Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Sticker Charts, Marble Jars & More
You already know that reinforcement is a cornerstone of Applied Behavior Analysis and one of the most effective tools in your behavioral toolbox. If you need a refresher, check out Reinforcement – It’s Where The Magic Is under the tab All Things Behavior.
Token systems, also called token economies, are a specific type of reinforcement system. They are used with great success in both general education and special education classrooms, as they’re considered an evidence-based practice and because they work! They work extremely well in fact! So how about we borrow this proven tool used by professionals to create motivation and affect behavior change, and bring it home to implement with your child.
A token economy is a reward system in which a “token” is delivered to a child when appropriate behaviors occur. Tokens (e.g. stickers, stamps, behavior bucks, stars, poker chips, tickets, play money, holes punched on a card, marbles in a jar…) are then exchanged later for something of value to the child (known as a backup reinforcer). And just like other reinforcers, this reinforcement increases the frequency of the desired behaviors.
-Jackson earns stickers (the token) for staying in his seat during meals and saying please & thank you. When he fills up his sticker chart, he can access to the iPad for fifteen minutes (the backup reinforcer).
-Victoria is earning a punch (the token) on a punch card for following directions the first time she’s asked. When she earns the final punch, she can exchange it for access to her favorite video (the backup reinforcer).
-Diego is working hard to clean up his toys independently. Since he LOVES ice cream, his mom printed a picture of an ice cream cone and then divided it into six pieces. Each time he cleans up independently, he earns one of the six picture pieces (the token). When he’s earned all the pieces and has recreated the picture of the ice cream cone, he can exchange it for an actual ice cream cone (the back up reinforcer).
In this way, tokens are similar to money. You exchange money for concert tickets, admission to an amusement park, a glass of wine or a mani-pedi. All these things are the backup reinforcers.
How To Implement
-First, identify the behavior(s) you want to see more often. Perhaps it’s one of the replacement behaviors you’ve been trying to teach. Maybe it’s simply cooperation when you ask them to do something. Whatever you choose to work on, just remember that target behaviors should be observable, measurable and specific enough that you know what you’re looking for and your child knows how to turn it on. It’s generally advisable to pick from one to three behaviors to target. It should be no secret either, so let them know exactly how to earn a token and how many tokens it takes to earn the backup reinforcer.
-Next, choose the backup reinforcer that your child will earn access to with their tokens. Initially they are going to be earning things often, so pick backup reinforcers that you’re willing to deliver frequently. I suggest you come up with a few and mix them up to maintain interest. If they bore of the reinforcer, you’re dead in the water. If you’re running out of ideas, ask your child what they’d like to work for. It can be something tangible or access to a privilege or preferred activity. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something highly preferred!
-Then you'll need to pick which type of tokens you're going to use. Here you get to be creative. If your child is into Paw Patrol, then perhaps you find Paw Patrol stickers. In other words, let their interests inspire your creativity. I once had a client who was obsessed with Christmas. With construction paper, I made him a token board in the shape of a Christmas tree. The ornaments (the tokens) were made out of construction paper too. I laminatd the materials so I could use them again and again. He earned a predetermined number of ornaments to decorate his tree and the final token was the star on top. Short on creativity? Poker chips or a stamp can work just as well.
-After that, determine how many tokens your child will need to earn to gain access to the backup reinforcer. Remember, this system of reinforcement is new to your child. We want two things... for them to understand the reward system and for it to work. We can accomplish those two things pretty rapidly if early on they earn the backup reinforcer quickly and often. This means that in the beginning, they should only need to earn a few tokens to gain access to the backup reinforcer. Of course with time you can and should up the ante. In fact, you can do so as soon as they understand it and have experienced success. Earning it quickly and often in the beginning is an investment worth making. Listen... if your child needs 30 tokens to earn access to an iPad for 5 minutes, and it takes him six days to do it, you’ve got issues. It simply won’t be worth their effort. Once they understand how this token economy thing works, you can move towards them earning more tokens, thereby delaying access to the backup reinforcers a bit. Your generosity early on will help get you there more quickly.
-Now it's time to create the materials. Token boards visually show the child how close they are to getting their reward. The complexity and uniqueness of your token board is only limited by your imagination and creativity. The more individualized it is for your child, the more likely they’ll respond to the system. Again, let your child’s interests inspire you. For instance, if your child really likes Spider Man, then finding appropriate Spider Man images would be great. You can print preferred images from your computer, laminate them and then affix with Velcro dots to the board. One side of the Velcro gets stuck to the laminated “board” and the other side to the back of the “tokens” (e.g. pictures, poker chip, etc.). Using Velcro makes the system reusable, so putting in the effort once pays off.
If you’re short on creativity or time, don’t let that discourage you. Lakeshore and Amazon have several simple ready-made options available. The one below is available on Amazon and made by a company called Kenson Kids.
The backup reinforcer section (e.g. “I’m working for ____ ) represents what the student will receive after he earns all of the five tokens. The five green boxes to the left of that represent how many “tokens” the student needs to earn. Filling in a box with a “token” (e.g. poker chip, a sticker, a checkmark) is then a step toward earning the reinforcer. This section should be clearly divided, as it its here, so it’s clear to the child how much progress has been made or needs to be made before the reinforcer becomes available to them. For many children, it is not necessary to identify the reinforcer ahead of time. For some children doing so can in fact backfire, as they may change their mind midway thinking, “That’s not really worth all this effort after all.” For those children, providing them with a choice after all tokens are earned may work better. Other children will have difficulty making a choice or begin negotiating with you for something that wasn’t a choice. You know your child best, so take these things into consideration.
For those creative parents out there… sometimes, the actual backup reinforcer (or part of it) can act as the token board itself! For example, say a child is mesmerized by a marble maze. They can actually earn pieces of the marble maze to assemble. The last token would be the marble to use on the marble maze.
The same could be done with train tracks and a then the actual train is the backup reinforcer. Whatever you decide, build your token boards to last so that you may use it again. Lamination is a good way to create long-lasting boards. Poker chips are resilient too.
Another idea and one of the cheapest and easiest types of token boards is the simple punch card. Whenever they successfully demonstrate the target behavior, use a hole puncher to punch a hole in the card, indicating they are one step closer to earning their reward. If you’re just introducing the system, there may be too many holes. Remember, we want them to earn it frequently at first. So, simply pre-punch a few once you decide how many holes are required to earn the reward. Again, Lakeshore and Amazon have got what you need, including the single hole paper punch.
Advantages Of A Token Economy System
-Doesn’t require immediate reinforcement which can be inconvenient at times.
-Can easily be taken with you, so no need to delay delivery of a token until you get home.
-Teaches kids to delay gratification.
-Tokens can be delivered immediately following an appropriate behavior.
- Provides continuous feedback to the child on how they’re doing behaviorally.
-Differential reinforcement can be integrated. For example, if your child does something super fantastic, exceeding what was expected, you could reward that behavior with two or even three tokens.
-Helps you set clear and specific behavior goals and helps you reinforce them consistently.
-Can be individualized for each of your children.
-Closely approximates the kind of reward systems your child may experience in a classroom.
-You can pair verbal praise (which is a very natural reinforcer) with the delivery of the token. This will allow for adult approval and their own self-pride to become conditioned reinforcers.
With some attention and planning, a token economy system of reinforcement can help teach your child how and when to behave. They’ll also learn what behaviors do not earn reinforcement. This can be equally important. If the backup reinforcers are motivating enough for your child, they’ll jump through hoops to earn it. When implemented correctly, token economies are an easy and effective strategy to not only increase appropriate behaviors, but decrease negative behaviors too. Give me a call or book an appointment if you need help.