.


Activities and Discussion Questions

1. List twenty-five items that could be used as tokens in a token economy.


2. Make a reinforcement inventory to determine the rewards desired by your students. Use open-ended sentences (e.g., "If I had 15 minutes of free time, I would like to...") and choices (e.g., "Given free time, which would you rather do? (a) talk with a friend; (b) play a game; (c) read; (d) listen to music). List only those choices that you would allow in your classroom.


3. Complete steps 1 through 9 in the above section titled How to Use Token Economies. Make all the materials and indicate which items you would use for tokens and back-up reinforcers. Write your spoken introduction of the system to the students.


4. With another person, role play the introduction to the youngsters regarding the new program.


5. A parent feels that your token economy is bribery. How do you respond to this parent?


6. Hamilton comes to you to report that someone stole his tokens. How can you prevent theft from occurring in the future?


7. You caught Jeff bringing poker chips from home that look like the ones you use to reinforce students. You had this problem once before when you gave check marks and the students made their own. How can you prevent this behavior?


8. Is it fair to take away tokens that have already been earned by the student? Shouldn't he be able to keep tokens he has earned previously by displaying appropriate behavior?


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Reproduced with permission of author Tom McIntyre from his site at www.BehaviorAdvisor.com

A token economy involves awarding tokens, chips, stickers, check marks, points, or other items/markings to students who demonstrate desired behaviors identified by the teacher.