Disclaimer | By: Gavin Cosgrave | Reading Time: 12.1 minutes @ 200 WPM

Token Economy

"One of the most important technologies of behaviour modifiers and applied behaviour analysts over the last 40 years has been the token economy"
- Matson and Boisjoli (2009, p. 240)

What is a Token Economy?

Within an educational setting, a token economy is a system for providing positive reinforcement to a child or children by giving them tokens for completing tasks or behaving in desired ways.

Token economies are used as a method of strengthening a behaviour, or increasing its frequency, because the tokens are a way of “paying” children for completing tasks and the children can then use these tokens to buy desired activities or items (Miltenberger, 2008).

Interestingly, ‘tokens, in the form of clay coins, first appeared in human history in transition from nomadic hunter-gather societies to agricultural societies, and the expansion from simple barter economies to more complex economies’ (Hackenberg, 2009, p. 257; Schmandt-Besserant, 1992).

How does a Token Economy work?

The basic principle is that a child earns a certain number of tokens by engaging in desired behaviours (called “target behaviours”) and can then exchange these tokens – effectively using them as payment – to gain access to backup reinforcers.

This image presents an example of how a token economy can be viewed as a cycle.
The basic "cycle" of a token economy.

The target behaviours could be anything. For example, completing academic tasks like getting a certain amount of spellings correct, or it could be saying hello to their teacher in the morning, or playing nicely with their peers.

What a target behaviour will be depends on each individual child. Some token economies could be used to increase a child’s desire to complete academic tasks while another token economy could be used to decrease the amount of aggression a child engages in by giving tokens for not engaging in aggressive behaviours.

What is a Back-Up Reinforcer?

A backup reinforcer is an activity, item or privilege that the child likes and enjoys. The token economy works because the tokens become paired with the earning of the back-up reinforcers and the child only gets tokens for engaging in desired behaviours (Miltenberger, 2008). Therefore the target behaviours (should) occur more often.

What does a Token Economy Chart (or Mat) Look Like?

There is no one single type of token economy chart. Some will have a space where an image of something being earned - a reinforcer - can be placed (as in the image below), others will have space to write down what is being earned while others will be used only to record how many tokens have been earned.

For token charts where there is no place for a reinforcer there will typically be some method of choosing from a group of possible reinforcers once the chart is filled up or there might be a list of reinforcers that all "cost" different amounts and it is up to the student to decide when they want to trade in their tokens for a specific reinforcer.

Token economy example.
One example of a token economy chart with space to place a PECS sized reinforcer and twelve tokens.

Money is a type of Token

The world economy where people go to work, do their job to earn money and then spend this money for things they want or need is pretty much identical to a classroom token economy. The money you earn from employment itself isn’t really what you want – it is a means to an end. What you really want is what you buy with your money because getting money means you get desired items and activities (e.g. car, house, jewellery, food).

For a classroom token economy, a child will go to school, complete academic tasks to earn tokens and then spend these tokens for back-up reinforcers. Again, the tokens aren’t really what the child wants. Just like our money, the tokens are a means to an end – getting tokens means getting things the child wants (e.g. 5 minutes playing a computer game, a break from work, chocolate, sweets).

Image displaying how the world economy with money is virtually identical to a classroom token economy.
Comparing the world economy to a classroom token economy.

What can be used as tokens?

The term “token” suggests something physical that you can hold in your hand. Some token economies do use physical objects such as poker chips, printed cards with smiley faces, fake money or even marbles.

However, not all tokens are like this, some might just use a tick on a sheet of paper, a hole punched in a card or a stamp put onto a card (Foxx, 1998). These “non-physical” tokens are sometimes called “points” (Miltenberger, 2008).

In Kazdin and Bootzin’s (1972, p. 343-344) review of token economies, they cite Ayllon and Azrin (1968) regarding a number of advantages in using tangible items for tokens. These include:

  • ‘the number of tokens can bear a simple quantitative relation to the amount of reinforcement
  • the tokens are portable and can be in the subject's possession even when he is in a situation far removed from that in which the tokens were earned
  • no maximum exists in the number of tokens a subject may possess
  • tokens can be used directly to operate devices for the automatic delivery of reinforcers
  • tokens are durable and can be continuously present during the delay
  • the physical characteristics of the tokens can be easily standardised
  • the tokens can be made fairly indestructible so they will not deteriorate during the delay
  • the tokens can be made unique and nonduplicable so that the experimenter can be assured that they are received only in the authorised manner.
  • In addition, tokens provide a visible record of improvement. This may facilitate social reinforcement from staff members, as well as self-reinforcement.’

Advantages of a Token Economy

According to Kazdin and Bootzin (1972, p. 343) the use of tokens as a method of delivering reinforcement through the child exchanging them for back-up reinforcers has a number of advantages. For example, they:

  • ‘bridge the delay between the target response and back-up reinforcement
  • permit the reinforcement of a response at any time
  • may be used to maintain performance over extended periods of time when the back-up reinforcer cannot be parcelled out
  • allow sequences of responses to be reinforced without interruption
  • maintain their reinforcing properties because of their relative independence of deprivation states
  • are less subject to satiation effects
  • provide the same reinforcement for individuals who have different preferences in back-up reinforcers
  • may take on greater incentive value than a single primary reinforcer’

Additionally, Miltenberger (2008) highlights how:

  • Positive reinforcement, via the tokens, can be provided immediately after the target behaviour occurs.
  • A token economy is structured therefore there will be consistency with how positive reinforcement is delivered for target behaviours.
  • A child’s future planning skills can be developed because different amounts of tokens need to be earned for different types of backup reinforcers and the tokens must be kept until enough has been earned.

