Both at work and outside it, we often encounter situations or, rather, certain behaviors, that we would like to develop, whether they concern our children, employees or students. These behaviors may be related to instructional control, self-care or social interactions. We frequently refer to such behaviors simply as “deficits”; even if they appear rarely, they are still important for a healthy functioning of the family and an efficient and peaceful lesson. A token economy is a behavioral technique that is excellent for developing such behaviors.
Many of us have likely seen a token economy or even used it in practice, more or less deliberately. But have we done so correctly?
Sometimes, various reasons make it impossible to reinforce desired behavior immediately, even though we know it is important.
Token Economies in the Daily Practice of the Behavioral Therapist
Tokens can be building blocks, buttons, stars, stickers, stamps or simply a plus sign written down somewhere. Through operant conditioning, these objects acquire a reinforcement function, as they can be “cashed in” in exchange for reinforcement. To put it simply, tokens serve the same function as money in our society.
If you get a token, you quickly learn that the behavior that was just rewarded is worth it, such as being polite at school towards other children and teachers. If a student finds it very reinforcing to be the classroom monitor, but shows considerable difficulties in saying “thank you” and “sorry” consistently, the teacher should give them a token each time they use a polite expression appropriately. After collecting a set number of tokens, the student can exchange the tokens to gain a privilege or to be the monitor, which they like so much.
A token economy can be applied in many ways – not just for working with children with autism, but also in state schools, companies, or corporations.
How to Use a Token Economy
Define the target behavior.
It is extremely important to define clearly what behavior we are going to develop. For instance, at home, this can be feeding the fish or other pets, taking the trash out, going to bed at a set time or making the bed in the morning. At school, this can be attending classes on time after breaks, doing homework, or raising your hand before you answer or the aforementioned use of polite expressions.
Once you have chosen the target behavior, it is time to prepare tokens.
Tokens can come in various shapes and forms: plastic coins, pictures, stickers, or stamps. What is important is that tokens should be easy to use, count and readily available, as the immediacy of their acquisition is crucial.
Assess preferences and choose reinforcers.
A basic way to assess preferences is to observe someone and the activities they engage in when not restricted by any particular requirements. Children play with specific toys, play ball or jump on the trampoline in their free time. Another way is simply to ask someone about their preferred activities or objects. Bear in mind that an event or an object that you think would be a good reward might not have any reinforcement value for another person, which is why it is important that you choose the reinforcing privileges, activities and objects correctly.
Set up the exchange system.
Once all elements of the economy are ready, you need to combine them into a whole and implement them: set the behavior required to obtain a token and make sure to award the tokens immediately after the target behavior occurs. Set the values of all privileges and activities: the person must know exactly how many tokens they need to exchange,in order to receive the preferred activities or other reinforcers. Set the time and place of the exchange and the supervisor for the exchange.
The objects and activities that you use as reinforcers must be available only through the tokens. They should never be available for free.
An important part of token economy is the reinforcement schedule, i.e. the rules that establish how often and under what conditions a person’s behavior will be reinforced. When a person’s behavior is controlled by reinforcers applied according to a variable-ratio schedule, the reinforcers are obtained after a person displays a particular, variable, number of responses.
This type of reinforcement schedule is very effective and operant responses are performed quickly.
New technologies designed for working with children with autism, such as DrOmnibus, use a token economy based on a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. Once a child collects enough tokens, they can exchange them for interesting activities and games.
The in-app activities are designed to assess the user’s reinforcement preferences. These reinforcements include simple jigsaws, wipe-the-screen games, sound-based games and more advanced games involving perception. Importantly, the game table can only be accessed by obtaining all tokens and only for a predetermined time. This translates directly into the user’s motivation.
Bartłomiej Opaliński – special educator, didactic manager at the Non-Public School of Behavioral Therapy for Children with Autism in Wroclaw.
*Paid content by DrOmnibus.