Token Economy: Examples and Applications in ABA

Within the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), professionals use reinforcement to strengthen behavior. Decades of research support the use of token economy as a means of delivering reinforcement in a variety of settings to address diverse behaviors (Matson & Boisjoli, 2009; Boniecki & Moore, 2203; Carnett et al., 2014). Token economy offers a flexible way to deliver reinforcement to meet the needs of learners and interventionists.

Token economy is a reinforcement strategy where generalized reinforcers (tokens) are exchanged for backup reinforcers (something the learner wants). Interventionists create token economy systems that reinforce skills such as academics, communication, self-help, or prosocial behavior (Matson & Boisjoli, 2009). Research supports the use of token economy in various environments including schools, homes, summer camps, and inpatient programs. This broad applicability makes it an essential tool in your ABA toolbox.

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The World Economy as a Token Economy System

Token economy works much like our world economy where money serves as the token that allows for the purchase of backup reinforcers (i.e. anything we want of comparable value). As adults, we go to work to earn money. The money by itself isn’t worth anything. It’s a piece of paper or a lump of metal. But it has value because it can be exchanged for things we need and want. With money, we can buy food, shelter, and entertainment.

Watch this quick video comparing token economy to the world economy:

Viewing token economy from this perspective helps professionals utilize the strategy effectively. If you wouldn’t work all week for a few pretzels, don’t expect your learner to complete a mountain of work for something they don’t value. The amount of work needed to earn the tokens must match the learner’s perceived effort.

Introducing Token Economy

How you introduce token economy to your learner depends on many factors including the skills and interests of the learner, resources available, and who will deliver the tokens. You must first decide:

  • What tokens you will use
  • What criteria the learner must meet to earn a token
  • How many tokens the learner must earn to trade for the backup reinforcer
  • What backup reinforcers you will offer the learner

Token economies range from very simple to highly complex. Any system where generalized reinforcers (reinforcers with no inherent value) are exchanged for backup reinforcers (something of value to the individual). The right system depends on the skills of both the interventionist and the learner.

When to Use Token Economy

Although you can apply token economy widely, there are several factors to consider before choosing this type of reinforcement. Use token economy:

  • With learners who benefit from structured reinforcement
  • When you want to avoid an FR1 ratio of reinforcement, but your learner continues to require frequent reinforcement
  • You need an intervention that’s easy to use
  • When your learner quickly satiates on available tangible reinforcers

Token economy is effective for many different types of learners. Learners with a lot of language quickly develop an understanding of the value of tokens. Simply explain what they earn in exchange for a designated number of tokens. For children with sufficient language to understand when you explain the contingency, clearly spell out the criteria for earning tokens and what the choices the child has for a backup reinforcer. Many children, even those with a solid vocabulary, benefit from visual representations for both the expectations and the reinforcer choices.

How to teach that tokens have value

For learners with more limited language abilities, token economy can still be an effective intervention, but you must teach the value of tokens in a different way. For these learners:

  1. Begin with a simple token board that clearly shows where tokens belong on the board.
  2. Remove only 1 token for the board.
  3. When the learner earns a token, provide immediate tangible reinforcement along with the token and verbal praise “Nice work! You earned a token! Here’s ____.”
  4. After the learner has several opportunities to earn the identified reinforcer, remove 2 tokens from the board.
  5. When the learner earns the first token, pair that token with a reinforcer (ideally something edible or something else you don’t need to remove such as physical touch) along with verbal praise “You did it! You earned a token! One more to go!”
  6. When the learner earns the second token, provide immediate tangible reinforcement along with the token and verbal praise “Nice work! You earned a token! Here’s ____.”
  7. Continue to pair tokens with established reinforcers while gradually removing more tokens from the board until the learner needs to earn all tokens on his board to exchange for the backup reinforcer.
  8. Gradually reduce pairing the token with other tangible reinforcers, but continue to pair them with verbal praise.

Creating Token Systems that Motivate

Tokens can be physical objects such as a coin, poker chip, ticket, or sticker, or even a checkmark on a board or piece of paper. With a little creativity, you can create a token system that motivates your learner beyond receiving the backup reinforcer. Carnett et al. (2014) discovered that using tokens of perseverative interests of the learner resulted in a greater treatment effect. What this means is that if your learner has a special interest in a particular topic, you should use that topic to create your token economy system.

Token Economy and Intrinsic Motivation

When you begin using reinforcement, motivation comes from external sources (the reinforcer). The child completes the task and receives a reinforcer as a result. As the child becomes comfortable with the use of reinforcement, switching to a token economy system delays the reinforcement. Over time you can thin the reinforcement as the child builds intrinsic motivation.

As professionals, we often hear questions such as: 

“Wouldn’t it be better if the child were intrinsically motivated to do the things you wanted him to do?”

The answer to this question is both yes and no. If the child is not already intrinsically motivated to do something, the chances of that just starting to happen is minimal, especially if that child has autism. In reality, we all require some external motivation for various tasks we don’t want to do. Additionally, using some of the techniques of ABA, you can begin to build some of this intrinsic motivation.

According to Verywell Mind, “intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards” When someone is intrinsically motivated to engage in a particular behavior, the individual finds that behavior to be naturally satisfying.  The behavior is its own reinforcer.

Many children are intrinsically motivated to please their parents or teachers; however, many children with autism are not motivated by these social factors.  Children with autism experience social deficits that often impact the value of social interactions.

ABA steps in when intrinsic motivation is insufficient. Through the use of techniques such as token economy, pairing and thinning of reinforcement schedules, you can help build intrinsic motivation for a wide variety of behaviors.

Token Economy Example to Build Intrinsic Motivation

Take a look at this example of token economy in practice:

You want to teach your client, Craig, to become more intrinsically motivated to complete a puzzle. You chose this activity because Craig struggles with engaging in appropriate leisure activities and often engages in challenging behavior when he has nothing to do. Currently, Craig completes a 12 piece jigsaw puzzle and receives a Goldfish cracker after he puts together each piece. It takes him about 5 minutes to finish the puzzle.

You find a 24 piece puzzle and get started. You set out a token board with 12 tokens. Initially, you pair each token with a Goldfish cracker and when Craig earns all 12 tokens, he will trade them in for 3 minutes of his favorite video. For this first puzzle, he earns a token for each piece he puts together and with each token, he gets a cracker. He stops the puzzle halfway through to watch the video and earns another 3 minutes when he completes the puzzle. This puzzle took him 20 minutes to complete and he appeared happy to get the Goldfish and watch the video.

Thinning the Schedule

Over time, you thin the schedule of reinforcement using the token economy system. He begins to earn a toke for every 2 pieces he puts together, then every 3. You continue to pair the tokens with social praise and incorporate social praise in between the delivery of tokens.

Over time, Craig begins to tackle 50 piece puzzles and completes the whole puzzle before earning a token. Through the process of pairing with reinforcement and thinning the schedule of reinforcement, Craig has become somewhat intrinsically motivated to complete the puzzle. With continued exposure to this pairing process, the puzzle itself may actually be able to serve as a reinforcer.

Learn More about Intrinsic Motivation and Token Economy

Research shows that social reinforcement may lead to greater intrinsic motivation. The question remains for children with autism, how do you build the value of social exchanges for children who have significant social deficits. The use of token economy and pairing may be part of the answer. Check out these articles to learn more about token economy:

Ayllon, Teodoro & Azrin, Nathan. The Token Economy: A Motivational System for Therapy and Rehabilitation. Appleton Century Crofts (June 1968).

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade laterJournal of applied behavior analysis, 15(3), 431-445.

McLaughlin, T. F., & Malaby, J. (1972). INTRINSIC REINFORCERS IN A CLASSROOM TOKEN ECONOMY 1Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 5(3), 263-270.

Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequityJournal of personality and social psychology, 22(1), 113.

