What Is an Incentive Strategy?
An incentive strategy is used to increase desired behaviors. Token economies are a type of evidence-based incentive strategy which allows students to earn tokens, chips or points immediately when they do specific targeted behaviors. These tokens, chips or points serve as a currency that is exchanged for items or activities that the student has chosen. Incentive strategies, including token economies, have been shown through research (Herron, 2007) to be an effective intervention for many different students.
As adults, we naturally use a token economy, such as money, in our everyday lives. Money has become a strong reinforcer because we have used it to buy food, shelter, fun experiences and many other items. Money is very reinforcing because it can be used to buy a variety of things that we need.
Why Is an Incentive Strategy Important?
Years of research have shown that incentive strategies promote an increase in desired behaviors while decreasing undesired behaviors. Positivity will assist you in increasing desired work behaviors in your students. Your students will learn to work more independently for increased periods of time.
Using a token economy in your class will teach your student how to work for longer periods of time before earning a backup reinforcer. This is very important because it helps to prevent your student from getting tired of a particular reinforcer due to frequent use. For example, if your student earns a fish cracker for each answer he or she gets correct, it will not take very long until he or she begins to get full and grow tired of fish crackers, thus decreasing his incentive to work for them. When you use a token economy, the student will learn to work for longer periods of time before earning the backup reinforcer that was chosen. This skill of not needing immediate reinforcers will translate well to when your students graduate and enter the workforce and there is a long time between reinforcers, whether they are social or monetary.
To Create an Incentive Strategy in Positivity:
- Sign in to n2y.com.
- Select the turquoise heart icon to launch Positivity.
- Select the menu in the upper left-hand corner.
- Select Strategy Library.
- Select the +New Strategy button in the upper right-hand corner.
- Select Incentive Chart. A checkmark will appear to indicate your selection.
- Name the Incentive Strategy.
- Named Incentive Strategies are saved to the Strategy Library and can be assigned as needed.
- Select Next.
- Use the Incentive Name boxes to enter a label for the incentive options you want to provide to the student.
- Pro-tip: Select the play button to hear the label read aloud.
- Use the Images or Symbols search boxes to locate an appropriate image for each incentive option.
- Drag and drop the Image or Symbol into the box under each Incentive Name.
- Select Save & Close.
Note: Once saved this is an “existing strategy.” Add the named Incentive Chart to an event and define the number of tokens needed to earn the desired incentive.
To Assign Incentive Charts to a Day:
- Select Visual Schedules from the Positivity Menu.
- Select the desired schedule.
- Select Today, Daily or Weekly.
- Select the pencil icon next to the Incentive Chart heading in top right area of the screen.
- From here you will have the option to assign an existing Incentive Chart or create a new one.
Implementing the Incentive Strategy in Positivity
What do I need to do before I put incentive strategies in place?
- List target behaviors that you want to increase: You must show the student what they should do to earn the reinforcers. These are often your classroom rules, but they may be different for certain activities/centers. You want to keep these positively stated, showing them what they should be doing rather than telling them what they should not be doing. Make sure all service providers who work with the student know what they are reinforcing.
- Choose the type of token economy you will use: a single-student contingency or a group contingency. A single-student contingency is best when you are beginning to teach a token economy. Group contingencies work well for students who have shown success with single-student contingencies and students who thrive on the attention of peers.
- Create a menu of backup reinforcers (incentives) that can be exchanged for the tokens: For the token economy to work, the students must be able to exchange the tokens they have earned for preferred items, activities or privileges. Many service providers use play materials, games, snacks, time watching videos, permission to leave an undesired task, etc. It is of the utmost importance that this is child-specific and that you have identified items that the child has shown that they prefer and are willing to work for. If a student does not like the incentives (backup reinforcers) they can earn with their tokens, then the student will be less likely to work for them. Students are prompted to choose their desired incentive each time they are presented with an Incentive Strategy in Positivity.
- Establish a ratio of exchange: How often will your student earn the backup reinforcer and how many tokens will be required to earn the reinforcer?
- Initially, the ratio between the number of tokens and the amount of work needed to earn the backup reinforcers should be small to provide immediate success to the students. The student should earn the backup reinforcer immediately upon reaching a certain number of tokens. Unique learners may need more frequent exchange periods.
- As students learn that the tokens lead to the incentive (backup reinforcers), the ratio of exchange for tokens should be adjusted. This is also a good time to add more “luxury” items to the reinforcer menu that cost more than the initial items in the menu. You may also begin to only have the reinforcer set for 1-4 times per day, depending on your students. Higher functioning or older students may eventually have periods of exchange once per day or a few days per week.
Steps to Implementation of Token Economies
Step 1: Initial token economies training
Provide verbal instructions and modeling. Some students may understand how to use the token economy in around 30-60 minutes. For unique learners, you will want to assist the student in earning tokens within shorter time periods (earning them all between 30-60 seconds while training). Increase the time between tokens incrementally so that the student can work for more time between receiving tokens.
Step 2: Model the procedure for the token economy
Direct the student to do a simple task they can perform (i.e., jump, give me a high five, touch your nose, etc.). Give a token each time the student successfully does the desired behavior. Unique learners needs may require multiple token training sessions before it is fully understood.
1. Model the procedure for token exchange: Show the student the incentives (reinforcers) they can earn. Prompt the student to select a desired incentive (reinforcer). Demonstrate and reinforce the delivery of a token. Point out how many tokens are needed. Celebrate when all tokens are acquired and pointing out each. For example, point to each token and say, “You needed three tokens, you earned three tokens!”. Demonstrate the process of exchanging the tokens for the incentive (reinforcer).
2. Plan for eventual withdraw of the token economy. Think of strategies that will promote generalization and maintenance of target behaviors in settings without a token economy. This includes
a. Pairing social approval and verbal praise when the student earns tokens
b. Gradually increasing the number of responses required to earn a token
c. Gradually decrease the availability of the token economy across the school day
d. Shifting the number of activities and privileges to those that would naturally occur in their environment
e. Systematically increasing the price of more desirable items while keeping very low prices on less desirable items
Things to monitor:
- Keep the value of your incentives (backup reinforcers) strong by making the high-value reinforcers only available when they earn tokens. In Positivity, your students should earn tokens when they perform the target behaviors listed. Tokens should not be provided for other behaviors. If a student is able to get the backup reinforcers through other means, they are less likely to work hard to earn the tokens.
- If the token economy does not seem to be working, you may consider either increasing the amount/type of backup reinforcer or give tokens more quickly allowing access to the backup reinforcer more often.
- Neitzel, J. (2009). Steps for implementation: Token economy programs. Chapel Hill, NC: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina.
- Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L.. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall,