What is a token system and how can it be helpful for my child with Autism?
What is a token system?
A token system or token economy is a method of positive reinforcement where an individual receives tokens for completing tasks or engaging in desired behaviors (Ayllon & Azrin, 1968). Token systems can be used to increase or strengthen behaviors by providing rewards or reinforcement when the targeted behaviors occur (Miltenberger, 2008). For example, when a child has received 10 tokens for engaging in desired behaviors such as completing their homework, taking out the garbage or cleaning their room, they are able to gain access to a preferred item or activity (e.g. bubbles, candy, iPad, etc.). Research shows that token systems are effective at increasing desired behaviors (Matson & Boisjoli, 2009).
What are the benefits of using a token system?
- Increase in desired behaviors
- Decrease in inappropriate behaviors (can be specifically targeted using a response cost – more information on this below)
- Not needing to provide continuous reinforcement (e.g. the child engages in 10 desired behaviors to get lollipop vs. getting a lollipop every time the desired behavior occurs)
- Communicates to the child how much progress has been made. It is clear to the child how many more tokens they need to earn to receive a reward.
- Targets self-monitoring skills and teaches children to regulate their behavior
- The token system reinforcers may be motivating than a single primary reinforcer
How can I use a token system with my child?
The first step is teaching your child that tokens have value. Tokens are conditioned reinforcers meaning that they do not naturally have any reinforcing value like food or water which are primary or unconditioned reinforcers. Primary reinforcers do not need to be paired with anything to be reinforcing. Money is example of a conditioned reinforcer. It has gained value by being paired repeatedly with primary reinforcers (e.g. food, water, shelter, etc.). Therefore, it is import to first teach your child the value of a token by pairing it with items that are already reinforcing such as candy, goldfish, juice, preferred activities and toys, etc. By pairing the token with a primary reinforcer, the token will then take on value.
Next, identify some behaviors which you would like your child to engage in such as putting away their dishes, completing homework, sharing a toy with their sibling, eating all their dinner, etc. Once appropriate behaviors are identified, it may also be helpful to have a rules sheet indicating what behaviors will earn a token. Below is an example of behaviors that a child can engage in to earn tokens at school.
Once target behaviors have been established and pairing is complete, your token board is ready to go. You can ask your child what they would like to work for (e.g. iPad, preferred toy, going to the park, snack, etc.); anything that you know they would find rewarding and is feasible for you to deliver. Put a picture of the item or activity in the “I’m working for” section of the token board (shown below). It’s a good idea to keep the number of appropriate behaviors required to earn the reward low when you first start so your child is successful and receives reinforcement quickly. For example, set the token board up so they only have to engage in 2-3 appropriate behaviors to earn their reward. After repeating this multiple times, they will begin to associate earning tokens with getting a reward and you can gradually increase the amount of appropriate response/tokens required.
In the template below, a child would have to earn 12 tokens to be able to access what they are working for.
There are also apps which function as token boards and may be easier to use out in the community rather than carrying a paper copy. For example, you could have the app on your phone and provide your child with tokens while at the grocery store for engaging in appropriate behavior. A few token system apps are listed below:
- Working4 (Apple and Android products)
- ChorePad HD (Apple products)
- iReward (Apple products)
Reducing Unwanted Behaviors Using a Response Cost
A response cost is a consequence usually in the form of a fine or penalty by removing something valuable contingent on inappropriate behavior (Hine, Ardoin, & Call, 2017). If you don’t pay for parking at a meter and are fined with a parking ticket, this is an example of response cost (removal of money which, of course, has value). In the context of a token economy, tokens removed if inappropriate behaviors occurs. Having this feature is a way of further promoting appropriate behaviors and penalizing unwanted behaviors.
Including a response cost in a token economy and is only optional. If you do decide to use a response cost, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Ensure the child knows the concept of the response cost. You may want to write out what behaviors earn tokens and what behaviors loose tokens.
- Provide more positive reinforcement (giving tokens) then negative punishment (taking away tokens). Never use a response costs if the child doesn’t already have tokens and make sure they are never owing tokens (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). If a child is losing more than earning, the token system will loose it’s effectiveness.
Connect with your behavioral consultant if you’d like to learn more about token economies and see if they would be a good fit for your child.
Ayllon, T. & Azrin, N. (1968). The Token Economy: A Motivational System for Therapy and Rehabilitation. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
Hine, J. F., Ardoin, S., P. & Call, N., A. (2017). Token economies: Using basic experimental research to guide practical applications. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 45, 145-154. DOI:10.1007/s10879-017-9376-5
Matson, J. & Boisjoli (2009). The token economy for children with intellectual disability and/or autism: A review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30, 240-248. DOI:10.1016/j.ridd.2008.04.001