Token Economy Examples

For some learners, simple token boards encourage learners to work to collect their tokens to earn the backup reinforcer. Many of us are familiar with the type of token board pictured below. There is a spot to indicate what the learner is working for as well as 4 spaces to show the learner must earn 4 tokens to exchange for the backup reinforcer.

While the board above might result in improved responding, using a fun token board improves motivation and the value of tokens beyond the value of the backup reinforcer. A board such as the one pictured below holds the interest of a child who enjoys rockets (you can download this one below).

token board for token economy

With access to technology increasing across environments, and the interest so many learners have in technology, consider using a digital animated token board. The video below shows a demonstration of some premade animated token boards available on Teachers Pay Teachers. They are easy to use on any device such as a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The video below shows you how you can make your own animated token boards in Keynote. Although the video demonstrates how to do it in Keynote, many of the steps are the same in PowerPoint.

The following video describes the use of token economy and provides an example of using a digital token board when doing compliance training with a learner:

Examples of Token Economy at Home

Token economy is a great intervention to use at home. It’s easy for parents to implement and doesn’t require extensive resources. It’s a flexible intervention that parents can apply to a variety of behaviors so they don’t need to learn a whole array of interventions.

Simple token systems

Simple token boards like the ones above can be used to reinforce cooperative behavior, homework completion, or even play skills. Parents who don’t have access to a laminator or who would prefer not to spend the time creating a token board can easily purchase them on Amazon.

Parents should identify which behavior they want to reinforce. Limiting the delivery of tokens for only one behavior increases the chance of successful implementation. Parents can reinforce:

  • Turn-taking
  • Steps for brushing teeth
  • Sitting at the table for mealtime (deliver the token every x minutes)
  • Cleaning up toys
  • Following directions
  • Generalization of ABA programming such as motor imitation or listener responding programs

Once parents know what behavior to reinforce, they need to select backup reinforcers. Many learners enjoy a “prize box” filled with small items (usually from a dollar store) that they can choose from when they earn a reward, but if parents deliver tokens frequently, this becomes unmanageable. Parents often know what motivates their child, but struggle with limiting access to these things, making them ineffective reinforcers. Learners must only have access to the backup reinforcers for the token economy only when they earn them through the token board. The more frequently parents deliver tokens, the smaller the reinforcer they should offer. Possible reinforcers include:

  • Time with a favorite toy
  • A special art project with a parent or sibling
  • TV or video game time
  • A balloon
  • Making a silly video with a parent and then watching it
  • Bubbles
  • Time outside
  • Taking a walk
  • A favorite treat

Jar System

Sometimes your learner wants something bigger and must earn it over time.  Your learner may be ready for this if he already has an understanding of token economy. Building on this foundation you can teach him the jar system.

Here’s an example of the jar system:

  1. Identify what your learner wants to work for (i.e. a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, a game for his game system, going to the movies, etc You may need to work with the learner’s caregiver to identify a reinforcer that will be meaningful)
  2. Find a clear plastic jar and many small items you will use to fill the jar (i.e. colorful pom poms, unifix cubes, colorful pebbles, etc.).  The size of the jar will depend on the size of the items you choose to fill the jar.  You want the jar big enough to holed 20-30 of the items, but not so big it would take 100 items to fill the jar.
  3. Each time you see your learner engage in the target behavior give him one of the small items.  State clearly what he did that you noticed.  For example, “You did such a great job putting your shoes on when I asked!  Great job!  Here’s a pom pom for your jar!”
  4. Your learner should collect these items in the jar.
  5. When the jar is full, he has earned the reinforcer he was working for (identified in step 1 above).

This system works best for children with some advanced language comprehension skills, but you can adapt it to help children who don’t communicate verbally.  For these children, start much smaller and work up to your learner understanding this type of system.  Take your time and wait for your learner to be ready so you don’t frustrate him or yourself.

Get Creative!

