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Teaching the Concept of Money

One of my favorite college courses that I teach is about the transition from high school to adulthood for students with autism. One of the topics that we discuss in this class is financial and money-related skills. Many of the students in class shared how they start teaching this skill at elementary ages by having students earn “classroom dollars” for positive behavior that students can use to “purchase” items or privileges from a classroom store.

As parents, we often do this too, such as by allowing our children to make small purchases from the store with their allowance money.

I think these are great ideas to give a meaningful context to money, rather than just learning it as a “rote” skill (for example, with flashcards). I find that my students learn a concept much faster (and retain it better) if they use it on a regular basis for something that is important to them.

When I work with my tutoring students, I occasionally use a “token economy” system. My students earn “points” for correct responses, paying attention to our activity, etc. When they get a certain number of points, they receive a reward, such as watching a favorite video for a few minutes. It's a great visual representation of when they'll take a break or earn a reward.

Photo of a token economy board with 10 spaces and a train token that goes in each one.

As an example, if I’m teaching a child to type, each time he correctly types the letters I have on the screen, I praise his efforts and give him one of the points. When he fills up the card, he gets a break.

You can also let your student earn more points and perhaps “cash them in” once per day (or once per week) for a larger reward.

You can view a brief how-to video on token economies here:

As shown in the above example of my train token board, I sometimes use favorite characters or toys for a token economy. However, you can also use money as the “points” that the students earn. This can be a great way to introduce the concept of exchanging money for something, for example, earning a certain number of coins in exchange for a “reward.” I think this gives money a meaningful context for my students, as they use the money to get something important to them.

Three token boards with pennies or quarters as tokens.

Once a student is successful with this, you could start practicing the amounts of money for the coins. For example, a reward might "cost" $2.00 and your child would earn 8 quarters to “buy” it. Of course, you’d have to teach that a quarter is worth 25 cents, a dollar is worth 100 cents, and how to count by 25s. Once those topics have been introduced, you could practice counting quarters by “saving” for the reward.

I’ll see about writing another blog post about this topic in the future. Please feel free to leave a comment with any tips or strategies you use for teaching this concept.

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