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Behavior modification can be done basing on the operant conditioning principles, these principles were developed by B.F. Skinner, an American behaviorist. The scientist developed the operant conditioning concept using reinforcements and lack of reinforcement to change behavior, and according to Skinner, this concept is applicable to both animals and human beings. This concept involves developing relationships between behaviors and consequences to achieve the desired results (Kazdin, 1978). The behaviorist, Skinner utilized positive reinforcers to encourage desirable behaviors and negative reiforcers to discourage undesirable behaviors.
Skinner’s concept has continually been used as an improving social condition method in behavior management systems. Token economy system is among the behavior management systems that have utilized Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning; the system shapes behavior through selective positive reinforcement. The system is designed to encourage desirable behavior and discourage undesirable behavior using tokens. The target person or group for behavior change is given tokens, which are secondary reinforcers after showing desirable behavior, and later exchanged with primary rein forcers (Kazdin, 1978). Primary rein forcers can either be objects that are more meaningful than tokens or privileges. The token system economy is used in institutions such as correctional facilities and psychiatric hospitals to correct the behavior of people who are aggressive or unpredictable. The system’s biggest goal, when used in these institutions, is to teach these people appropriate behavior, as well as necessary social skills that are used when interacting in the natural environment. Token economy is also used in institutions offering special education to teach children with developmental disabilities, behavior disorders, attention deficit or hyperactivity, apart from special education, institutions, such as nursing homes, military divisions, colleges, addiction treatment programs, family homes and hospitals. Token economy program can either be used on individuals or in groups.
In a token economy program, there are elements that are necessary, these elements include tokens. Token can be anything that is countable and visible, preferably attractive to the learner, easy to carry and difficult to counterfeit. Mostly, they are items that are commonly used, and they include play money, point tallies, stickers or poker chips. An individual who displays a desirable behavior is immediately given a number of tokens, but he should remember that tokens have no value (Zipoli, 2005). Later, the tokens are collected and exchanged for meaningful activities, objects or privileges, however, for those who show undesirable behavior, tokens are taken from them.
Another element of token economy is target behavior. During this program, participants are informed on the kind of behavior they are supposed to display to receive tokens (Liberman, 2000). The desirable behavior should be explained in simple and more specific terms, preferably positive terms, for example, “keep quiet during class time”, instead of “do not talk during class time”. The number of tokens awarded for those who display the desirable behavior should be specified and the number of tokens lost for those who do not display the desirable behavior.
Primary reinforcer is a necessary element in the token economy program; it is exchanged with tokens received by the participants in the program. Primary reinforcers might be activities, objects or privileges, and they include toys, food items, outings or extra free time (Liberman, 2000). The success of the token economy program depends on the attractiveness of the primary reinforcers; more attractive primary reinforcers motivate individuals to show desirable behavior to earn more tokens, individuals also look forward for future rewards that are represented by the tokens they have (Kazdin, 1978). Mostly, to ensure attractiveness of the primary reinforcers, the program designer allows the participants to choose them and not the staff.
A system of exchanging tokens is also necessary in a token economy; the program designer should include the place and time of purchasing primary reinforcers, and how the value of each token is determined, is it based on its demand, therapeutic or monetary value (Kazdin, 1978). For instance, a token of a high value should be exchange for an expensive or highly attractive primary reinforcer. Designers of token economy programs should know that setting a too low token value affects individuals’ motivation to earn tokens, and a token value set which is too high might discourage participants; therefore, token value should not be placed too high or low.
The program should also include a system that records data for each individual. First, there should be a baseline data gathered about the current behavior of each individual, and as the program progresses, the progress of each participants should be recorded (Liberman, 2000). The recorded data can also be used to measure the effectiveness of the program. The information on the number of tokens and how they have been exchanged should also be recorded.
The staff who is implementing the program should ensure consistence in awarding of tokens, rewards should be given for same kind of behaviors to avoid confusion, and the appropriate number of tokens should be used; they should avoid favors and awarding of reinforcers for free. Staffs should prevent unjust ownership of tokens, for instance, through stealing and counterfeiting (Kazdin, 1978). The effectiveness of the token economy program should be evaluated regularly and staff members allowed raise concerns and issues affecting the current program.
At the beginning of the token economy program, participants are awarded high amounts of tokens, however, as the participants continue to learn the desirable behavior, the number of earned tokens should be continually decreased (Kazdin, 1978). This is to make participants learn to show the desirable behavior independently, remember that tokens should not be awarded forever, and at the end of the program, participants should have learned to display the behavior without any reinforcement.
According to research, the use of token economy in behavior management and for motivational purposes in rehabilitation centers and schools has yielded good results. In education, the token economy system strengthens the student-teacher relationship and improves the academic performance of students. According to research carried out on students in mentally retarded education centers, students in mentally retarded education institutions that use token economy perform better in class, and have improved social skills, when they are compared to those which do not use token economy program (Bafile, 2005). According to research carried out by Bafile in 2005 on class management, the use of token economy in class can streamline the toughest class (Bafile, 2005).
Token economy has also been proved effective, when treating individuals with addictions. According to research carried out in 2006 on alcoholic, the use of reward of entries in a prize draw when treating them made the treatment more effective (Leaf & Bradshaw, 2007). Similar results of success were recorded by Jody and others on 120 cocaine users, after the 12th week of the token program, the cocaine users had been rehabilitated, and according to what they recorded during the study, the higher the token values, the lower the amount of drug in the urine samples of the participants (Leaf & Bradshaw, 2007).
Token economy programs are also effective in psychotic clients, research carried out by Emmelkamp in 1994 showed that therapy sessions of the clients were effective, and reduced clients’ inappropriate behavior. This shows that token economy programs are effective in many institutions of behavior correction and for motivational purposes in education and families.
Token economy programs are increasing in use even not only in educational and correctional centers, but also in technical and vocational training institutions. This is because it is simple and direct, and since individuals work hard to display good behavior, it becomes part of them, and when it is compared to other programs of behavior change, it guarantees future display of desirable behavior (Bafile, 2005). This program is also less restrictive when it is compared to other programs of behavior change; therefore, it is effective when dealing with adults and children who do not like being pushed.
However, token economy programs have been criticized, according to the critics, the mechanistic view of the program tends to overlook subjective experiences and the realm of consciousness; also, the program does not address the effects of biological factors on human behavior. When using this program, human beings are considered as passive, and are only at the mercy of the environment they live in; this means that environment determinism gives no room for individual free will (Bafile, 2005). The theories that use this concept does not account for the fact that change of behavior can be creative, spontaneous or novel. Another criticism is in the use of token economy in clinical psychology, according to the critics, those psychologists who use this program in treating mental disorders might be wrong because they ignore the causes of the disorder.
Research has proved that the token economy program is effective in changing behavior of individuals in rehabilitation centers for addiction, behavior problems and for those seeking medical attention from psychiatrists and psychologists. This program also has an effect on students’ motivation and academic performance, when used in educational centers, and because of its direct effect, simplicity and less restrictiveness, it is being embraced by more institutions. However, as they use these programs, they should also pay attention to the causes of undesirable behavior and try to eliminate them; this will ensure that the undesirable behavior is not recurring after a successful change to desirable behavior.