Reinforcement and Token Boards

It is crucial to view behavior skills just as academic skills are viewed. If a student is unable to complete a subtraction problem, a teacher will determine what skills are lacking and teach those skills so the child is successful. In the same way, if a student is unable to line up with the class without pushing the child in front of him, skills must be taught and support provided until he is able to line up successfully.

Reinforcement and Token Boards are staples of behavior management. Do not confuse reinforcement with bribery and never use bribery (unless the situation is an emergency)! Reinforcement is used with a system that is established while the child is calm. Bribery is typically offered in the middle of a tantrum: “I’ll buy you ice cream if you’ll just stop screaming!!” Picture me in the middle of Target with my daughter…

Determining reinforcement is tricky for some students. It may seem that NOTHING is reinforcing. Interest Inventories are useful to determine reinforcers for the hard to reinforce student. Reinforcement is so important because many students do not have a great deal of intrinsic motivation. This is especially true when students do not understand the purpose of an assignment. This might apply when working on learning the letters of the alphabet or it may apply in math for the student who doesn’t understand why he must show his work when he can do it all in his head. If a student does not feel motivation from work completion, outside motivation is necessary for the student’s success.

After the type of reinforcement is determined, establish a token system for earning the reinforcement. If the student has five reinforcing items, create visual icons of each item and place them on the back of the token board using velcro. The student chooses one of the pictures to work towards and it is placed inside the box. As the student completes a task, a token is added to one circle. When all circles are filled, the student earns reinforcement.

There are times when certain reinforcing items may not be available. When this occurs, prepare the student ahead of time by letting them know the item is unavailable before the item is chosen. It is also appropriate to use this opportunity to practice the acceptance of “no”. Many students hear “no” as a trigger. If this is the case, use phrases such as, “not today” or “we can do it later”. It is important to work out details like this that may seem trivial, but will be major for your student in the moment.

Token systems work beautifully when all of the details are addressed. Below are some frequently asked questions about token boards and reinforcement.

How many tokens should be used and how often should a token be given?

This is dependent on the individual student and the amount of reinforcement needed. Gauge how often your student requires reinforcement with tokens to continue a task. If reinforcement is necessary every 15 seconds, increase the number of tokens needed to earn the reinforcement. If a student is able to work for one minute in between receiving a token, perhaps five is appropriate. The goal is to stretch the amount of time between reinforcement into longer intervals. If, however, the student is completing a very difficult task or is just having a bad day, provide the tokens at a faster rate.

What does the student need to do to earn tokens?

It is useful to list the requirements necessary to receive a token on the student’s token board. The student and any adult working with the student has a clear understanding of expectations. Additionally, if the student is not following an expectation, the adult may point to the picture of the behavior to prompt expected behaviors.

When should a student use a token board?

It is most likely that students need the token board all day for every activity. Perhaps walking in the hallway is an extremely difficult task for a student. If the token board is not used during this time, it is equivalent to taking away a number strip during addition practice. Unstructured activities such as transitions, specials, recess and lunch may be the most difficult times of day for a student with ASD or high anxiety.

What if this is does not help the student?

If the token system does not work for the student, it is likely that the reinforcers are not strong enough or the student is not being reinforced quickly enough. There are some tasks I would complete for one veggie straw every 5 minutes and there are other tasks that I won’t do unless I get one french fry every 30 seconds. Our students are not different. Increase the level of reinforcement given and provide it at a faster rate.

Personalizing the token board can increase buy-in from the student as well. Below are examples of personalized token boards.

Using Google images, copy and paste the student’s favorite characters into the form.

One last caveat…once a student has earned a token, it should never be taken away as punishment. Tokens are only removed from the board once reinforcement has been earned and the student is starting another round of earning towards reinforcement.


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