the token economy its application and brief history

The very nature of our society is based on the token economy. Everyday most of us engage in pro-social activities (i.

e. work) in which we are given money (i.e. tokens) that we can later exchange for other goods like vacations or meals (i.

e. backup reinforcers). The use of the token economy in classroom management is not only a good opportunity to increase desirable behaviors but also can be used as an opportunity to teach self-management skills. While the token economy itself should be faded out eventually the lessons learned can last a lifetime.

The token economy was designed as a behavior modification method by which the therapist, or change agent, increases the occurrence of desirable behaviors and decreases the occurrence of undesirable behaviors. This is done by the use of a token given to the client or patient. The token is later exchanged for a reward. In this way the token is a rewarding reinforcer for desirable behavior, a conditioned reinforcer.

Exchange for items or privileges become back up reinforcers and give the initial token its meaning and power as a behavior modification tool.The token economy has been used in many classrooms particularly in classrooms with behavior management issues. Several issues must be dealt with before implementing the token economy in any classroom. The first of which is the identification of the target behavior, or the behavior to be reinforced.

In a classroom setting this must be applicable to the entire class in order to be efficient enough to use. For instance, should a classroom have 12 to 24 different target behaviors, one for each individual child, the management of keeping track of behaviors and tokens could become overwhelming. The token economy works best in this situation if there are a set number of target behaviors that can apply to the entire class.The tokens themselves must be applicable as conditioned reinforcers.

This means that the token must be paired with the rewards over time. For higher functioning students this can often take place quickly by simply explaining the system or showing the rewards the tokens may be exchanged for. For lower functioning students teachers must often give the reinforcer directly after the token for a period of time. This establishes the token as a valid form of reinforcement.

The students must trust that the token is worth something for it to work. Teachers must be aware of their students cognitive levels as well as what would make good backup reinforcers. Fifteen year olds may be more inclined to try and earn tokens if they are worth free time or privileges. Five year olds may be more inclined toward stickers and toy erasers.

This is something that each classroom instructor must discover. What makes your kids tick?The last point brings up an issue that often discourages teachers and school from engaging in the token economy. Backup reinforcers often cost money. If the teacher can find a way to balance the cost effectiveness of the token economy it may be well worth the time.

A well-managed and behaved classroom, in the end, can save money by keeping instructors out of psychiatric offices! All joking aside, institutions must look at the cost benefit analysis of the long run situation. If we can spend a little money now on stickers and erasers and toys we may be saving the system money by teaching our children skills that will eventually keep them out of bigger, more expensive, trouble. Aside from this, a little free time, or computer time costs next to nothing and is often an excellent backup reinforcer (McLaughlin & Malaby, 1972).The schedule of reinforcement is another decision that must be made by staff and instructors.

Are the tokens given for every desirable behavior? It is often best to start this way. By using a continuous reinforcement schedule the students are given a good opportunity to get used to the idea of the token economy, how it works, and have the tokens be firmly conditioned as reinforcers. As the system progresses it is best to move to a fixed ratio or variable ratio reinforcement schedule. In this way the students learns that while they still will be rewarded for good behavior it will not be every single time.

The fixed ratio schedule indicates that the student will be reinforced at set time intervals throughout the day. Should the student in this situation have been conducting himself or herself properly up to the specified interval they will receive tokens. In a variable ratio schedule the student would not know exactly when they would be reinforced but would know that eventually correct action will earn tokens.The eventual goal of the token economy of course is to move away from the use of tokens all together and have the correct behaviors, target behaviors, generalized to the point of not needing to be extrinsically reinforced.

A model token economy would work in stages from most restrictive to least restrictive. In this way the classroom instructor would begin the use of a token economy at the continuous reinforcement level. When this was firmly established the classroom would be moved forward into a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule. Eventually moving into a variable ratio.

Variable ratio is the best for generalizing a behavior as it creates an environment in which students must begin to behave properly without the promise of a reward for that behavior. Eventually the classroom manager will phase out the token economy altogether.One way in which fading the token economy has been demonstrated was by increasing intervals of time in which patients received rewards. A study performed by Phillips, Phillips, Fixsen, and Wolf (1971) showed that a desirable behavior could be maintained while fading reinforcement by fixed ratio in intervals of days.

These researchers used a token economy with delinquent youths to encourage them to make their beds. They of course began with a continuous reinforcement schedule. After two weeks of successful bed making they faded the schedule to every other day. Then after this was established they moved to a fixed ratio of reinforcing every third day.

This continued until the boys were reliably making there beds while receiving rewards only every twelfth day.Another issue that teachers using this method are faced with is the actual economy of the thing. Tokens must be something that cannot be counterfeited. If a student can go to the supermarket and pick up a pack of poker chips that look exactly like the ones used in his classroom then the value of the tokens goes down as a reinforcer.

If students can trade them amongst one another then the reinforcing value has been transferred to something else, and it probably would no be good in this situation. Depending on the situation and the student’s involved theft of tokens may be an issue. Teachers must take this into account when creating token economies and develop the economy based on their particular students. In worse case scenarios often keeping a score sheet in which check marks or points are the tokens and are kept by the teacher is the best choice.

