Since the beginning of human history there has been some form of token economy in place. From the use of giving food to giving coins or currency to those who perform a task for someone. Money is the most common current form of a token economy used in everyday life. Individuals get paid in money for completing a project or simple tasks by someone else. People are taught at a very early age how to earn money or rewards. According to Rodriguez, Montesinos, & Preciado (2005), the first therapeutic use of a token economy has been credited to Avendano y Carderera in 1859.
Carderera stated that a token could be used to reward the good behavior of children (Rodriguez, Montesinos, & Preciado, 2005). Today, there are some parents who give allowances for their children doing chores around the home and or for good behaviors, which is type of token economy. Children who earn an allowance use the money earned to buy what they can afford at the store.
The Token Economy
A token economy, is a type of secondary reinforcement where an individual earns tokens for performing targeted behaviors (Wallin, 2004), such as completing tasks or behaving in desired ways (Educate Autism, 2011). According to Karen Plumley (2010), one of the most effective classroom strategy used for students, especially those with a disability, is the use of a token economy. The token economy is used as behavioral modification through positive reinforcement that has been derived from the basic principal of operant conditioning and the work of B.F. Skinner (KidsMakingChange.com, 2008). It is a method of strengthening a wanted or desired behavior, or increasing its frequency (Educate Autism, 2011). The primary goal or purpose of the token economy is to increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors, mainly to teach appropriate behaviors and social skills that are used in the individual’s natural environment (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011).
Other goals of using a token economy is to increase the ability of an individual to delay gratification, increase someone’s sense of time, lessen satiation by increasing the number of responses necessary to obtain a token, and a variety of reinforcers can be used (Wallin, 2004). According to Plumley (2010), the token economy is used to deter undesirable behaviors, achieve academic goals, and reward positive changes for those with autism. The token economy has also been used for individuals diagnosed with developmental or learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other behavioral disorders.
In addition, token economy have been used in regular educational classrooms, college, group homes, military divisions, nursing homes, even within addiction treatment programs (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011). A token economy can involve one individual or a whole classroom of students. When the teacher observes the class engaging in one of the targeted behaviors, she delivers a class token, the token can be a number on the board, a colored square on a chart, etc. (Gongola & Sweeney, 2011).
Requirements of a Token Economy
According to Wikipedia (2010), there are three basic requirements for a token economy to be effective. The first basic requirement is to immediately reinforce an individual after they have performed a target behavior (Tarbox, Ghezzi, & Wilson, 2006; Wikipedia, 2011) and as often as the behavior takes place (Tarbox, Ghezzi, & Wilson, 2006). The longer an individual has to wait for a reward or the reinforcer, the less effective the token will be. Rewarding an individual with a social reinforcer is the second basic requirement of a token economy. After giving a token reinforce for the target behavior the individual performs, the addition of a social reinforcement may help the individual maintain what’s been learned. A social reinforce can be a verbal comment, such as “Excellent work,” or “Great job”, or even a written approval, such as “Way to go!” on an assignment. Another social reinforce that can be included is the use of nonverbal expressions of approval for example smiling, clapping, nods of approval (Wikipedia, 2011). The third basic requirement of a token economy is shaping.
Shaping is where an individual learns the target behavior in steps (Wikipedia, 2011). For example, an individual may be working on the length of time that they are able to remain focused on a task for 30 minutes. The token can be given on a fixed ratio of 2 minutes and then increased to 5 minute fixed intervals. After the individual is able to remain focused for five minute intervals, educators can move to using a variable schedule of reinforcement. Over time, the educators thin out the use of a token reward as the individual learns to remain focused on a task for longer period of time (Wikipedia, 2011). Other requirements for an effective token economy include identifying targeted behavior(s). The target behavior can be an academic or behavioral; it is dependent on each individual. It is necessary to have a clearly defined target behavior, individuals participating in a token economy need to know exactly what they must do in order to receive tokens. Both the desirable and undesirable behavior needs to be explained ahead of time in simple, specific terms. In addition, a token economy requires a predetermined number of tokens awarded or lost for each particular behavior (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011).
For example, completing academic tasks like getting a certain amount of spellings correct, playing nicely with their peers or it can be used to decrease the amount of aggression an individual engages in by giving tokens for not engaging in aggressive behaviors (Educate Autism, 2011). An individual is given a token when performing the targeted appropriate behavior. In addition, a token economy requires tokens. Timothy Hackenberg (2009) states the earliest form of tokens was clay coins used during the transition from a nomadic hunter-gather society to an agricultural society period of human history. A token represents a unit of value that can be exchanged for an item or service (KidsMakingChange.com, 2008). In a classroom, tokens can be tickets (Pulmley, 2010; KidsMakingChange.com, 2008), stickers, coins (Plumley, 2010), points, or chips (KidsMakingChange.com, 2008). An example of a token economy that most people use is currency. Alone, the green paper is meaningless however, when people exchange it for food and housing it becomes a reinforcer as people are willing to work to obtain currency (Wallin, 2004).
