Using Token Economy to Build Intrinsic Motivation

Reinforcement is the cornerstone of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). When used effectively, reinforcement increases those behaviors you want to teach. You use the promise of a reinforcer to drive motivation. In the same way, you can use token economy to build 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.

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

Token economy is an intervention that is considered “evidence-based” due to the substantial research demonstrating its effectiveness. While there are many important benefits of token economy, let’s look at how it builds intrinsic motivation.

Token economy helps children accept delayed reinforcement. It thins the schedule of reinforcement by teaching that “tokens” have value when traded in for a backup reinforcer. Instead of earning access to a reinforcer after each target behavior, the child earns a token for the behavior and can trade those tokens in after the child earns the predetermined number of tokens.


Our economy is an example of a token system in practice. We work to earn money. The money is a token that can buy us things that we want such as food and shelter. Money has value to us because we associate it with the things we can get with it.

Children with autism may struggle in the beginning with understanding this connection. When introducing token economy for the first time the child needs to be taught that the token itself has value. We do this through pairing.

You can further add value to the token by choosing tokens that match a child’s interests. Money or coins may not be motivating to the child. If the child is interested in Matchbox cars, for example, you can use a car as a token. If the child’s interest falls to something too large to use as a token use a picture of that item instead. A little creativity can increase the child’s interest in earning the token.

Once you’ve chosen the token, use pairing of the token with another reinforcer to teach the child that the token has value.


Pairing is a technique used in ABA. When something is “paired” with a reinforcer, the child begins to associate the item with the reinforcer and it begins to take on some of the value of the reinforcer. This technique serves many useful functions within ABA, but here we will focus on how it relates to token economy.

When first introducing token economy to children, it may be necessary to pair the delivery of the token with something tangible (i.e. an edible) to establish the value of the tokens. When you also pair the delivery of tokens with social praise, the social praise begins to build value.

This process takes time and repetition. The more often you pair the item or task with reinforcement, the more effective the intervention. Contrive opportunities for this pairing to occur as often as possible.

Token Economy Example

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

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.