Common errors with token systems

I love token systems and use them frequently with my clients. Sometimes I use Velcro stars or stickers, or the Token Towers (which are great because you can hear the token going in the plastic tube.) It’s easy to vary the token system to fit the interests and age of a client I am working with. However, I see several errors in their use. Below are a few of the common ones:

• Inconsistent Use – The use of a token system should be predictable. When I am doing an ABA session, the token system is usually available throughout the session. But token systems may be specific to certain activities or certain environments. Using them only some of the time though doesn’t improve their effectiveness.
• Lack of Clarity – You should know what behavior you are focusing on for the token system. For example, I will write down for myself that I am providing tokens for a few specific behaviors (such as whenever a client responds correctly to a current learning target, when they remain in their seats for a period of five minutes, and when they greet a person who comes into the room.) It should be clear for you, as the person implementing the token system, what behaviors you are attempting to increase so you can provide tokens when those behaviors are exhibited.
• Lack of Differentiation – One of the things I love about token systems is that it allows me to easily differentiate reinforcement. For example, let’s say I’m working with a child to teach them to name items from different categories. Usually, when I ask them to name an animal, they name one animal and I provide a token for a correct response. But on this particular day, they name three animals. I can provide more than one token for the higher quality response.
• Not Allowing the Token System to Grow with the Child – Another benefit of token systems is that they can grow with the child. Once a child has mastered a certain behavior, I no longer include it in the token system. The child is always earning tokens for behaviors or responses that are difficult. If you have a client who has been receiving tokens for the same behavior for several months, then one of the two things is happening: (1) the client has mastered the behavior and you aren’t providing reinforcement for more challenging behaviors OR (2) the client has not mastered the behavior and for some reason your token system is not working. Either way, a change needs to be made.
• Fail to Provide a Motivating Reward – I have had some experiences in which the token was supposedly reinforcing on its own. In rare cases, this might just work. However, the tokens should be used to earn a known reinforcer for that particular client.
• Fail to Provide Choices in Rewards – There’s a great body of research on how choice improves motivation. Unfortunately, many children with developmental disabilities have fewer choices in their day-to-day lives than their typically developing counterparts. Allowing your client to choose from a selection of activities or toys for reinforcement will likely improve the quality of your token system.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Beyond Light Up Toys

There are many things that I would love to change about the treatment of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. One of them is the notion that all kids with ASD are motivated by the same things. Certainly, some kids with autism love light up toys, squeezes, or music, but that’s true of the population at large. After all, I am mesmerized by Christmas lights, love a good head massage, and have songs I listen to on repeat.
The issue with the assumption that all kids with ASD are motivated by these small number of things is that it can lead to some very specific problems, such as practitioners trying out a smaller number of toys or activities with the child, practitioners depending solely on “sensory toys” for reinforcers instead of working to expand the number of reinforcers a child responds to, or the larger community making assumptions about the preferences of the child. Furthermore, there is evidence that the broader the range of reinforcers is for a child, the better the learning outcomes (Klintwall & Eikeseth, 2012.) Failing to think beyond the stereotypes about the interests of kids with ASD impedes their ability to learn and develop new skills.

The children I’ve worked with over the years have varied interests, ranging from dinosaurs and maps to bean bag toss and board games. And while some of the kids I work with love light up toys or trains, it’s important that we don’t take a whole swath of the population and decide that they all have similar interests. It doesn’t serve their skill development or our potential to develop real relationships with people with ASD.
As a practitioner, here are some important questions to ask yourself in relation to reinforcers and developing interests:

• Have you conducted a preference assessment? This should be one of the first things you do whenever you start a new case, and something you should continue to do informally.

• Have you talked to the client and/or the parents about what interests they would like to develop? If the client is able to discuss goals and interests with you, you should definitely be having that conversation with them. You should also talk to the parents about their goals. Perhaps they have seen some interest in one area that they would like to further develop. It’s also possible that there are specific family activities or traditions they would like their child to enjoy with the family.

