by Tom McIntyre
One of the most often used behavior management
techniques, especially in settings for students who have learning
or behavioral difficulties, is the token economy system. A token
economy involves awarding tokens, chips, stickers, check marks,
points, or other items/markings to students who demonstrate desired
behaviors identified by the teacher. Students may periodically exchange
the tokens for rewards, which are items or activities desirable
to them. It is often compared to a national economic system in which
we work for money, which has no value in and of itself, and later
exchange it for items and activities that are valuable to us.
Token economies are often quite effective for
students who are resistant to other types of motivational or behavior
management techniques. Other benefits of this system are ease of
administration, the use of immediate reinforcement (tokens) while
teaching delayed gratification (holding tokens until trade-in time),
lack of boredom or satiation for the student due to the availability
of a variety of back-up reinforcers, and lack of competition between
students as they compete only against themselves.
When a token economy is used for one or a few
students only, it is often devised through a contract. Procedures
for implementing this variation are presented in the link on the
home page (www.BehaviorAdvisor.com) titled "Contracts".
In this version, along with a token economy for groups, the tokens
are periodically devalued so that the students must perform at a
higher level to earn the same value in back-up reinforcers. This
stiffening of requirements promotes continual improvement in behavior
or performance by the students. Token economies have great flexibility
and utility; they have been shown in research studies to be effective
with students with various kinds and severities of disabling conditions.
Perhaps the reason it is so effective is that a token or check mark
is visible evidence of progress. It also reminds the student to
display proper behavior, and assures that the teacher will notice
appropriate behavior and interact with the student in a positive
How to Use Token Economies
1. Select the behaviors to be rewarded. The behaviors
to be reinforced should be in concert with classroom rules and guidelines.
2. State the desired behaviors in specific and
observable terms. Phrase them in a positive manner. Be sure to tell
the student what to do, rather than what not to do (e.g., "Raise
hand before talking" rather than "No speaking out").
3. Decide how you will measure the behaviors (e.g.,
percentage correct, number of minutes engaged in proper behavior,
number of times student displays appropriate behavior).
4. Decide where to monitor the behaviors (e.g.,
only in the classroom or also in the lunchroom and on the bus).
5. Select the initial reinforcer. Use a reinforcer
that is easy to administer and convenient to store. Devise a token/item/marking
that will inhibit theft or counterfeiting.
6. Select your back-up reinforcers. Involve your
students in the selection to insure that the reinforcers will be
perceived as being valuable. (For instance, have the students list
things that they would work to obtain, or complete one of the many
published reinforcement inventories, or set out possible reinforcers
and observe which ones are selected most often.) Be sure that the
reinforcers are appropriate. Consider educational value, cost, possible
misuse, or danger involved.
7. Place a price (in tokens) on your back-up reinforcers.
Record the actual price of any purchased items. Higher priced items
will demand more tokens. Place a value on back-up reinforcers (the
rewards) that are activity-oriented such as free time, listening
to music, or painting. Develop a wall chart that lists the number
of tokens needed to purchase each back-up reinforcer.
8. Place a value on the tokens. Give the tokens
a value that is worth more now than in the future. As students begin
to function more appropriately, tokens will have to be devalued
to motivate the kids to improve continually. Next, develop a wall
chart that lists the number of tokens to be given for each desired
behavior, and decide whether inappropriate behavior will result
only in a withholding of tokens or whether you will place a fine
and take away tokens for that misconduct. If the latter is the case,
make a wall chart that indicates the amount to be fined for each
9. Finalize the details by developing your own
monitoring sheet to keep track of awards and fines, and deciding
how often and when tokens can be exchanged for back-up reinforcers
(e.g., at the end of each day, at the end of each week). Develop
storage containers/procedures for yourself and the students and
devise a method for displaying the back-up reinforcers.
10. Start your program. Have the materials ready
to show to students as you explain the program in language that
they can understand. Make your presentation very positive and upbeat.
Post the wall charts and review them periodically. Implement the
program, providing the tokens as soon as they are earned. Add to
your back-up reinforcer menu as necessary.
11. Periodically modify your system to wean your
students from the token economy. This change usually involves requiring
more positive behavior for a longer period of time in order to obtain
a check mark or token.
Activities and Discussion Questions
1. List twenty-five items that could be used as
tokens in a token economy.
2. Make a reinforcement inventory to determine
the rewards desired by your students. Use open-ended sentences (e.g.,
"If I had 15 minutes of free time, I would like to...")
and choices (e.g., "Given free time, which would you rather
do? (a) talk with a friend; (b) play a game; (c) read; (d) listen
to music). List only those choices that you would allow in your
3. Complete steps 1 through 9 in the above section
titled How to Use Token Economies. Make all the materials and indicate
which items you would use for tokens and back-up reinforcers. Write
your spoken introduction of the system to the students.
4. With another person, role play the introduction
to the youngsters regarding the new program.
5. A parent feels that your token economy is bribery.
How do you respond to this parent?
6. Hamilton comes to you to report that someone
stole his tokens. How can you prevent theft from occurring in the
7. You caught Jeff bringing poker chips from home
that look like the ones you use to reinforce students. You had this
problem once before when you gave check marks and the students made
their own. How can you prevent this behavior?
8. Is it fair to take away tokens that have already
been earned by the student? Shouldn't he be able to keep tokens
he has earned previously by displaying appropriate behavior?
Click here for the full
range of autism and Asperger's fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
Reproduced with permission of author Tom McIntyre from his site