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Pergamon Research in Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 167-178, 1997

Copyright © 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All fights reserved

0891-4222/97 $17.00 + .00

PII S0891-4222(96)00045-5

Self-Management Within a Classroom Token Economy for Students With

Learning Disabilities

Albert R. Cavalier, Ralph P. Ferretti, and Amelia F. Hodges

The University of Delaware

Students with disabilities who are served in restrictive educational settings often

display inappropriate behavior that serves to preclude their integration into the

mainstream. One approach to managing di~cult behavior is a levels system (Smith

& Farrell, 1993), which O’pically consists o f a hierarchy o f levels in which students”

must meet increasingly demanding standards o f behavior before advancing

through the hierarchy. In the present study, two middle-school students with

learning disabilities participated in a classroom-wide token economy based on a

levels system. The levels system, which was used in a self-contained classroom,

targeted the acquisition and maintenance o f academic skills and social behaviors

with the goal o f integrating these students into an inclusive classroom. The m’o

participants showed little or no progress within the levels system because o f a very

high rate o f inappropriate verbalizations. Therefore, a self-management system

that involved training on the accuracy o f self-recording these verbalizations was

added to the levels system for these students. In addition, the investigator dis- cussed with these students the consequences ~f inappropriate behavior and so-

cially appropriate behavioral alternatives. A multiple-baseline-across-subjects

experimental design revealed that the intervention resulted in a substantive reduc-

tion in inappropriate verbalizations, as well as greater progress through the levels

system. Implications o f these findings Jor the use o f self-recording within u token

economy, the importance o f students’ accuraev ~f self-recording, and methodolog- ical issues are discussed. © 1997 E l s e v i e r S c i e n c e Ltd

The o r d e r o f a u t h o r s h i p for the first t w o au th o rs w a s d e t e r m i n e d r a n d o m l y .

A m e l i a E. H o d g e s is a t e a c h e r at G l a s g o w H i g h S c h o o l in N e w a r k . DE. R e q u e s t s for r e p r i n t s s h o u l d b e sent to e i t h e r A l b e r t R. C a v a l i e r or R a l p h P. Ferretti at the

D e p a r t m e n t o f E d u c a t i o n a l Studies, U n i v e r s i t y o f D e l a w a r e , N e w a r k , D E 19716.


168 A. R. Cavalier, R. P. Ferretti, and A. E. Hodges

Most instructional approaches for children with learning problems place the primary emphasis on external agents (teachers, parents, counselors, and other professionals) to arrange the instructional conditions, monitor student perfor- mance, and implement appropriate classroom contingencies. Kazdin (1975) identified many potential drawbacks to the heavy reliance on external agents, including: (a) the external agent may not notice many important student behav- iors, especially when the agent is simultaneously monitoring many children in classroom situations; (b) the external agent is associated with the contingencies and, therefore, becomes discriminative for the occurrence o f the desired behav- iors; and (c) the desired behaviors may not transfer to situations in which externally-administered contingencies have not been in effect. As a consequence of these limitations, and motivated by the movement to educate individuals with disabilities in inclusive settings, there has been increasing interest in the devel- opment of procedures that reduce students’ dependence upon highly structured learning programs and increase their capacity for self-regulation (Ferretti, Cav- alier, Murphy, & Murphy, 1993; Ryan, Weed, & Short, 1986).

The training of self-management skills holds the promise of reducing students’ dependence on others and ensuring greater control over their own learning. These skills include the self-definition of the to-be-accomplished goal, self-recording of information about task performance, self-evaluation of task performance relative to self-defined or externally-established standards, and self-reinforcement (Ferretti et al., 1993). Each of these components has been the focus of previous interventions, either in isolation or as part of a multicomponential intervention designed to affect behavior change. Self-recording procedures have received particular attention be- cause of the well-documented therapeutic concomitant known as reactivity (Lloyd & Landrum, 1990; Nelson & Hayes, 1981). Reactivity refers to changes in a client’s behavior that arise from observing and recording that behavior. While the theoretical mechanisms that underlie reactivity effects have been the subject of considerable discussion (Ferretti et al., 1993; Nelson & Hayes, 1981), the effects nevertheless have been demonstrated across many different behavioral domains (see Lloyd & Landrum, 1990).