• Have you read about this topic? A great place to start is Chapter 3 of the book A Work in Progress. It clearly explains how to use reinforcers and expand the reinforcer repertoire. There is also a ton of research out there about reinforcement. Take the time to search journals such as Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and Journal of Developmental Disabilities.

Klintwall, L., & Eikeseth, S. (2012). Number and controllability of reinforcers as predictors of individual outcome for children with autism receiving early and intensive behavioral intervention: A preliminary study. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 493-499.
McEachin, J. & Leaf, R. B. (1999). A work in progress: Behavior management strategies and a curriculum for intensive behavioral treatment of autism. New York: DRL Books.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

The Absolute Authority Of The SD

The Discriminative Stimulus is defined as a stimulus in the presence of which a particular response will be reinforced (Malott, 2007, Principles of Behavior).

SD is just ABA speak for the demand, instruction, or the event/stimulus that serves as a signal to someone that there is something they need to respond to. Now, that response can also include a non-response. Not responding is always a possible choice, that comes with its own possible consequences.

For example, if my cell phone rings and it is someone I do not want to talk to I have choices:
-answer the phone
-don’t answer the phone

The phone ringing is a SD because when it rings, there is a specific response that in the past has led me to contact different consequences. Some pleasant, and some not so pleasant.
When my cell phone rings, I am not confused about what I should do. I know what my choices are, and depending on who is calling (or if I recognize who is calling) I then make a choice based on my history of reinforcement with that person.

SD’s can vary in how they are delivered, the specific reinforcement that they make available, as well as the specific expected response.

In ABA therapy sessions, sometimes hundreds of SD’s can be delivered throughout the session, and each one of those SD’s has a specific expected response, as well as specific consequences available for each possible response.

The SD has an authority based on the history of consequences being delivered.
I’ll say that another way: Let’s say I state the SD “give me blue” to a child, and I then provide a consequence of playing on an iPad if the child gives me yellow. Assuming playing on the iPad is a reinforcer, over time I am going to see the child consistently respond to my SD by giving me yellow. Is yellow in this example actually correct? No. But it does not matter: I gave my SD, I followed the child’s response with a reinforcer, and I have super-glued this particular response to the SD.

And this explains why your kids don’t listen.

Reinforcement is like the most powerful superglue on the market. It binds things together, as can be seen in the example below:
(SD) “Clean up the toys” —-> (Response) child cleans up the toys —> (Consequence) “Thanks so much, you can go outside now”

Assuming in the above example that going outside is a reinforcer, over time the child will learn the expected response to the SD of “clean up the toys”, AND they will learn that good things happen after they demonstrate the expected response. In other words, you just taught your child that when they clean up their toys, they might get to go outside.

If I flip this scenario on its head, I can show you how SD’s (and their absolute authority) can sometimes cause you to teach things you did not mean to teach:
(SD) “Clean up your toys” —> (Response) child cries/child screams “no!”/child does not respond to the SD —> (Consequence) “Ugh! Fine, I’ll clean the toys up. Just go outside while I clean up this mess”

Assuming in the above example that going outside is a reinforcer, over time what will the child learn? A few things actually:

-child will learn that problem behavior or not responding is a response
-child will learn that escape/avoidance behaviors work
-child will learn that cleaning up the toys is not a requirement to be able to go outside

Did you mean to teach that? I am nearly positive you did not. Unfortunately, the absolute authority of the SD remains unmoved by the fact that you didn’t intend to teach new ways to avoid a demand.

Don’t freak out, there is a way to avoid this trap.

First, understand what Instructional Control is and how it can help you. I promise, it isn’t as scary as it sounds.

Second, see below for some common characteristics of successful SD’s. A successful SD helps your child learn in an effective manner WHAT to do, and WHY to do it (because good things might happen). Let the absolute authority of the SD work for you, and not against you.

Characteristics of Successful SD’s
 

The SD is precise: A precise SD includes only the language necessary for the individual to know what to do. Extra details, threats, or reminders are best left off the SD, particularly if the individual has communication deficits or is very young. Good example – “Get down”. Not-so-good-example – “Michael Benjamin Clark, you get down off that railing right now before you fall and break your neck”.

