Tip of the Week: Using Token Economies In Autism Classrooms

Token economies are used in many different environments. They’re typically simple to implement and achieve desired results for behavior change, especially in autism classrooms. Furthermore, there are tons of research on how to best use them. If you want to get the best results while simultaneously promoting independence in your learners, it is not as simple as just putting some stars on a chart.

Using token economies in autism classrooms

  • Use a preference assessment. This will help you identify reinforcers your learner may want to earn. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I often use the Reinforcer Assessment for Individuals with Severe Disability (Fisher, Piazza, Bowman, & Amari, 1996). You can view it here.
  • Define the target behavior. What behaviors do you want to increase? And how can you define them so they are clearly observable and measurable. For instance, your learner could earn tokens for raising his or her hand in class or responding to a question within 3 to 5 seconds. It is important the behavior is clear and everyone using the token economy agrees on what each behavior looks like.
  • Choose your tokens. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a class-wide token economy in which my students earned paperclips. The paperclips had no value initially, but once the students understood the system, I could put paperclips in the bags of the students who were sitting quietly while still continuing to teach my lesson. It allowed them to reinforce the appropriate behaviors and make the most of instructional time. For other students, I’ve used things such as Blue’s Clues stickers, smiley faces I drew on a piece of paper, and even tally marks on an index card.
  • Choose when and how tokens will be exchanged. With the paperclip system in my classroom, exchanges occurred at the end of the day. After everyone had their bags packed and were sitting at their desk, we did the “paperclip count” and students could decide whether to spend or save. There was a menu of options ranging in price from 10–100 paperclips. It was also a great way to reinforce some basic math skills (such as counting by fives and tens and completing basic operations). For other students, they might be able to exchange tokens after earning a set amount. Depending on their level of ability, that set amount may be very small (such as 2 to 3) or much larger (such as 25). Sometimes, students have a choice of items or activities, while at other times they earn a pre-selected item or activity.
  • Keep it individualized. Conducting a preference assessment helps to make sure it’s individualized to your learner’s preferred items. With my students, the menu of items/activities they could earn was generated through a conversation with them.
  • Decide if you will implement a response cost. For my students, I have never used a system in which they could lose tokens they had already earned. But you may find that utilizing it may help. It all depends on your particular learner, which makes the next point all the more important.
  • Take data. You need to take data so you will know if your token economy is helping you achieve your goal with the target behaviors you have set.
  • Thin the reinforcement over time or change the target behaviors. I do not want any of my learners to be using a token economy for one behavior for all eternity! Let’s say I start with a young learner who is not sitting down for instruction. I may start the token economy by having my student earn a token for every instance in which they are seated correctly for a specified period of time. As my student masters that, I will increase the amount of time required before a token will be earned. Once they’ve achieved the goal I set, I can either fade out the token economy, or keep the token economy but use it for a new behavior.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Tip of the Week: What Is Reinforcement In ABA?

Sometimes, people hear about ABA and equate reinforcement with bribery. But the two are quite different, and it’s important to understand those differences. First, let’s look at bribery. The definition of bribery is “to persuade someone to act in one’s favor by a gift of money or other inducement.” The first thing to note is that bribery helps the person persuading, not the person completing the action. The second thing to note is that when we consider bribery with children, it’s often implemented when the child is already engaging in an inappropriate behavior. For instance, you might see a child throw himself on the floor in the grocery store and begin kicking and screaming. If the father says, “If you get up, I’ll buy the candy bar,” that would be considered bribery.

What Is Reinforcement In ABA
So what is reinforcement, then? Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately after the behavior that increases the future likelihood of the behavior. And reinforcement occurs all the time in real life! If I turn on a new radio station and it happens to be playing by favorite song, I am more likely to turn to that radio station again in the future. If I send a text to a friend and she responds immediately, I am more likely to text her again in the future. If my stomach is upset, then I drink a seltzer and it calms my stomach, I am more likely to drink seltzer in the future when my stomach hurts.

Where confusion often sets in is when we plan reinforcement to increase the behavior of an individual. It’s important to understand that the goal in ABA teaching should always be to move from planned reinforcement to unplanned or natural reinforcement. Think of it as jumpstarting a behavior that will benefit the individual. For instance, I have a student that would run into the street if you let go of his hand. Part of teaching procedure was to teach him to stop at the curb. This behavior is obviously a benefit to him and helps increase his safety. When he stopped at the curb, he earned a token. When he had earned five tokens, he earned access to the iPad. After he was successfully stopping at the curb, we taught him the next step was to reach for the adult’s hand. He no longer earned tokens for stopping at the curb, but he did earn tokens for completing both steps. We continued in this way until he was appropriately stopping at the curb, reaching for the adult’s hand, then waiting for the sign to say “Walk,” looking both ways, then walking into the street. It was a lengthy process, but planned reinforcement in the form of tokens was the best method for teaching him to be safe on the street.

A final note about reinforcement: it varies by individual. Some individuals are highly reinforced by chocolate or books or access to music. Others are highly reinforced by playing with a ball or going for a walk. In ABA, we don’t just walk in and give a kid M&M after M&M and hope their behavior magically changes. The first step is to conduct a preference assessment. A common one I use can be found here. This tool will help guide you to the most effective reinforcers for your learner and make your intervention more efficient.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.