The effects of self-recording on the attention-to-task o f students with learning disabilities have been comprehensively studied (Hallahan & Sapona, 1983; Kneedler & Hallahan, 1984; Lloyd, Bateman, Landrum, & Hallahan, 1989; Snider, 1987). However, the investigation of its use with other classroom behaviors, especially disruptive or inappropriate behavior, has not. been as extensive. In one experiment, Broden, Hall, and Mitts (1971) obtained a 48% increase in study behavior with an intervention package consisting of self- recording and praise from a counselor. In a second experiment, self-recording alone resulted in an initial decrease in inappropriate verbalizations, but this effect gradually dissipated back to pre-treatment levels. In both experiments, student recordings o f the target behavior differed markedly from the recordings o f an independent observer. Thus, the effects o f self-recording on the disruptive behavior of students with learning disabilities were equivocal.

Self-Management and Token Economy 169

While positive results have sometimes been obtained with inaccurate sell’- recording (Ferretti et al., 1993; Hallahan & Sapona, 1983), reactivity to self- recording may be enhanced when accuracy is high (McLaughlin, Burgess, & Sackville-West, 1981). Accuracy may be especially important when the target skill is particularly difficult for a student to perform ( O ‘ L e a r y & Dubey, 1979), when a student is having trouble discriminating instances o f the target behavior from non-instances (Snider, 1987), or when the self-recording activity is not intrusive enough to engage the student’s attention (Loper & Murphy, 1985). While behavior may improve in the absence of accurate self-recording, grossly inaccurate self-recording raises a fundamental question about the degree to which the independent variable (self-recording) is responsible for behavior change (Snider, 1987), that is, the inference that self-recording is responsible for behavior change is not warranted when self-recording accuracy is low.

A self-management package might be particularly effective as an adjunctive intervention for students with learning disabilities who fail to keep pace with their peers in group motivational systems such as classroom token economies and assertive discipline programs. Programs such as these place an especially heavy emphasis on external control and thereby minimize students’ responsi- bility for managing their own behavior. For example, Knapczyk and Livingston (1973) observed improvements in the reading accuracy of junior high school students with mental retardation who were participating in a classroom token economy. On a non-academic task, Seymour and Stokes (1976) obtained in- creases in work productivity after self-recording was added to an existing token economy.

In this study, we sought to evaluate the effects of an intervention consisting of self-recording, discussions about the consequences of inappropriate behavior. and praise for appropriate behavior on two students with learning disabilities. The motivational system in effect in the classroom was a token economy called the levels s y s t e m (Smith & Farrell, 1993) that employed the acquisition of points. The purpose o f this system was to strengthen appropriate academic and social behaviors identified in students’ IEPs. The overarching goal in this self-contained classroom was to integrate students into classrooms with non- disabled peers.

Both students selected for participation in this study failed to make progress in the classroom-wide levels system because of excessive inappropriate verbal- izations. Therefore, the intervention was developed as an adjunct to the levels system that could provide heightened individualization lbr student needs. The goal o f the intervention was to reduce the occurrence o f students’ inappropriate verbalizations and thereby hasten their progress within the classroom-wide token economy. The intervention included training self-recording to a criterion level o f accuracy.

170 A. R. Cavalier, R. P. Ferretti, and A. E. Hodges


P a r t i c i p a n t s

The two students who participated in this study were males aged 13 years, 11 months and 13 years, 5 months (referred to as S1 and $2, respectively) who were enrolled in a combined seventh and eighth grade self-contained class. S 1 performed at a grade equivalent o f 4.2 in reading and 5.3 in mathematics on the Wide Range Achievement Test; $2 performed at a grade equivalent o f 4.3 in reading and 5.7 in mathematics on the same instrument. Full scale IQ scores on the W I S C – R were 83 and 96, respectively. They had no known physical or sensory disabilities or medical problems. They also met the state’s classification criteria for students with learning disabilities and were placed in a self-contained special education classroom in a public middle school.