The SD is stated, not asked: Unless you are cool with the individual tossing you a “No/I don’t feel like it/I don’t want to”, then do not present the SD as a question. A question gives the option of refusal. 

The SD allows for a brief time to begin to respond: Brief as in, a few seconds. I have been in this field a long time, and I have developed an internal countdown timer that kicks in when I give a SD. To help yourself learn this skill, when you give your child a demand silently count to 3. Or, you could subtly tap a finger against the inside of your palm 3 times. If you get to 3 and the individual has not at least started to respond, it is time to provide a consequence. Another completely personal reason why I like this “internal countdown” is because it helps parents not flood the child with SD’s. If you are busy counting in your head, you can’t rattle off 4 more demands, when the child hasn’t even responded to demand #1.

The SD is consistent: Especially if the child has communication deficits or is very young, avoid changing up the SD rapidly. This can possibly be confusing, and impede learning. Once your child is demonstrating they know how to respond to the SD, that is the point where you can start to change the language used, or not use language at all (such as pointing at a book on the floor to indicate the child needs to put the book away).

The SD consequence is consistent: The most critical point about understanding SD’s is that what follows the response equals learning. You are teaching your child how to respond to you based on what happens when they respond correctly, and what happens when they respond incorrectly. If you decide that the SD “Make your bed” means fluffing all the pillows, then the bed being made with 1 pillow fluffed, or the bed being made with some of the pillows fluffed, are both incorrect responses. No exceptions. You would then prompt the correct response so the child knows they made an error.

Attention is gained before the SD is given: If you observe the ABA team work with your child you will get to see possibly hundreds of SD’s delivered during a therapy session. You may also note that the team works to gain the child’s attention before stating the SD, to make sure it is heard. This could look like approaching the child, bending/squatting down to look in the child’s face, waiting for a break in crying/screaming, or making a statement such as “Are you ready?”, to verify the child is attending.

The SD is not repeated over and over again, nor is it screamed, or shouted: SD’s are bosses. SD’s are in charge. SD’s call the shots. They do not need to beg, bargain, plead, scream, or lose their cool. Remember, your child only has a short time to respond correctly. If they do not respond correctly, you just deliver a consequence (such as a prompt). It will be very tempting to state the SD over and over again, but don’t give in to that temptation. Over time, this will actually teach your child they do not need to listen to you the first time, and that ignoring you is an effective way to avoid a demand.


About The Author 

“I’ve been providing ABA therapy services to young children with Autism since early 2003. My career in ABA began when I stumbled upon a flyer on my college campus for what I assumed was a babysitting job. The job turned out to be an entry level ABA therapy position working with an adorable little boy with Autism. This would prove to be the unplanned beginning of a passionate career for me.

From those early days in the field, I am now an author, blogger, Consultant/Supervisor, and I regularly lead intensive training sessions for ABA staff and parents. If you are interested in my consultation services, or just have questions about the blog: contact me here.”

This piece originally appeared at www.iloveaba.com

Why All Parents Should Use Token Economies

 

As parents, we want our kids to want to have good behavior. They should want to behave because it’s the right thing to do, right? Yeah right. This is why all parents should use token economies.

Have you met a 3 year old with an innate desire to good for this world? It’s in there somewhere but at age 3, it’s more like threenager-ville. Little humans do what gets them what they want. They behavior in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome.

A threenager is likely to tantrum to get access to their favorite toy, TV show, candy, a left shoe they can see on the other side of the room — you name it. They are acting a certain way (tantrum) to achieve a certain outcome (getting whatever they want).

What can we do about this? Is there any way to teach them to behave?! Well, we can make sure they get what they want not by having a tantrum, but by engaging in desired behaviors.

We can use positive reinforcement in a more structured and specific way than just handing out praise and rewards willy-nilly.

The definition of a token economy is: a behavior change system consisting of three major components: (a) a specified list of target behaviors; (b) tokens or points that participants receive for emitting the target behaviors; and (c) a menu of backup reinforcer items.