You can be creative with the jar system to keep your learner interested and motivated.  If your learner wants to go to Chuck E. Cheese, schedule a time when her caregiver can take her that’s maybe 2 weeks away.  Ask the caregiver to pre-buy  the maximum number of game tokens they are willing to let your learner have.  Each time you see your learner engaging in the target behavior give him one of the tokens to put in the jar.  When it’s time for the big trip to the restaurant, he can use all of the tokens in the jar.  Instruct the caregiver not to buy more tokens while they are there.

Helpful Tips for a Token Economy or Jar System

  • Once your learner earns a token or a piece for the jar, do not take them away for bad behavior.
  • When first teaching the system, be generous with the tokens or pieces for the jar so that he is able to earn the reinforcer quickly.
  • Always tell your learner what he did to earn the token or piece for the jar.
  • Be enthusiastic when giving praise.
  • Don’t argue, negotiate with, or scold your learner when they are not engaging in the target behavior.

More complex token systems

Learners who have more advanced skills may benefit from a point or other system where learners can access a bigger reward. Parents again, should choose which behavior to reinforce, but with a more complex system could choose more than one behavior. For example, the parent may award points for completing chores and being kind to a sibling as long as the learner understands which behaviors earn reinforcement.

While parents can tally points on a dry erase board or add pom poms to a jar to show progress toward a goal, the system below, Amazon provides a simple solution for rewarding multiple behaviors. Parents can assign a behavior to each color, then set the goal for each behavior by adjusting the ring. Parents can attach different rewards to each behavior or allow their child to work toward one big goal. This more complex system can reinforce behavior across a longer amount of time such as a week or even a month.

Behaviors appropriate for this type of system include:
  • Homework completion
  • Chores
  • Sleeping in their own bed
  • Leaving for school without problem behavior
  • Completing the bedtime routine each night

Since it takes learners a longer amount of time to contact reinforcement, the reinforcer offered should match the learner’s perceived effort. Again, parents must limit access to the selected reinforcers when the learner hasn’t yet earned the reward. Parents can get creative to keep their child motivated. Reinforcers might include:

  • A trip to a favorite arcade, restaurant, or zoo
  • Video game time with a parent
  • A special toy they have wanted from the store
  • A trip to see something of special interest in the community (such as the UPS store for a child whose special interest is shipping)

Token economy is a great tool for use by parents. Help them come up with fun ideas to motivate their child to do those things he’s struggling to do.

Examples of Token Economy at School

In much the same way that token economies benefit parents at home, they are a wonderful tool for teachers at school. Teachers can create simple systems for individual learners or develop a more complex system to address the behavior of each student in the class. Teachers can reinforce behaviors such as:

  • Homework completion
  • Raising a hand for a turn to speak
  • Sitting quietly
  • Staying on task
  • Walking quietly in the hallway
  • Following directions
  • Helping a peer
  • Cleaning up materials
  • Completion of academic tasks
  • Standing safely in line

Teachers are busy and are pulled in many different directions at once. Token economy lends itself for the quick delivery of reinforcement throughout the day with more time spent delivering the backup reinforcer at a more convenient time. Backup reinforcers in schools may include:

  • Items selected from a prize box or “store”
  • Lunch with the teacher
  • Extra recess time
  • Time spent with a favorite toy
  • A movie party
  • Game time

Teachers can deliver reinforcers to the class as a whole or to individual students depending on the needs of her class. The flexibility of token economy allows teachers to use the intervention as needed and then change the intervention as the needs of the class change.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Token Economy

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Teaches delayed gratificationTokens don’t have innate value
Is flexibleA token economy takes planning
Allows you to reinforce behaviors when the backup reinforcer isn’t availableYour learner might lose interest or become frustrated
Keeps your learner engaged
Can be used with multiple children
Is consistent
Teaches a real-world concept