In the classroom-wide levels system, points were assigned by the teacher in 25-minute intervals throughout the school day, contingent upon performance of different levels o f behaviors in the following categories: being present in the appropriate area, attention-to-task, use o f appropriate language, positive inter- action with others, and compliance with instructions. Points were used to motivate progress through each o f six levels and could be exchanged for a variety o f primary and secondary reinforcers, including activity reinforcers. Different students had to earn a criterion number o f points each day for that day to ” c o u n t ” toward the next level.

The general criteria for achieving successive levels after Level 1 were as follows: Level 2 = 5 days o f criterion performance; Level 3 = 10 days of criterion performance; Level 4 = 15 days o f criterion performance; Level 5 = 20 days o f criterion performance; and Level 6 = 30 days o f criterion performance o f which the last 15 days had to be consecutive. A student continued at a given level until s/he met the performance criterion for the next level. Classroom management and motivational systems that are structured with a system o f performance-and-reward levels such as this one are “widely used, although not widely researched” in elementary and secondary classrooms (Scheuermann & Webber, 1996, p. 12).

The students were chosen for this study because they were not advancing in the levels system. At the end o f the 6th week o f participation in this system, the majority o f the students in class had progressed to various points between the end o f Level 2 and the beginning o f Level 4. The two students had achieved only 3 criterion days at Level 1. The teacher described these two students as exhibiting the following characteristics: high levels o f distractibility, strong sensitivity to criticism from others, poor impulse control, and difficulty in understanding and applying abstract concepts. The most prominent and prob- lematic characteristic was a stable and very high level of inappropriate verbal- izations, because it interrupted instructional activities and thereby prevented the progress o f these students through the levels system. In addition, these inap- propriate verbalizations distracted the entire class, instigated other students to

Self-Management and Token Economy 171

engage in inappropriate behavior, and necessitated a high frequency o f teacher prompts and reprimands. School records indicated that both students had not responded to previous implementations o f point-based contingency systems.


The intervention was evaluated using a multiple-baseline-across-subjects experimental design (Barlow & Hersen, 1984). Sessions were conducted during the students’ normal classroom activities. Sessions were 50 minutes in duration and were conducted twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The target behavior was inappropriate verbalization, defined as: (a) talking audibly to the teacher or teacher’s aide without raising a hand and being acknowledged; (b) talking audibly to another student during designated quiet times; (c) talking audibly to the teacher or teacher’s aide with threatening words, curse words, or derogatory comments; (d) talking audibly to another student with threatening words, curse words, or derogatory comments, and (e) talking audibly to himself. Data on these target behaviors were collected by the students and an independent observer using event recording.

Data collection under baseline conditions continued for each student until relative stability was established. The intervention condition was initiated for S 1 on session 20 and for $2 on session 52. Throughout the course o f the interven- tion, the investigator discussed a number o f potential problem situations and alternative strategies for dealing with these situations based on principles of self-management. Periodically, the student was reminded that the purpose of the training was to help him understand how to better deal with problem situations at school and advance through the levels system. These discussions were motivated by findings that suggest that a student’s understanding o f problem situations and awareness of alternative strategies heighten the effects of self- management training (Brigham, Hopper, Hill, de Armas, & Newsom, 1985).