Token economies can possibly take the form of sticker charts, chore charts, marble jars, etc. You need a physical token that your child can earn when they engage in the desired behavior. You do NOT need to go out and spend $50 at the nearest school supply store making a big fancy chart. You can draw 5 circles on a piece of paper. When they do the desired behavior, draw a check mark in the circle. Done. Grab that piece of junk mail off the kitchen counter and a half-eaten, I mean half-broken, crayon.

The next step is to define the behaviors. Again, you don’t need a big fancy dictionary. Just pick one to three behaviors that will earn the tokens. You need your Little to understand this so it can’t be a big grown up idea like ‘being responsible’ or ‘showing respect’. What does that mean to a Little? Be specific. You earn a token for: (1) following instructions without yelling; (2) eating 5 bites of every food Mom puts in front of you; and (3) putting on your shoes when instructed to.

Pick your battles. You may have a list of 20+ things your Little could stand to improve. I’m pretty sure I have a list of 20+ things to put myself on a token economy. Let’s prioritize and make it understandable by the kiddo.

Lastly — what can they earn with these tokens? You can give choices before earning and they can decide at the beginning or at the end. You can make a fancy menu of reinforcers — Chuck E Cheese is the perfect example of this. This many tickets = this super awesome toy.

Or, you can just say: get all the stickers, get 5 check marks, get 10 marbles and earn a fun activity. You can pick from: extra screen time, trip to the library, a new toy from the dollar spot, etc.

All of that in short form:

  1. Pick 1-3 behaviors and make sure your Little understands what they are.
  2. Have an actual token they can earn and set a goal.
  3. Provide the reward when they reach that goal. Make it a big deal!

Tips:

  • When you first start out, set the goal low. If it’s too hard to achieve, that won’t motivate anyone, especially a Little who is struggling with those behaviors to begin with.
  • Over time, raise the goal. Make the reward bigger for a bigger goal, smaller for a smaller goal. Play with it to see what is successful for your Little and doable for you in your busy day.
  • Make every token earned a big deal — lots of praise and excitement.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time and money setting up a fancy system. Like all things we do as parents — as soon as we get a good system down, our Little changes things up on us and we have to be flexible. My own daughter sees a strip of printer paper and thinks I’ve made her a new sticker chart. That’s how fancy sticker charts are at my house!
  • Be creative!
    • My aunt gave this idea from her life: She had a picture of a poodle and her daughter glued cotton balls on it. When she filled the picture, they actually got the poodle!
    • My sister let her oldest pick out his marbles for a marble jar on a special shopping trip to the craft store (less than $5 — don’t go overboard, folks!). That helped him buy into the process form the get go.
    • Cut up a picture of the prize like a puzzle. They get a puzzle piece as a token. The finished puzzle earns the prize!
    • Look in the app store. Seriously — there are many apps for reward charts.
    • Google ‘behavior chart’. You’ll find a gazillion cute templates if that’s what you’re into — cutesy.
    • I once made a necklace for a student who was really into jewelry. It was a laminated sticker chart necklace and she loved it.

One last thought: Someday you will find that things are going well and the token economy goes by the wayside. Remember it when a new problem behavior crops up and you are once again at your wit’s end. Start over. Pick new behaviors, new rewards, same system.

Don’t take my word for it — this is just the tip of the iceberg in behavior analytic research supporting token economies.

If you’re not a crafty person, you can always check out our reward chart here

Citations:
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson.

Kazdin, A. E. (Ed.). (1977). The token economy: A review and evaluation. Plenum Publishing Corporation.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis15(3), 431-445.

Skinner, B. F., Ferster, C. B., & Ferster, C. B. (1997). Schedules of reinforcement. Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.

Reitman, D., Murphy, M. A., Hupp, S. D., & O’Callaghan, P. M. (2004). Behavior change and perceptions of change: Evaluating the effectiveness of a token economy. Child & Family Behavior Therapy26(2), 17-36.


Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA
 has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at lpagebcba@gmail.com.

Autism Awareness Month: Free Color Sorting Jar Activity

Check out this Color Sorting Jar Activity designed by Lavinia Pop from In My World! This printable activity includes four different color jars: red, orange, yellow, and green. It also includes sixteen different corresponding images, four for each color jar.