Things to Consider with a Token Economy

  • If an economy is being implemented at a large scale, across a group of individuals and settings, it may be time consuming and take a lot of effort to organise and train staff to correctly implement it.
  • Depending on the preferred backup reinforcers, it may be costly to purchase them.
  • It’s pertinent to check that ‘the expected benefits (improvement in behaviour) justify the time, effort and cost of conducting the programme’ (Miltenberger, 2008, p.513).

Seven Components of a Token Economy

Miltenberger (2008, p.498) lists seven components that need to be defined when implementing a token economy. These are:

  • 'The desirable target behaviours to be strengthened.
  • The tokens to be used as conditioned reinforcers.
  • The backup reinforcers to be exchanged for tokens.
  • A reinforcement schedule for token delivery.
  • How many tokens are needed to be exchanged for the backup reinforcers.
  • A time and place for exchanging tokens for backup reinforcers.
  • In some cases, a response cost component, in which the undesirable target behaviours to be eliminated are identified, together with the rate of token loss for each instance of these behaviours.'
Image displaying the seven components of a token economy described by Miltenberger 2008.
Miltenberger's seven components of a token economy.

One-to-One Token Economy Example

Tarbox, Ghezzi and Wilson (2006) investigated the use of token economies in an effort to increase the eye contact of a 5 year old boy called Adam who was diagnosed with autism. We’re going to go through one of the economies used in the Tarbox et al study and use Miltenberger’s (2008) seven components to describe it.

  • Target Behaviour: attending to his tutor before the delivery of an instruction; with “attending” defined as making eye contact with the tutor for at least 3 seconds.
  • Tokens to be used: laminated “star stickers” placed on a “token board”.
  • Backup Reinforcers: a 90 second break from academic tasks where he could play with preferred toys of his choice.
  • Reinforcement Schedule: Adam received 1 token every single time he engaged in the target behaviour (made eye contact for 3 seconds).
  • Rate of Token Exchange for Reinforcers: a total of 10 tokens were required before Adam could earn a backup reinforcer.
  • Time and Place to Exchange Tokens for Backup Reinforcers: this was done immediately after 10 tokens had been earned. It was completed at the classroom desk.
  • Response Cost: they did not use a response cost.

Response Cost

Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007) make it clear that a response cost ‘should be saved for those major undesirable behaviours that call attention to themselves and need to be suppressed quickly. The teacher’s or parent’s primary attention should always be focused on positive behaviour to reinforce; response cost should be a last resort and should be combined with other procedures to build adaptive behaviours’ (p. 370).

A response cost is a penalty or fine where tokens are taken away from the child for breaking rules or engaging in inappropriate behaviours. Much like breaking a law such as driving over the speed limit and being fined money for it by the police.

It’s important that children are aware of the rules before any response cost would be used so it’s crystal clear what is a rule and what is a broken rule. Additionally, a response cost should never be used if a child does not already have tokens. Never put a child in “token debt” (Cooper et al. 2007).

A Token Economy is Conditioned Reinforcement

The token economy is a form of “conditioned reinforcement” or “secondary reinforcement” (Malott & Trojan-Suarez, 2006). This is because the tokens are not naturally occurring reinforcers. Naturally occurring reinforcers like food or water would be classed as “unconditioned reinforcers” or “primary reinforcers” because they do not need to be paired with anything.

The money you earn by going to work is a form of conditioned reinforcement because the money itself is not naturally reinforcing. It is the fact that you can use this money to get desired items and activities like a house, food, cars or holidays.

To expand a little more, imagine you go to work and get given some plastic tokens at the end of the day. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be in any way happy about this. However, if you were told that those tokens could be traded in for an extra day off work, all of a sudden those tokens will become something that you’re going to want to get more of (well for most people anyway).

In this case, the tokens become conditioned reinforcers because they have now been “paired” with the ability to get a day off work. In other words, getting tokens leads to getting a day off work while no tokens means no day off.

In the case of school children, the tokens serve as a way of gaining access to preferred items and activities – therefore, getting tokens leads to getting activities and no tokens means no activities.

Conditioned versus "Generalised" Conditioned

In the example about trading tokens for a day off work, if the tokens could only be traded for a day off then these tokens would be termed “conditioned reinforcers”. If the tokens could be traded for various different desired items and not just one specific thing then they would be termed “generalised conditioned reinforcers”.

The distinction here is about whether the tokens can be traded for only one item/privilege (conditioned reinforcers) or numerous items/privileges (generalised conditioned reinforcers). The money earned through employment is a form of generalised conditioned reinforcement because you can buy any number of things with it.

Tokens used within educational settings are typically “generalised conditioned reinforcers” as well, because they can be traded for a number of different items and activities. This is not always the case though. Sometimes a programme may be implemented where a specific type of token (e.g. red stars) can only be traded for specific activities/items (e.g. a special trip at the end of a school week).


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