However, tokens alone are neutral stimuli and meaningless to individuals. When tokens are associated with a back-up reinforce, in which tokens can be exchanged for, the tokens become more desirable and motivate the individual to acquire more (Wallin, 2004). Back-up reinforcers are the meaningful objects, privileges, or activities that individuals receive in exchange for their tokens (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011). Both the educator and the individual involved need to work out the types of activities, such computer time or free time, or the prizes that the tokens could be exchanged for, such as candy or a toy (Kids Health, 2004). After collecting a predetermined number of tokens, the individual can trade them for an item or activity that the individual desires (Wallin, 2004). In order for an individual to trade in earned tokens there needs to be a system of exchange, as well as a time and place for purchasing back-up reinforcers needs to be setup prior to implementing the token system.
The token value of each back-up reinforcer is pre-determined based on monetary value, how much an individual wants the item, or the purpose of the back-up reinforcers. For example, if the back-up reinforcer is expensive or highly attractive, the token value should be higher. If possession of or participation of the reinforcer would aid in the individual’s acquisition of skills, the token value should be lower. However, if the token value is set too low or too high, the individual will be less motivated or become easily discouraged in performing targeted behavior (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011). In order to judge the effects of the token economy on an individual it is important to have a recording system set up.
Assess the individual before hand, gathering a baseline, and while the token system is being implemented to document any changes in behaviors on daily data sheets (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011). Monitoring will assess the token system’s effectiveness on the targeted behavior (Kids Health, 2004). Moreover, for the token economy to have a chance at success, the staff involved with the individual must consistently implement the token system each day, in the same environment, and for the same target behavior(s) (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011).
Within a token economy there needs to be a response cost system which, according to Wallin (2004), is considered a form of punishment. A specific number of tokens or a cost needs to be set up with the individual prior to implementing the token economy. Those involved in the token economy must understand which behaviors are considered undesirable, clearly stating the unwanted behaviors. Each time an individual acts inappropriately or is not performing the desired behaviors, a predetermined number of tokens are taken away. However, there cannot be a time when the individual is in what Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2007) call ‘token debt.’ The individual must have more chances to earn tokens than could be lost due to an undesired behavior (Educate Autism, 2011).
When using a whole class token economy there needs to be a whole group response cost system that can diminish undesirable behaviors and improve the overall classroom environment. Gongola & Sweeney (2011) mention one example of a whole group or class response system where the educator writes on the board ‘SMILEY.’ The educator explains to the class that in order to participate in an activity or receive a reward that they want to earn there has to be at least one letter left in “SMILEY’. Each time students were disruptive the educator would walk to the board and remove a letter from the word. When the class settles down the educator explains why the letter was removed and reminded what activity or item they are trying to earn (Gongola & Sweeney, 2011).
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are several advantages in using a token economy. One advantage is that token economies establish a visual routine that individuals with autism may need. In addition, it allows the educator to become creative with rewards. Rather than giving a meaningless reward for each target behavior, individuals may develop an increase in patience, positive work ethic as the individual works hard towards a more desirable goal (Plumley, 2010). Other advantages of using a token economy is that tokens are easy to dispense and easy for individuals to accumulate (McIntyre, 2008; Tarbox, Ghezzia, & Wilson, 2004); the use of immediate reinforcements while teaching delayed gratification; and the lack of satiation due to the variety of back-up reinforcers available (Educate Autism, 2011; McIntyre, 2008). It is important that individuals are not competing against each other, only themselves (McIntyre, 2008). Moreover, token economies can provide the same reinforcement for different individuals who have different preferences in back-up reinforcers (Educate Autism, 2011).
There are a couple concerns with using a token economy. According to Tarbox, Ghezzia, & Wilson (2004), in some circumstances it may not be practical to provide reinforcers on each target behavior. For example, giving a token after the individual has correctly solved five math problems. The educator would need to judge how long it will take for the individual so they can be close by to check the answers and give the reinforcer. In a large classroom, it can be challenging to help others while being nearby to give the individual the reinforcer right away. Another concern is that there can be difficulty training staff members or if there is a shortage of staff desired behaviors may not be rewarded or undesired behaviors may be inadvertently rewarded which can result in an increase in the undesired behaviors (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2011).
In addition, if those involved in the individual’s life do not correctly follow the token economy procedures outside of a structured environment, for example, at home the token economy may not work (Petscher, & Bailey, 2006). Most adult settings where a token economy is applied are within mental health care centers. According to Wikipedia (2011), there is some criticism because the patients do not have a choice and are being forced to use the token economy; however, a majority of the clients choose to remain in the program. Another disadvantage of using a token economy is the time required for those with chronic psychiatric patients. Some patients may take months or years to achieve the targeted results, but this can cause problems with patient’s insurance and governmental policies that may require short hospital stays for their continued coverage and support (Wikipedia.com, 2011).
The fulfillment of an effective token economy requires a great deal of planning and correct implementation in the procedures. For a beneficial token economy the target behaviors must be clearly stated and understood by all involve, mainly that reinforcers are given in a timely manner, and the individual is interested in the back-up reinforcers, thus the token economy has a better chance of helping the individual succeed. Overall, while there are advantages and disadvantages of using a token economy, it has been proven successful in multiple settings for a variety of individuals. The goal is for the individual to have more chances to earn tokens than to lose tokens for undesired behaviors. In conclusion, by using the token economy the individual can learn several behavioral skills such as delayed gratification, patience, and a positive work ethic that are necessary for a higher quality of life.
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
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Wikipedia.com (2011). Token Economy. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Token_economy