To create the color sorting jar, you cut around the edges of each color jar. Then, you cut out all of the color pictures. Once all the pictures are cut out, you can mix and start sorting the objects into the same color jar! You can also use the jars for sorting different color objects from home or the classroom.

We recommend printing the activity on cardstock or laminating the jars and objects for longer use.

To download this free printable click here. For more fun activities and ideas, you can read the full post from In My World here!

Autism Awareness Month: Free Cookie Number Matching Printable

Cookie-Jar-Number-MatchingIf Cookie Monster could play any math literacy game, we’re sure this free Cookie Jar Number Matching activity would be the winner! This free printable from Totschooling.net includes three representations of numbers one through ten to help build counting and number recognition skills.

To play, all you have to do is print all the pages and cut out each cookie individually. You can then have the student either match cookies to the jar containing the written names of the numbers or the jar containing the corresponding numerals.  If you want to make the activity even more challenging, you can print out an extra numeral jar or an extra number name jar page and cut out each circle to create more options to match!

cookie-matching 2You can download the free printable by clicking here and don’t forget to share with us all the other creative ways you and your students build math literacy skills!

Autism Awareness Month: Free Social Circles Program

Help teach your students on the spectrum about social distance and intimacy using this free Circles Program from the Geneva Centre for Autism! The program is based on six concentric circles that represent varying degrees of closeness, from the relationship one has with oneself to strangers.

circles 1

The program includes:

  • A reminder card that details the meaning of each concentric circle
  • Six individual circle cards that identify common behaviors, feelings and actions appropriate to each circle
  • As well as a tip sheet to help instructors use the visuals effectively

To download the reminder card, circle cards and tip sheet, click here and don’t forget to share what activities and visuals have helped your students’ social learning by leaving a comment below!

 

Autism Awareness Month: Free Social Skills Fortune Teller Activity

IMG_0882-764x1024While these fortune tellers may not be able to tell your future, they are sure to help your children with autism develop their social skills!  This free printable, created by Joel Shaul from Autism Teaching Strategies, makes social learning fun by having students pair up and offer conversation starters using a Social Skills Fortune Teller.  All you have to do is print, cut, fold and play!

The activity comes with separate templates to make six different fortune tellers.  Each of the templates help students work on the following skills:

  • Asking questions
  • Giving compliments
  • Talking about emotions
  • As well as self-help strategies for teasing and bullying.

For further tips, instructions for use, and to download this free printable, click here and don’t forget to share all the other fun ways you and your students have fun developing social skills by leaving a comment below!

Autism Awareness Month: Free Crayon Number Sorting Activity

crayon 1Get creative with this free number sorting activity designed by Lavinia Pop from In My World! This crayon inspired printable includes five different representations of a single number.  These symbols include line segments, dots, words, finger counting, as well as numerals.

To create the crayon pouches, simply cut around the outer edges and fold along the dotted center line.  Then glue, tape or staple the remaining bottom and side edges.  Once complete, cut out all the crayons and mix to start sorting!crayon 2We recommend printing the activity on cardstock or laminating the crayons and pockets for longer use.

To download this free printable click here and for more math literacy activities and ideas, you can read the full post from In My World here!

Autism Awareness Month: Free Owl Opposites Flashcard Activity

Encourage your students’ cognitive, language and word recognition skills with this free Owl Opposites Flashcards Printable from 1+1+1=1!

owl 1The entire set features an adorable pair of owl friends who demonstrate the following sixteen different opposites:

  • Short/tall
  • Hot/cold
  • Slow/fast
  • White/blackowl 2
  • Big/small
  • Clean/dirty
  • More/less
  • Dry/wet
  • Same/different
  • Light/heavy
  • Low/high
  • Hard/soft
  • Short/long
  • Front/back
  • Empty/full
  • Weak/strong

Laminate or print on cardstock for longer use and attach on a metal ring to keep the cards all together.

To print out your free Owls Opposites Flashcards, click here. We hope you and your students have a hoot with this printable!