The world we live in uses various token economies regularly where we earn money and exchange that money for something we want. In the field of ABA, the token economy can be applied in the same way. Behavior Frontiers (2011), stated “a token economy is a system in which tokens are earned for appropriate behaviors and exchanged later for reinforcers.” This is a useful tool to work on an individual’s attending skills, task completion, or display of the desired behaviors.
According to Cooper and his associates from Ohio State University (Cooper et al., 2007), there are 6 steps to set up a token economy:
- Select tokens
- Identify the target behaviors or rules
- Select the backup reinforcers
- Establish the ratio of exchange
- Establish a procedure for when and how tokens will be dispensed and exchanged
- Field test the system
1. Select tokens
When deciding what tokens an individual will earn it is best to use tokens that are engaging and age appropriate. For young kids, you can use their favorite characters as tokens. When I used this economy for one of my younger clients, we used the Cars Pixar characters as tokens. For older individuals, you can use stars, plastic chips, stickers, or other tokens that are aligned with their interest. When implementing the economy, here are some tips for teaching the individual about tokens:
- Show that the tokens have value.
- Establish that only you can provide access to the tokens
- The individual should not have access themselves without earning the tokens.
2. Identify the target behaviors and rules
When starting a token economy, it is best to start and focus on a small number of behaviors to work on. For one of my clients, I used a token economy to focus on an attending skill. With the token economy, I provided the tokens only when the client displayed the behaviors that supported the client was attending. As I provided each token, I paired it with social praise and informed the client why they were given the token, such as: “Nice sitting in your chair!”. The focus of the token economy should on those behaviors or skills that would benefit the individual the most.
3. Select the backup reinforcers
After identifying the target behaviors, you will then use a preference assessment to establish backup reinforcers that can be used as the main reinforcing item or activity. When conducting a preference assessment, be sure to have items or activities that are valuable and motivating for the individual to work towards. As you conduct the preference assessment for the backup reinforcers, here are some tips:
- Be sure to have a variety of backup reinforcers. Depending on the individual’s age, they can range and may include some of the following:
- Tangible items (Example: playing with a new toy)
- Edibles (Example: potato chips)
- Activities (Example: water play)
- Privileges (Example: Using the iPad)
- Services (Example: Pass to have breakfast in bed)
- Use the backup reinforcers specifically for the token economy
- If the individual receives the reinforcer outside the token economy, it will no longer be motivating for the individual to work towards if the token economy is still being implemented.
- If you plan to use larger rewards, for example movie night or buying a new game, be sure to plan them ahead of time and have them available strategically upon earning the reward.
4. Establish the ratio of exchange
In this step you will determine how many tokens will need to be earned to acquire the reinforcer. When you begin implementing the token economy, start by teaching it on a small scale by having the individual earn a small number of tokens. When I started to implement a token economy, I showed the individual that in order to gain the reinforcer they will need to earn 5 tokens, with only one or two boxes left empty. As you are teaching the individual about the token economy and what it stands for, here are some tips:
- Start by providing a small number of tokens at a quick pace
- Once the individual understands and becomes accustomed to how the token economy works you can then increase the number of tokens the individual will need to earn the valued reinforcer.
5. Establish a procedure for when and how tokens will be dispensed and exchanged
In my experience, I provided the tokens only when the individual displayed the appropriate behaviors and stored them on a token board. Another way to store the earned tokens can be through a jar. Once the individual gains the required number of tokens it can then be exchanged for the valued reinforcer. When beginning implementation of the token economy, it will be important to teach the individual how to use it and the benefits it will bring to them. To see an example on how a token economy is implemented, please click here.
6. Field test the system
Before implementing the token economy, it is best to first do a practice run by using a tally board and see how many tallies you would give for the individual displaying the appropriate behaviors.
Have you used a token economy? If so, do you have any other suggestions or helpful hints to share?
Check out other Behavior Therapy related blogs on our site:
Behavior Frontiers. (2011, June 17). Token Economy – Autism Therapy Video [Video]. YouTube.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Token Economy, Group Contingencies, and Contingency Contracting. Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Pearson