Next to consider is the exchange rate. We have already discussed the potential rewards that the tokens may by, but how much should they be worth? If a student has to save up tokens for several days to purchase a reward that will be a good reinforcer for them individually it may not become conditioned as strongly as need be to reinforce the behavior. If the backup reinforcers are too cheap then the tokens lose their reinforcing value. In this case the student would simply not have to engage in target behaviors often enough to make the back up rewards worth it for the teacher to acquire or allow.

There must be a balance that takes into consideration the ages, physical and mental, of the student population.Response cost is often not used in token economies but is an option for non-aggressive populations or in situations where the tokens are easily retrievable without conflict. In a response cost token economy system the teacher would have the option of charging the student for engaging in behavior that conflict with target behaviors, or in situations where the target behavior is actually the absence of a behavior. Response cost must be planned as carefully as the token reward system itself.

For one, the negative target behaviors must be defined as completely as the positive target behaviors. In this way students are aware of which behaviors are tolerated, encouraged and discouraged. It is very important in this system not to take all of a students points away from them as it could negate the reinforcement for target behaviors engaged in during the day. The idea with the response cost aspect of token economy is to be able to utilize a negative punishment without negating the positive reinforcers.

It is vital to the effectiveness of a token economy that one has well trained and effective staff members. This includes the ability to discern between behaviors and dispense with tokens fairly and in a timely manner considering the schedule of reinforcement. Teachers and staff implementing the token economy must be consistent in their use of the tokens and the use of response cost. Exchange rates must be held steady and pay out for tokens must be on a schedule.

In short the classroom management team must respect the token economy if they expect their students to respect it.In one of the first studies to utilize a token economy Ayllon and Azrin (1965) showed that the use of tokens as a means to delay reinforcement but maintain target behaviors was effective. Ayllon and Azrin used tokens in response to Skinner’s work with operant conditioning and the discovery that operant conditioned required an immediate reward system for target behaviors to increase in frequency. The token was used as a means to insure the patients in this psychiatric ward that they would in fact get rewarded for the behavior, just not right this very second.

Further than this they had tangible proof that they were to be rewarded.Token economies have not only been shown to work with “psychotics” as they were called in Ayllon and Azron’s time, but also with maximum-security inmates. Milan and Mcfee (1976) used a token economy in a prison to great effect. They’re results indicated that the token economy in this situation works best if coupled with verbal praise.

Further and most importantly they showed that the use of a token economy, even with a highly aggressive, criminal population, worked for increasing target behaviors and that once the economy is taken away, the occurrence of target behaviors remains above what it was before the implementation of the token economy. This study further indicated that the token economy worked better if used in the absence of strong negative punishments such as isolation techniques.In another study with youths it was found that young delinquent males responded favorably to token economy reinforcement (Hobbs & Holt, 1976). In this study researchers indicated that the token economy significantly increased the occurrence of positive behaviors in several independent groups.

  In this baseline design study the researchers had several groups of boys separated by “cottages” at a facility for delinquent boys. After applying a token economy to increase pro-social behaviors in several settings all cottages increased significantly from baseline.In an interesting study by McLaughlin & Malaby (1972) a token economy was found to be successful in a classroom of 25 fifth and sixth graders. In this experiment McLaughlin & Malaby tested the token economy against the more traditional response cost classroom management style.

The researchers found that after implementing a token economy reinforcement style for quiet behaviors the occurrence of inappropriate vocalizations decreased. When they switched to the more traditional response cost alone, and reprimanded the children for inappropriate vocalizations, the occurrence of inappropriate vocalizations increased. This study is of particular interest to the question of token economies in the classroom. As traditionally the classroom has been managed by a response cost system.

Children have been held in from recess, held in detention, made to copy form dictionaries for negative target behaviors. Traditionally there has been no real reward system for good behavior. Children were just expected to be good.While the use of the token economy has its roots in the field of psychiatric patients and criminal inmates there is also plenty of evidence to suggest its effective use in the classroom.

It is important to remember that while the token economy is a very effective tool for operant conditioning it can be overused. It is important that the behaviors we seek to encourage become intrinsic. For this to happen students must desire to engage in pro-social and other positive behaviors because they want to and are rewarded by the sheer act of doing what is right. The token economy is an excellent way to begin teaching this self-management skill set.

ReferencesAyllon, T., & Azrin, N.H. (1965).

The measurment and reinforcement of behavior of psychotics. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 8, 357-383.Hobbs, T.R.

, & Holt, M.M. (1976). The effects of token reinforcement on the behavior of delinquents in cottage settings.

Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 189-198.McLaughlin, T.F., & Malaby, J.

(1972) Intrinsic reinforcers in a classroom token economy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 5, 263-270.Milan, M.A.

, & Mcfee, J.M. (1976). The cellblock token economy: Token reinforcement procedures in a maximum security correctional institution for adult male felons.

Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 253-275.Phillips, E.L.,  Phillips, E.

A., Fixsen, D.L., & Wolf, M.

M. (1971). Achievement place: Modification of the behavior of predelinquent boys within a token economy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 4, 45-59.    

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