The definition of inappropriate verbalizations (referred to as “talking-out” with the students) was read to a student and he was given the opportunity to ask questions and discuss any parts o f the definition that he did not fully understand. An event recording sheet was shown to the student and he was instructed to make one slash mark for each talk-out. The observer then modeled the self- recording behavior in a m o c k session and the student was given the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the procedure (Brigham et al., 1985). Students were told that the accuracy o f their recording was important, that it would be checked during a training phase until they could self-record with at least 85% accuracy for four consecutive sessions, and that on the day that they reached this criterion they would be taken to M c D o n a l d ‘ s after school. Accuracy checks on a student’s self-recording were then conducted until the student reached the criterion. The definition o f the target behavior was reviewed with the student each time accuracy was calculated during this phase. Percent o f agreement was calculated

172 A. R. Cavalier, R. P. Ferretti, and A. E. Hodges

by dividing the smaller number o f recorded behaviors by the larger number o f recorded behaviors and multiplying the result by 100.

During this self-recording training phase, which was also Level 1 o f the levels system, accuracy checks were performed during 100% o f the sessions. During Level 2 and 3, accuracy checks were performed at least once per day and without the student’s knowledge, that is, they were told accuracy would be monitored but they were not told the specific times, and these were not obvious to the students. The observer was positioned out of the student’s field o f vision and appeared to be engaged in other classroom activities.

At the end o f each session, the student and observer together totaled the number o f recorded inappropriate verbalizations and, if the performance crite- rion was reached, a reinforcer was administered. The criterion for reinforcement was a decrease o f at least five behaviors from the previous session’ s count. This defines a schedule o f differential reinforcement o f diminishing rates o f behavior (DRD), which is a special case o f differential reinforcement o f low rates o f behavior (Deitz & Repp, 1973; Schloss & Smith, 1994). The reinforcer for the first 10 sessions was 15 minutes of free time paired with praise. I f a student advanced to the next level in the levels system, he received the praise and increased privileges inherent in progression through the system. The self- management intervention continued until a student reached the terminal objec- tive o f no more than three inappropriate verbalizations per 50-minute session for 10 consecutive sessions. This level o f inappropriate verbalizations was deemed acceptable by regular and special education teachers. When S1 reached the terminal objective, $2 began the self-management intervention condition. The performance o f S 1 continued to be monitored using a multiple probe technique.


The primary data are those recorded by the observer rather than the self- recordings of the students. As displayed in Figure 1, the number o f inappropriate verbalizations by S 1 across the 20 sessions o f baseline was relatively stable at a high level, averaging 65.7 per session. This operationalizes the teacher’s opinion that these behaviors were occurring at an unacceptable frequency.

On Session 21, the first day o f the self-recording intervention, the data reveal an immediate decrement in the frequency o f the target behavior. This was followed by a steady and continual decline. During each o f the last 29 inter- vention sessions, the number o f inappropriate verbalizations was below the terminal objective of three or fewer per session, that is, from Session 38 until the end o f the study, inappropriate verbalizations by S 1 were virtually eliminated.

Comparison o f the observer’s recordings and the student’s recordings o f inappropriate verbalizations in Figure 1 reveals that the student consistently under reported his behavior until Session 32. After this point, the student’s recordings map onto those of the observer almost perfectly. As displayed in

Self-Management and Token Economy 173

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~ $2 ~


Baseline Intervention Observer Data 1 . . . . Subject Data

‘/ / 2J, Sessions

F I G U R E 1. T h e n u m b e r of i n a p p r o p r i a t e v e r b a l i z a t i o n s by both students as a function of e x p e r i m e n t a l conditions. A r r o w s indicate s e s s i o n s in w h i c h students a c h i e v e d n e w levels within t h e levels system.

Figure 2, for every session after Session 35 the observer’s recordings and the student’s recordings achieve 100% agreement.

During the first 16 sessions of the baseline condition for $2, his frequency o f inappropriate verbalizations per 50-minute session ranged from a low o f 32 to a high of 98, with an average of 66.3 per session. At the end o f Session 15, the classroom teacher mistakenly delivered a stern reprimand to $2. Because o f this, one of the investigators reviewed with the teacher the nature and purpose o f the experimental protocol. While these circumstances did not occur again during the course of the study, the immediate effect was a complete suppression o f the target behavior during the next session and a low frequency during the following two sessions. Over the next four sessions, the number o f S2’s inappropriate verbalizations steadily increased. From Session 22 through Session 51 (i.e., the remainder of the baseline condition for $2), inappropriate verbalizations oc- curred at a relatively stable frequency, averaging 60.1 per session.

