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Programs using behavioral principles as their basis create structure in the classroom that studies have shown to be effective for disruptive students with learning, emotional and behavioral difficulties, along with general education students. A token economy system is a prime example of applied behavioral principles to implement more appropriate behaviors in the classroom. However, although the concept is relatively straight-forward, oftentimes the system is not well thought out and applied in a consistent manner that decreases its success (Kazdin, 2001).
Kazdin (2001) defines a token economy as a way to motivate students to perform desirable and adaptive behaviors while at the same time decreasing undesirable behaviors. Students earn tokens (e.g. poker chips) for adaptive behaviors and lose tokens for maladaptive behaviors. The tokens are then exchanged for actual reinforcers called "backup reinforcers.” It is important to keep in mind that token economies are usually used for groups more often than for individuals (Kazdin, 2001). If a teacher is faced with just a couple of students from the entire class engaging in disruptive behaviors, a better solution would be to implement an individual reward chart instead of engaging in a more cumbersome task of employing a token economy.
Token Economy Guide
(1) The first step in creating a token economy comprises an assessment period. In the assessment period, trained observers count the number of times maladaptive behaviors occur during a set time frame. This time frame should consist of a maximum 50 minute time period determined through a teacher interview in which the teacher reports when it is the most difficult time to manage the class, Then, over the course of a week, the trained observers could establish a baseline of how often the disruptive behaviors occur through a frequency recording and/or through a duration recording (for how long the behavior occurs). Operational descriptors of the behaviors targeted must be provided so that observers can be trained to recognize what is and what is not one of these behaviors. Operational descriptors might include: talking out of turn, being out of one's seat, not complying with teacher instructions, kicking, hitting, spitting, throwing or destroying property, not completing classwork or homework (Kazdin, 2001).
(2) Select behaviors to change. Target behaviors are determined by the type of individuals with whom you are working, by the short-range and long-range objectives you wish to accomplish, and by specific behavioral problems you are encountering that interfere with such objectives. Be careful to focus on the most important behaviors that are of immediate importance, such as reducing hitting behaviors. Once these behaviors have been remedied, the teacher can always go back and implement a new token economy to focus on more minor infractions. The behaviors the teacher would like to replace are also defined (Kazdin, 2001). Teachers need to operationally define expected appropriate behavior norms in clear terms. All too often, educators may believe that they are instructing students unambiguously, but they need to present clear definitions that define specifically the parameters of appropriate behavior and then model these behaviors to the students.
(3) Select primary and secondary reinforcers (Kazdin, 2001). Primary reinforcers are naturally reinforcing. A person does not need to learn that they are reinforcing because they satisfy some basic need, such as hunger, thirst, safety, etc. The same principles for selecting primary reinforcers are used for selecting secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers are tokens such as poker chips, stickers, checkmarks that are used to measure progress toward the acquisition of the desired behaviors. The educator should keep in mind that what is reinforcing for one individual may not be reinforcing for another person – “different strokes for different folks.” Positive reinforcers are events that strengthen a response when they are introduced following the response. Most reinforcers are classified as consumable, activity, manipulative, and social. One way to choose reinforcers is to have the individuals in the class fill out a reinforcer survey. In a token economy, the individual can choose among a number of available reinforcers that can include tangible reinforcers (toys, snacks, school supplies) or attractive activities (extended recess time, using the computer, drawing, listening to music, field trips). Remember to never deprive a student of something that is against the rules of the school such as withholding snack or lunch from a student. Educators should always comply with the rules and regulations of their school district.
(4) Dispensing Reinforcers. Consider the general method of dispensing with the reinforcers, such as a store, treasure chest, and a method of recording purchases. Be careful that you do not promote stealing in the classroom. This is why it is incumbent on the teacher to come up with a clear and efficient means to monitor the amount of tokens given out along with to whom.
(5) Selecting the type of token. Poker chips, marks on a chart on the wall or in notebooks, stars pasted in booklets,. Tokens should be attractive, lightweight, portable, durable, easy to handle, and not easily counterfeited. Children will also need a way to store their tokens, such as in a box or bag.
(6) Assign point values to the specific target behaviors (Kazdin, 2001). It is a good idea to break down complex tasks into more easily defined parts and assign a value for each of these parts. So, in cases where students can partially complete a task, they can be rewarded for their success. For example, a student may receive a token for each paragraph written on an essay instead of just receiving one token for the completion of the entire assignment.
(7) Select helpful participants. Who will help with the token economy? Teacher's aides, paraprofessionals, members of the token economy itself? Consider how the helping behavior will be reinforced.
(8) Ensure immediate success (Mather & Goldstein, 2008). Set the behavioral criteria at a level that students are initially likely to succeed. We want them to get the reinforcers to show them that appropriate behavior will be rewarded. Gradually the set criteria can become more stringent as a way of increasing more desirable behaviors and reducing the inappropriate ones. Too often, educators initially choose a more stringent criterion in which the children are much less likely to succeed which becomes self-defeating and students lose interest in appropriate behavior quite quickly. So, if a student has great difficulties remaining seated for more than 15 minutes, a reward should be given at the level the student is already capable of accomplishing the set task. Don’t forget to convert the tokens into rewards in a timely manner on a frequent and consistent basis. It is best to exchange the token so that the children can see the clear connection between appropriate behavior and the reward itself. Lastly, anytime a tangible reinforcer is given, verbal praise should be accompanied. The logic behind this is that eventually tangible reinforcers will be faded out and more “natural” reinforcers such as social praise can still be implemented on a regular basis.
(9) Change rewards to maintain interest. Often students will habituate to the rewards given so it is incumbent upon the educator to make sure that they don’t become bored with the same reinforcers over and over again.
(10) Decide on specific implementation procedures (Kazdin, 2001).
Prepare a token economy manual for staff.
Design data sheets and determine who will take data and how and when it will be recorded.
Decide who is going to administer reinforcement, how it will be administered, and for what behaviors
Decide on the number of tokens that can be earned per behavior per client per day
Establish "store" procedures and determine the token value of secondary reinforcers
Ensure that staff duties are clearly defined and that a desirable schedule of staff supervision and reinforcement is implemented.
Plan strategies for generalizing the appropriate behaviors to other settings, such as other classroom also implementing the same or very similar token economy system.
Monitor and revise the token economy system.
Kazdin, A. (2001). Behavior modification. Ca: Wadsworth Publishing.
Mather, N. & Goldstein, S. (2008). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors.
Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, Abnormal Psychology and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at email@example.com.