This week, Leanne Page M.Ed, BCBA, answers a parent’s question on creating effective token economies.
This piece originally appeared on bsci21.org.
“Dear Behavior BFF, I’ve tried using a token economy and it helped for a little while. But lately my son has told me that he doesn’t want to earn stickers and he doesn’t care about the new toy he can get from his sticker chart. What do I do?”
First of all- good job using some behavior analysis to help increase desired behaviors in your family! A token economy is a great tool.
Now- a token economy is a great tool when it is combined with great positive reinforcement. What your message is telling me is that it’s not the token economy that is the problem. The rewards you are offering your son are not reinforcing. It sounds like they were super reinforcing and effective for a while, but your son is just not that into these rewards anymore.
So what do you do? Throw out the whole token economy system? No! Let’s find some more effective reinforcers to help you be successful again.
As parents, we assume we know what our kiddos like. We know what they are into, what they want, and what their preferred items are. But sometimes the things they will work to earn may surprise us.
Our kids may become satiated or habituated to the rewards we are offering them. This means they have had enough and it’s no longer piquing their interest. No matter what the cause, what we do know is that our children’s preferences change. To use effective positive reinforcement, we must identify what is reinforcing to our child at this point in time.
Enter preference assessments.
A preference assessment encapsultes “a variety of procedures used to determine the stimuli that the person prefers, the relative preference values of those stimuli, and the conditions under which those preference values change when task demands, deprivation states, or schedules of reinforcement are modified” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).
As parents, we can do this in a number of ways.
- Observe your child and see what they choose to play with. This can take place at home but also outside your home. If you go to a friend or family member’s house, what things does your child choose to interact with? If you go to a museum, bookstore, other outings, what interests does your child show?
- Make a list of things/activities you think would be good reinforcers and ask your child how he feels about them. Depending on age and ability you could have him rate them on a scale of 1-10 or have them choose a happy face for each one. You could read each item and have your child give thumbs up, thumb sideways, or thumbs down to indicate preference. If you can’t think of ideas, google it. There are many reinforcer surveys or preference assessment checklists floating around on the internet.
- Let your child generate the list. Ask “What do you want to earn?” Let them say the big things that are unlikely and help to identify ones that are reasonable.
- If you are going to use new items- let your son choose. Take your child shopping. I let me daughter pick one or two things from the dollar spot every time we go to Target. She doesn’t get to keep them that day. She puts them in her prize bag to earn with good behavior or reaching goals on a token economy.
Any time we have a valid system of positive behavior supports in place, such as your token economy, and it stops working- it’s not the system. It’s the reinforcement. The reinforcement you are offering is simply not strong enough.
Up the ante. Give better options for rewards. Identify potential reinforcers by conducting a preference assessment. Let your son choose his reinforcer.
Whenever there is a new problem behavior, or a behavior management system not working- my first response is increase the positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors.
Be prepared to continue to do preference assessments every once in a while. Our children’s interests and preferences change, so if we stay in the know we can have effective reinforcers at hand.
Carr, J. E., Nicolson, A. C., & Higbee, T. S. (2000). Evaluation of a brief multiple‐stimulus preference assessment in a naturalistic context. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(3), 353-357.
Cooper, J.O, Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. L. (2014). Applied behavior analysis. Pearson Education International.
DeLeon, I. G., Fisher, W. W., Rodriguez‐Catter, V., Maglieri, K., Herman, K., & Marhefka, J. M. (2001). Examination of relative reinforcement effects of stimuli identified through pretreatment and daily brief preference assessments. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34(4), 463-473.
Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, is the author of Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity. As a Behavior Analyst and a mom of two little girls, she wanted to share behavior analysis with a population who could really use it- parents!
Leanne’s writing can be found in Parenting with Science and Parenting with ABA as well as a few other sites. She is a monthly contributor to bSci21.com , guest host for the Dr. Kim Live show, and has contributed to other websites as well.
Leanne has worked with children with disabilities for over 10 years. She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Texas A&M University. She also completed ABA coursework through the University of North Texas before earning her BCBA certification in 2011. Leanne has worked as a special educator of both elementary and high school self-contained, inclusion, general education, and resource settings.
Leanne also has 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.
Leanne is now located in Dallas, Texas and is available for: distance BCBA and BCaBA supervision, parent training, speaking opportunities, and consultation. She can be reached via Facebook or at Lpagebcba@gmail.com.
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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:
- Pick 1-3 behaviors and make sure your Little understands what they are.
- Have an actual token they can earn and set a goal.
- Provide the reward when they reach that goal. Make it a big deal!
- 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!
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 Analysis, 15(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 Therapy, 26(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 email@example.com.
We can never get enough reinforcement tools, especially for group settings. Help students meet behavioral or academic goals with these interactive Token Towers. And this week only, you can save 15%* on your set of the Token Towers, by using promo code TOKENTWR at check out.
Set goals using the colored ring and insert tokens as reinforcement for appropriate behaviors or correct responses. The hard plastic chips with smiley faces make a fun noise as they drop into the containers, which is almost as fun as watching the tokens pile up!
