Reinforcement is a common occurrence in our daily lives. Receiving a paycheck every month, getting a compliment from a friend, taking a coffee break from work – these are all forms of reinforcement. Some types are more predictable and some take longer to achieve. During ABA therapy, it is always our goal to fade reinforcement from happening continuously so that it’s happening more naturally. One of the tools we often use to accomplish this is a token board. It can take many forms but it’s usually a collection of “tokens” or “points” that when the learner has accumulated all of the points, they get access to a reinforcer. For example, Johnny has a token board with 10 tokens. He gets a token for every correct response and then when he collects all 10 tokens, he gets to play with his cars for 5 minutes.
What is a token board?
The token board uses the principles of primary and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are things that are inherently reinforcing – like food and drink. We don’t need to be taught to want these items. Most of our human reinforcers are secondary, or conditioned reinforcers. Examples of these are toys, money, good grades, and tokens. By pairing a primary reinforcer (eg: food) with a secondary reinforcer (eg: token), the secondary reinforcer then can also act to increase the likelihood of behaviour.
Tip: It’s a good idea to also pair the token with praise so that the praise also becomes a secondary reinforcer!
Why use a token board?
There are a few reasons we like using token boards:
- They are a great visual to the learner of when reinforcement or a break is available. You can have a picture or the actual item of what the child is working for and this can act as a reminder of the good stuff that is to come. It also very discretely shows the learner which responses were correct and which were not. For example, if the target is for the child to “Touch the car” the only response that would get a token is if he correctly and independently touched the car. If he did nothing, needed to be prompted, or touched another object – there would be no token.
- At the beginning of therapy, we may be reinforcing every correct response with a primary reinforcer (eg: food). As the learner advances, we want to be able to fade reinforcement. With the secondary reinforcement of the token board, the tokens become reinforcing so that the primary reinforcer can be faded to every 5-10 responses. They are a great way to fade tangible reinforcement towards intermittent, social reinforcement.
- It’s a tool that is so adaptable as a child grows. With a younger child, it can be an M&M every 5 tokens; but with an older child, it can be a collection of points over the course of a day that he can use toward a preferred activity (eg: computer time).
Tip: Make the expectation realistic. Some kids need to be able to go through their token boards faster, some can tolerate waiting longer. Make sure that the tokens are being given at an appropriate rate. For example: For an older child, a token board can last through 30 minutes of homework, but for a younger child, you may want it to last 5 minutes.
When to start using a token board?
One a learner has a steady understanding of the first/then concept (“First I do something, then I get something”), it’s a good idea to start fading reinforcement. After that, it is usually used during novel or more difficult tasks.
Tip: The reinforcement should be congruous with the amount of work. For a young child who whose token board lasts 5 minutes, the reward might be 1 minute of a toy. But for an older child who worked for 30 minutes, the reward might be 5-10 minutes of a video game.
How is it used?
We like to use backwards chaining to teach the token board. Introduce it by having the token board be full except for the last token. As you are about to reinforce a correct response with a primary reinforcer (eg: popcorn), put on the last token and show the child that he gets the popcorn for filling the token board. Slowly, have him work for the last 2 tokens, then the last 3, etc.
Tip: careful not to accidentally give the token while or right after negative behaviour. If the child gave the correct response and then threw the materials, wait and re-present the trial so that you don’t reinforce the throwing.
What should it look like?
Tokens boards can be fun with a theme that the child likes. You can be as creative as you like (eg: take a picture of a preferred character and cut it into puzzle pieces to be earned). But putting together a token board doesn’t have to be intimidating. It can also be as simple as drawing 10 circles on a cue card and drawing a smiley face inside as a “token”. Whatever it looks like, it’s more important that it is implemented consistently across therapists and the message to the learner is clear:
- Tokens are received for ______________ (specify the behaviour)
- When I get all my tokens I get ____________ (chosen reinforcer)
- I need _____________ (how many) tokens to get reinforcement
For kiddos that can read, we may even write the “rules” of the token board directly on it so they know what they’re getting tokens for.
Tip: Some kids may need you to “mix it up” so they don’t get too bored or too rigid. Have a few token boards with tokens ready to go and change it up as you see fit. You can also differ from the classic token board by using things like marbles in a jar or collecting a certain number of cars.
Where to go next?
Realistically, children may not want to take a token board everywhere they go. So how would we transition away from it? Once a learner is ready to move beyond a token board, we can start introducing things like behaviour contract and possibly a self-monitoring system.