On Session 52, the first day of the self-recording intervention for $2, the data reveal an immediate decrement in the frequency of the target behavior. There- after, inappropriate verbalizations showed a relatively steady decline. The number of inappropriate verbalizations during each o f the last 10 intervention sessions was below the terminal objective of three or fewer per session.

Comparison of the observer’s recordings and S2’s self-recordings o f inap- propriate verbalizations reveals that, like the first student, $2 consistently underreported his behavior during the initial sessions of the self-recording intervention (see Figure 1). Again, like the first student, S2’s inappropriate verbalizations continued to decrease during this period of inaccurate self-

174 A. R. Cavalier, R. P. Ferretti, and A. E. Hodges


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~ 2 1 ~ 2 S ~ d ~ H ~ 7 ~ a 0 ~ O * 1 ~ 2 ~ 3 5 ~ 7 ~ 4 1 4 2 1 Z ~ ~ * r ~ n o s l S 2 ~ a ~ ~ n z s i s g ~ e l ~ ~ e s H e z ~ ~ n n n Z4 ~ ~ r r = ~

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F I G U R E 2. The percentage agreement between the recordings of the observer and the self-recordings of both students during the self-management intervention.

recordings. As displayed in Figure 2, from Session 68 until the end of the study, the student’s recordings consistently matched the observer’s, with only two exceptions (Sessions 63 and 67).


The purpose o f this study was to determine whether the addition o f a self-management package to an existing token economy embedded in a levels system would reduce the occurrence o f inappropriate verbalizations in two students with learning disabilities. We sought to reduce the occurrence o f these verbalizations because they precluded the students’ progress within the levels system and they were an obstacle to their eventual re-integration into a class- room with nonhandicapped peers. Prior to the self-management intervention, both students exhibited a stable and very high level o f inappropriate verbaliza- tions. According to anecdotal reports o f the teachers, these behaviors not only interfered with the students’ learning o f appropriate academic and social skills, but were disruptive to the learning of other students who were making good progress within the levels system without self-management procedures.

The addition o f the multicomponential self-management package to the levels system reduced the inappropriate verbalizations o f the students to a near-zero level within 19 experimental sessions. At a practical level, this represents a drop from over 65, and sometimes even 100, occurrences within a

Self-Management and Token Economy 175

50-minute session to three or fewer per session. These decrements occurred when, and only when, the intervention was applied to each student. These results provide strong support for the contention that the self-management package was effective, that is, that there was a functional relationship between the introduc- tion o f the self-management package and a substantive decrease in the number of inappropriate verbalizations.

If it is assumed that the observer’s data are more veridical than the students’ (an assumption we will address shortly), then the early intervention sessions were associated with decrements in the target behavior even though the sell’- recording of both students was inaccurate. The finding o f reactivity despite inaccurate self-recording is quite c o m m o n in the published literature (Lloyd, Landrum, & Hallahan, 1991; Nelson & Hayes, 1981). Previous research dem- onstrates that persons with learning disabilities often underreport the occurrence o f inappropriate behavior (and overreport the occurrence of appropriate behav- ior) when self-recording (Lloyd & Landrum, 1990; Lloyd et al., 1991). In this context, it may be useful to distinguish between students’ opportunity to observe their behavior and their accuracy o f recording that behavior (Nelson & Hayes, 1981). One cannot necessarily infer that students did not observe instances of their behavior simply because they recorded it inaccurately. The act o f observing o n e ‘ s behavior may be sufficient in and of itself to heighten the cue value of the entire sell-management procedure and ensure reactivity.