Advantages

  • Teaches delayed gratification. Your learner doesn’t get the reinforcer immediately. He must earn several tokens to be able to earn the reinforcer. This makes a token economy a natural next step after you begin using reinforcement routinely with your learner.
  • Is flexible. A token economy is a framework that can be used to reinforce any behavior. You can require as many tokens, or as few, as is appropriate for the learner and the task. You can use any small items as a token, which allows you to choose items that may be of interest to your learner. You can purchase a token board or easily create one yourself.
  • Allows you to reinforce behaviors when the backup reinforcer isn’t available. With reinforcement you need to reinforce the behavior as soon as it happens. If your backup reinforcer isn’t something that is immediately available all the time, tokens can help bridge the gap between the behavior and the backup reinforcer.
  • Keeps your learner engaged. Over time children tend to become satiated or bored with reinforcers they receive all the time. Children often find a token economy fun and helps reduce the number of times the learner receives the backup reinforcer.
  • Can be used with multiple children. A token economy is easy to use with multiple children who might be working toward different backup reinforcers.
  • Is consistent. Planning a token economy helps keep you and others working with your learner reinforcing behavior consistently. This is the best way to ensure effective change.
  • Teaches a real-world concept. The world economy is essentially a token economy. When you teach your learner that tokens have value, he will have an easier time understanding the value of money as he gets older.

Disadvantages

  • Tokens don’t have innate value. Even after trying to teach your learner the value of the token, he might struggle to understand this idea and become frustrated with this process.
  • A token economy takes planning. For a token economy to be effective you need to be sure your learner can receive, store and keep track of his tokens any time he completes the task or behavior. You need to plan ahead to be sure you can achieve this.
  • Your learner might lose interest or become frustrated. If he doesn’t learn the value in the tokens, the backup reinforcer isn’t motivating or your learner doesn’t earn tokens fast enough, he might lose interest or become frustrated with a token economy. If your system doesn’t seem to be working try choosing a different backup reinforcer or making it easier for your learner to earn the tokens. You can continue to adjust over time as your learner becomes more comfortable with the process.

Other Considerations for Token Economy

While token economy is a simple intervention, may factors influence its effectiveness.

Thinning the Schedule of Reinforcement with Token Economy

Token economies allow for a structured way to thin the schedule of reinforcement without losing the effectiveness of the reinforcer. A child who progresses from a dense schedule of reinforcement to a thinner schedule may show reduced responding as the response effort needed to achieve reinforcement increases. Token economy can mitigate this effect by providing some lower quality reinforcement between the delivery of the actual reinforcer. When thinning the schedule, ensure to do so gradually to maintain the reinforcing value.

Here’s an example:

You successfully thinned the schedule of reinforcement from a FR1 to a FR4 without a noticeable decrease in responding. When you continued to thin the schedule, you observed an increase in problem behavior and a decrease in responding. You introduce the token board with 4 tokens. After teaching your client about the value of tokens, you gradually begin to deliver tokens on a VR2 schedule, leading to delivery of the actual reinforcer on a VR8 schedule.

For more information about schedules of reinforcement, read our post: Understanding Consequence Interventions: Punishment vs Reinforcement.

Satiation of the Reinforcer Options

Most children eventually become satiated on reinforcers you present over and over again. Preferences also change over time. For this reason, you should conduct regular preference or reinforcer assessments. If you’re not sure what the difference is, read this post Choosing Reinforcers: Reinforcer Assessments or Preference Assessments.

For many children, frequent preference assessments are necessary to maintain motivation. Children with sufficient vocabulary may simply tell you what they want to work for. Other children need a more structured assessment.

References and Further Reading

Boniecki, K. A., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participationTeaching of Psychology30(3), 224-227.

Carnett, A., Raulston, T., Lang, R., Tostanoski, A., Lee, A., Sigafoos, J., & Machalicek, W. (2014). Effects of a perseverative interest-based token economy on challenging and on-task behavior in a child with autismJournal of Behavioral Education23(3), 368-377.

Doll, C., McLaughlin, T. F., & Barretto, A. (2013). The token economy: A recent review and evaluationInternational Journal of basic and applied science2(1), 131-149.

Matson, J. L., & Boisjoli, J. A. (2009). The token economy for children with intellectual disability and/or autism: A review. Research in Developmental Disabilities30(2), 240-248.

National Autism Center. (2009). National standards report. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/

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