The Token Economy
Token economies can be an effective way to manage contingencies in schools, home and the community. They are systems in which a child earns “tokens” that can be exchanged for a variety of preferred items. (Sound familiar? Our monetary system is a token economy!) They can help children with and without disabilities learn to follow rules, complete certain tasks and engage in appropriate social behavior. While token economies are similar to more general reward systems there are certain guidelines that one has to follow in order for them to be effective in increasing desired behavior.
Step 1: Pick and define the target behavior
Pick a desirable behavior to strengthen. What behavior do you want to see decrease and what behavior is going to be used to replace the undesired behavior? For example, targeting task completion for a student that is not completing work during class. After the target behavior is chosen, it is time to operationally define the behavior. In order to define a target behavior properly, it must be clear, objective, and complete. It is important to have the target behavior operationally defined that way everyone involved knows exactly what they are looking for and what the schedule of reinforcement is.
Step 2: Identify what to use as a token
You cannot have a token economy without the tokens! But how do you pick out what to use as a token?
First, make sure it is tangible. The tokens have to be delivered immediately so it is important that whatever is chosen as the token is practical. Some common items that are used for tokens are check marks, stickers and money. Though these are definitely not the only items that can be used. When picking out the perfect token, make sure not to pick something that can be counterfeited or that they can receive from somewhere else.
Step 3: Identify the backup Reinforcers
What is a backup reinforcer? These are the items that the child will earn when they exchange their tokens. When selecting backup reinforcers, it is important to choose items or activities based off of the child’s preferences. You can develop a list of preferred items by conducting a preference assessment with the child. Another important thing to remember when selecting the backup reinforcers is to make sure the items are only available when being purchased with the tokens. After you have selected reinforcers, it is time to determine how often the tokens will be delivered.
Step 4: Set up the Reinforcement Schedule
The initial schedule of reinforcement should be high; meaning the child can earn the backup reinforcers quickly. This allows them to be successful with the system early on. However, we don’t want to keep this schedule forever. Once the child has been successful you want to require more for the same number of tokens.
Step 5: Token Exchange Rate
There are several parts to this step.
First, start by determining the maximum number of tokens that can be earned. Once this has been determined, set some prices for the items being used as backup reinforcers. For example, smaller items are worth less tokens then the bigger items.
Step 6: Time and Place for exchanging the Tokens
Last but not least, where to put all of these backup reinforcers:
- Create a token store- Choose a designated area to keep all of the items chosen from the preference assessment and allow the client to enter the store once they have earned the predetermined number of tokens they need to purchase a reinforcer.
- Reinforcer Menu – Create with the backup reinforcer items that the client can choose from. You can use pictures of the items or if the client can read, make a list. This gives the client a visual of what they are working for.
When implementing a token economy, it is key to be consistent with the delivery of reinforcement as well as making sure the backup reinforcers chosen hold value to the client. We hope this blog helped break down the steps of how to create and implement a token economy!
For more resources on token economies visit the following:
VCU Autism Center for Excellence
How to: Token Economies
Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities
Token Economy: Tips and Resources for Teachers