If you have ever wondered how you can address a child’s behavior without yelling at them again and again, listen up! Today we have guest blogger Alexandra Beck here to share some tips for how to positively address a child’s behavior using something called a “token economy”. Hope it helps!
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Fall is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. New classrooms… new fall wardrobe… new fall television lineup… new behavior management strategies! As you look to start off on the right foot this year, now may be the perfect time to begin implementing a token economy with your student, child, or classroom. Token economies can be used for children of various skill levels and are fully customizable to individual needs.
What is a token economy?
Using a token economy can be a highly effective way to increase appropriate behaviors and promote working toward a tangible goal. Much like currency, a token economy is a system of reinforcement wherein “tokens” are delivered for instances of desirable behavior. Once a pre-determined number of tokens are earned, they can then be exchanged for access to preferred items or activities. Tokens can be any medium of your choice (stickers on a sticker chart, beads to fill a jar, Monopoly money, even simple happy faces on a piece of paper), but consider portability when selecting your token of choice. Filling a jar with gumballs may seem like a really fun idea, but you are not going to want to fish around in your bag for sticky, melted bubble gum while carrying around a giant bubble gum jar!
Who can benefit from a token economy?
A token economy can be utilized and individualized for a very diverse range of students. However, it is important that your child can tolerate delays in reinforcement and understand simple “rule” concepts. Unlike a favorite toy or game, a “token” has no inherent value in and of itself. A child using this system must understand that the tokens represent future access to privileges. Most early learners need to receive more tangible reinforcement immediately after demonstrating a new, positive behavior. For these students, please continue to provide immediate reinforcement and consider a token economy at a later point in time. Token economies can be used just as readily with typically developing children as with children on the autism spectrum or other special needs.
Here are some simple steps to help get you started in setting up your own token economy:
1. Select the Behaviors. Think of 3 or 4 behaviors that you feel are important skills for your child to develop. Set your child up for success by selecting goals that are relatively easily attainable in the near future. Maybe you want to work on hand raising before speaking in the classroom, or sharing toys on play dates. Maybe getting your child dressed for the day is a struggle, or you want to encourage your student to be more independent in completing and submitting his homework. Define these skills clearly using positive terminology. That is, focus on the positive behavior you want to see, not the negative behavior you don’t want to see. For example, use the language, “Raise your hand before speaking” and “Walk nicely next to Mom and Dad in the grocery store,” rather than, “Don’t talk out of turn” or “Don’t run away from Mom and Dad in the grocery store!”. Consider involving your child in the process. You may be surprised at the things he comes up with on his own when you turn the tables and ask what makes for a good student or helper at home!
2. Select a Motivating Reinforcer. Decide what it is that your child can earn, and how she can do so. Whether you have one prize (“After you fill your bead jar we can go the movies”) or many (“If you earn 10 stickers you can rent a movie, but if you earn 20 stickers we can go to the movies!”), discuss potential reinforcers with your child beforehand and involve them in the decision-making process. While you may have to put the kibosh on grandiose ideas (A new iPad! Disneyworld! Hawaii!), it is important that the reinforcers have real and significant value to your child, or else she will not be motivated to work for it. Whenever possible I like to use activities as reinforcers (dinner out, sleepover with a friend, pizza night, a trip to the water park, etc.) rather than toys. I found this Pinterest board called “Fun Activities for Kids” that is filled with lots of fun ideas that could be used as reinforcers. Once you have selected the reinforcers, decide how many tokens your child will need to earn before they can get the prize. It is best to start easy at first in order to get the ball rolling and prevent frustration, but with time you can increase your expectations.
3. Use Visuals. Now that you have discussed expectations and reinforcers with your child, make a visual to keep track of his progress. The visual should include the rules in clear, simple, child-friendly language, and may also include pictures for the more visually inclined. Whether you are using a sticker chart, bead jar, or other medium, keep the tokens in plain sight. Reference the tokens frequently and encourage your child to work toward the goal by praising him for his progress!
4. When to Give Tokens. Whenever you observe your child engaging in any of the positive behaviors you have outlined, reinforce her immediately with a token! Unless you are in a situation that requires discretion, verbally praise your child and explain why she has earned the token. For example, “I love the way you washed your hands after using the restroom, just like we talked about! Let’s go put a sticker on your chart.”
5. What About Taking Tokens Away? Removing tokens for instances of negative behavior sets up the system to be more punitive than rewarding. In certain cases there may be very dangerous behaviors that warrant the removal of a token (and if so, be sure to clearly define these behaviors with your child in advance), but it is generally best to focus on reinforcing positive behaviors by delivering tokens rather than punishing negative behaviors through the removal of tokens previously earned. Encourage your child by speaking in positive terms (“Remember that you earn stickers when you share your toys!”) rather than threatening (“If you don’t share the blocks with your sister this instant I’m going to take away all the beads in your bead jar!!!”).
Once you have completed the above steps you are well on your way to setting up a meaningful reinforcement system for your student or child!
As you begin to use your token economy, always remember two key concepts: immediacy and consistency! “Catch” your child in the moment, praising and reinforcing the positive behavior by giving a token immediately. If you must wait until later to deliver the actual token, be sure to follow through on your promise. Additionally, learning occurs more rapidly and generalizes more easily with consistency between caregivers and teachers. For maximum benefit, ensure that all caregivers are on the same page, utilizing the same system with the same expectations.
Remember that your system is as unique to you and your child as you want it to be. If something is not working, mix it up and try again. There are endless possibilities for creating a token economy, so let your child’s behavior be your guide and give it a try!
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Alexandra Beck received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology with a minor in English from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Master of Arts Degree in Educational Psychology from the New York University Steinhardt School of Education. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), specializing in early intervention for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Alexandra lives with her husband and daughter in Southern California.