It should be noted that further reductions in the occurrence of inappropriate verbalizations continued as the students improved the accuracy of their self- recording over time. At a more molecular level, it is difficult, however, to determine what parts o f the multicomponential intervention may have contrib- uted to this relationship, or more generally, to the reductions in inappropriate verbalizations. In this study, students were praised for reducing the occurrence o f inappropriate verbalizations, rewarded for accurate self-recording, and en- gaged in periodic discussions with one of the investigators about the conse- quences of their inappropriate behavior and appropriate behavioral alternatives (Brigham et al., 1985). Packaging self-management skills and external conse- quences probably increases the likelihood of a successful outcome, but it makes it difficult to assess the independent contribution of self-management training to the therapeutic process (Ferretti et al., 1993).

Earlier, we mentioned that there was a discrepancy between the observer’s recordings o f the target behavior and those o f both students, and we took as more veridical the observations o f the observer. We should note, however, that we did not check the reliability o f the observer’s recordings with another observer’s recordings, independent o f the students’ self-recordings. The failure to check on the reliability o f the observer’s recordings raises a question about the relative accuracy o f the recordings of both the students and the observer. Expressed differently, the absence o f independent evidence about reliability o f the self-recording and observer’s data, especially at the beginning of the intervention, raises a question about the accuracy o f the observer’s recordings.

176 A. R. Cavalier, R. P. Ferreni, and A. E. Hodges

It seems to us that three factors militate against the conclusion that the observ- e r ‘ s recordings were inaccurate. First, our anecdotal observations and those o f the teachers are consistent with the conclusion that the students under recorded the occurrence o f inappropriate verbalizations at the beginning o f the interven- tion. Second, the students eventually met our criterion of at least 85% agreement with the independent observer after continued training. Third, the baseline data (and our anecdotal observations) demonstrate that the behavior was quite stable prior to the introduction of the self-management intervention.

The dramatic reductions in inappropriate verbalizations by S1 and $2 were associated with progress in the levels system. By the end of the study, S 1 was at Day 5 o f Level 3 and $2 was at Day 6 o f Level 2. Other students in class were progressing through the standard system towards the highest level o f function- ing. The students’ rapid improvement in the levels system with the adjunct of the self-management intervention adds credence to the teacher’s contention that their inappropriate verbalizations were the major barrier to their advancement through the system. O f course, it is also possible that some incidental effects (e.g., increased saliency of classroom contingencies, heightened self-esteem in achieving objectives, etc.) of the self-management intervention generalized to the point-earning behaviors in the levels system. The social and academic significance o f reducing excessive inappropriate verbalizations in the classroom is multi-faceted. With the decreased frequency o f these behaviors comes fewer threats and distractions, fewer teacher reprimands, increased teaching time, and a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, all o f which result in a more productive environment for all students in the room.

Scheuermann and Webber (1996) recently discussed a number o f problems associated with the use o f the levels systems in special education. In brief, they argue that the uniform application o f a predetermined system o f hierarchical curriculum goals for all students m a y in effect violate the legal requirement o f an appropriate, individualized educational program for students with disabili- ties. This concern is especially heightened when access to nondisabled peers is a to-be-earned privilege in the system, the curriculum is standardized for all students, and the system is used to punish the occurrence o f inappropriate behavior by the loss o f a level within a system. Scheuermann and Webber (1996) believe that the key to avoiding these problems is embedding individualized objectives within the levels system. Further, they recommend the inclusion o f self-management training in the levels system to increase the generality o f students’ skills and facilitate their success in less restrictive environments. The results o f our study support these recommendations. We believe that the students in our study would have made little progress through the levels system without the addition o f self-management training.

In conclusion, this study demonstrates a means by which a classroom-wide token economy system that was rendered ineffective for two students by their inappropriate verbalizations can be made effective in strengthening and main- taining a wide range o f behaviors. This goal was accomplished by introducing

S e l f – M a n a g e m e n t a n d Token E c o n o m y 177

a multicomponential self-management intervention into an existing levels sys- tem, effectively increasing the individualization afforded by the system for students with behavior difficulties.


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