This kit includes four Token Towers (red, yellow, green, and blue) and 140 tokens (35 for each tower). Each Token Tower has target goal levels of 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and can hold a maximum of 35 tokens. The towers measure 6 ½” tall with tokens measuring 1 ½” in diameter. Recommended for children ages 3 and up.
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You know it is officially back to school season when the grill in my backyard has been cool to the touch for days and I’ve had my yearly medical exam (PPD titer and all!). I hope it has been smooth sailing for you and your little ones as classes begin. If it hasn’t been, this is what I always try to keep in mind, for all people, big and small:
It is best to join forces with your child and prepare for the year by making sure you cover what I like to call the 3 S’s.
Make sure everything in your child’s work/play space at home is organized and equipped. Play continues to be an important part of learning even when school is in session so take this time to go through toys and arts and crafts supplies and weed out things that are broken or no longer developmentally appropriate for your child. Make sure there is a spacious and uncluttered work space stocked with all of the supplies your child will need to complete homework and school projects. It is also a good idea to keep a space near the work area for a visual schedule to help foster independence during homework time. Lastly, designate a spot near the entrance of your home where your child’s backpack, important papers and your keys can go each afternoon. The last thing you want is to add undue stress to your morning routine and risk missing the beginning of class.
We all know that with this population transitions can be especially difficult. First, take care of as much as you can the night before. Pack bags, sign paperwork, pack lunches, and pick out clothing. Also, don’t think that a a parent you are the only one responsible for this prep work. Incorporate as many of these things into your child’s evening routine as you can. Having your child participate will foster independence and build confidence. Again, visual schedules and token economies help facilitate independence and provide motivation respectively. Structure benefits children so it is good to develop a general school year routine and stick to it as much as possible. Predictability is helpful when it comes to transitions but also remember to build in components that have some element of change to them so that you can facilitate flexibility. One part of the schedule that shouldn’t change is the sleep schedule. Keep it as consistent as possible, even on the weekends. I suggest building a calming activity into the schedule before bedtime and using a timer to help with the transition to bed.
Sometimes, people find it surprising when I suggest preparation for social interactions but there are a lot of creative ways to help children familiarize themselves with conversational topics, common games and salient information about their peers and teachers. I encourage all of the families I work with to print photographs of family outings or events that can be used as visual prompts for conversational topics. Especially good are things that happened over the weekend. If the picture book is reviewed Sunday evening they will be fully prepared to talk about what they did over the weekend. Additionally, you can find out what schoolyard games are popular with your child’s peer group and practice them at home with siblings or playdates. If it is an athletic game you might also spend time with your child making a book about the rules that can be reviewed periodically. Lastly, I like to construct a “friend journal” with a child at the beginning of each school year. You might need to enlist teachers or other parents to help with this but it is such a useful tool that it is worth the extra effort. Start by obtaining photos of each classmate and pasting them individually into different sections of the journal. On a daily basis you can help your child fill in something they have learned about their peers. This could range anywhere from favorite cartoon or tv show to their age or their family members names.
Going back to school can be a fun and exciting time. With a little preparation and creativity maybe it will be the best school year yet!
I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve been asked this question. It is an issue that I love to tackle in collaboration with the families that I work with mostly because when progress is made, it makes such a dramatic difference in the well-being of the entire family.
Behavioral and sensory issues of a child with special needs can further complicate the ordinary mealtime struggles of a parent of a small child. Parents are often torn between the interventions outlined for them by therapists and the reality of everyday life. This usually means that at the end of the day, just getting the child to eat anything and by any means necessary. No one is happy when mealtime becomes a battle zone. Use of a token economy or escape extinction is most common and can work if implemented consistently. However, I am always impressed when I come across new and creative approaches to food and feeding issues.
One such example of creativity comes from my experience with a great family and their two young boys that I worked with for several years. Their mother was a force to be reckoned with when it came to approaching the introduction of new foods and organizing play dates. I don’t remember how it started, or if it was a conscious plan but the weekly play dates she organized for socialization quickly evolved into preschool foodie events. The children were much more likely to try new foods and like them when their peers were trying them too. It was also a great opportunity to work through sensory aversions and begin to enjoy getting messy. I was recently reminded about these special food play dates when I came across a post on https://special-needs.families.com about a food centric play group started by some parents in Texas.
Currently I am experimenting with new ways to expand the diets of the children on my caseload as well as improving my own health through my food choices. My own mantra for health is to “Eat the Rainbow” so that I make sure I get a nice mix of fruits and vegetables. In my research I came across a great book for one child who has a strong interest in letters. The book is “Eating the Alphabet” by Lois Ehlert and it has inspired a new token economy type system for him and his siblings. Check out the template for the chart in the DRL Downloads! All you have to do is add your child’s picture and a picture of anyone else in the family wanting to participate, laminate, start checking off new foods with a dry erase marker and let the eating begin!
What have you tried?