Beginning of the Year: The Dos and Don’ts of a Token Economy
Token economies are popular classroom management tools. It’s an effective intervention that is relatively easy to set up and implement – if done correctly. A token economy can be extremely successful at increasing appropriate behaviors, task completion, and academic skills. Wooho, right?! And if you are successful at increasing all these fabulous responses it will in turn decrease the bad behaviors that are ruining your life (okay… dramatic). You can’t be working quietly on your worksheet and be talking to your friend at the same time can you?
So, what is a token economy? A token economy is a system for delivering positive reinforcement to children for engaging in desired behaviors or completing tasks. Target behaviors are set and tokens are delivered by the teacher when children display the target behaviors. The tokens are exchanged for back-up reinforcers at a designated time.
So yes – token economies can be an amazing ball of wonderfulness…. if done correctly. If done incorrectly, get ready for no student buy-in, no participation, and an all around unsuccessful intervention and huge waste of your time (not to scare you but be afraid). Check out these Dos and Don’ts to make sure your token economy rocks!
- Do pick target behaviors that are incompatible with negative behaviors. The first thing you need to do when setting up a token economy is pick target behaviors. Target behaviors can be behavioral (sitting in seat, walking in hallway, etc.) or related to academics (completes 3 centers, finishes worksheets, doing quiet reading, etc.). Pick behaviors that your students cannot do while doing negative behaviors (especially ones that commonly occur in your room!). You can’t do quiet reading while talking to your friends. You can’t walk and run in the hallway at the same time.
- Do include a variety of reinforcers. The beauty of the token economy is that is works for a group of a variety of types of children. So you need to include rewards that are motivating to a variety of students. A token economy will not work if the prizes are all similar. You need a wide range of types of reinforcers for both boys and girls, different interests, and higher quality reinforcers.
- Do set up a schedule for delivering reinforcement. Decide if you will be using a time schedule or response schedule. In a time schedule, you could use a time interval (ie. every 5 mins, 10 mins etc.) and whichever students are doing the target behaviors earn tokens. Response schedules would be based on when students are doing the target response. Will you be giving tokens for every target response? Roughly every other response? Every 5 responses?
- Do be consistent with all students and in all subjects/classrooms. You want this system to be consistent. Your students will pick up if you are not using this intervention in certain areas or with certain students and you will lose buy in.
- Do be excited and enthusiastic. If you think the system is stupid and aren’t into it, so will your students. Your token economy is the most amazing, exciting, and cool thing you have ever heard of. That excitement will wear off!
- Do include visuals and plan for differentiation. Students with special needs are included in many classrooms. Make sure this system is accessible for them. Make visuals for students with lower receptive language so they understand what is expected of them and how the system works. Here is one I use:
- Do make sure your ‘costs’ for reinforcers that can be achieved. So how much will your reinforcers ‘cost’? In order to set these costs – you need to look at how often the target behaviors are currently occurring. So take a quick baseline. If your target behaviors are – sitting in your desk, doing your work, and raising your hand without shouting out, look at how often these are happening (or aren’t happening) before you implement your token economy.
- Do pair tokens with praise. This will help when you need to fade this system. For some students – praise is not reinforcing so you need to train praise as a reinforcer!
- Do take data. Keep it simple but make sure to take some kind of data so your know if you token is (or isn’t) working.
- Do have a plan for fading. This is the hardest and most easily forgotten aspect of a token economy. This system will eventually not work if you keep it the same! Additionally since this is a contrived system of reinforcement, you want to fade this to a naturally occurring system of reinforcement. Fading can be tricky and you need to have a plan in place for this before you. Think about getting new reinforcers that are more ‘expensive’ (need more tokens to buy). Or maybe you will lengthen the time between when you buy your rewards. Start at once a day then twice a week then once a week. Gradually start giving less tokens – every 8 responses then every 10 etc.
- Do pick tokens that are age appropriate. I hate seeing smiley face stickers in junior high classrooms!
- Don’t let you students go “bankrupt” with no opportunity to earn more reinforcers. Some token economies have a ‘response cost.’ That means you can lose points for using certain ‘bad’ behaviors. This can be helpful for some students that need extra motivation to avoid losing points or tokens. However, I have seen a LOT of token economies that use this system with no way for students to earn more tokens. If a student has lost all their points with no way to earn more – than they have nothing to lose. They can be as crazy or as horrible as they want and who cares - they can’t earn a reinforcer anyways.
- Don’t forget to follow through with reinforcers. This is the easiest way to lose student buy in.
- Don’t pick too lofty of goals or too many behaviors. I have seen token economies that are set up so perfectly to address every goal and issue in the classroom …. but are so complicated that the teacher can in no way implement it. Don’t forget you are still going to be teaching while implementing this system. It needs to be something easy, easy, easy! If you can’t remember off the top of your head which behaviors you are targeting – neither will your students!
- Don’t make the cost of buying reinforcers unattainable. Who is going to work towards something that is too hard to achieve? Start by making easy to reach goals and increase slowly from there.
- Don’t leave the same system in all year. See the ‘Do have a plan for fading.’ This is so important I included it twice!
- Don’t make it too complicated. Getting redundant – I know. But again, this is so critically important. Simple is better especially when you start. You can always make it more complicated later but it’s much harder to make a complicated system easier.
Behavior Week Posts:
Monday: Identifying Target Behaviors and Function (you gotta know where to start right?)
Tuesday: Attention Maintained Behaviors (every classroom has some of this… you now who I’m talking about)
Wednesday: Escape Maintained Behaviors (what crafty and clever things are you students doing to get out of work and how can we stop it?)
Thursday: Sensory Behaviors (let’s delve into the whole wonderful world of scripting, stimming, and more)