What is What is Token Economy?

One of the most useful techniques in applied behaviour analysis is reinforcement. A system that uses positive reinforcement to improve or raise the frequency of a behaviour is known as a token economy. Its purpose is to teach kids which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. Akin to how money functions, a token economy works in a similar manner. By performing tasks or exhibiting desired behaviours (also known as “target behaviours”), a person might earn tokens. Then, the tokens are swapped for items the person values (known as a backup reinforcer). In the actual world, we are compensated for our labour (desired behaviour) with money (tokens). 

The money is only a piece of paper and has no intrinsic value. However, because we can use it to buy items we need or want, it has value (backup reinforcers). A backup reinforcer could be an activity or an item or privilege that the child likes and enjoys. The token economy works because the tokens become paired with the earning of the back-up reinforcers and the child only gets tokens for engaging in desired behaviours (Miltenberger, 2008). As a result, the desired behaviours ought to happen more frequently. As with any reinforcement scheme, picking a backup reinforcer that appeals to ASD kids is crucial. In order for the child to be enthusiastic about earning the tokens and receiving the prize, the backup reinforcer must be of significant value. A beneficial method to establish worthwhile reinforcers as backup reinforces is the use of preference assessments.

For whom it can be used?

Token reinforcement programs have been widely used in many studies within a classroom setting, as a means to manage classroom behaviours, (Birnbrauer, Wolf, Kidder, and Tague, 1965; McKensie, Clark, Wolf, Kothera, and Benson, 1968; O’Leary, Becker, Evans, and Saudargas, 1969). The main goal is to modify a behaviour. Reinforcement is used to increase the frequency of desired behaviours. It can also be used as a component of procedures that decrease challenging behaviour. In order to do this, a replacement behaviour needs to be established – that is, a behaviour the student can do instead of the inappropriate behaviour. 

For example, if a student hits their peers to get their attention in the classroom  (inappropriate behaviour), a replacement behaviour for hitting could be initiating with the peer by saying their name and making an appropriate statement (e.g., can I see that book). This replacement behaviour should have the same outcome, that of getting attention. In order to select the most appropriate and meaningful replacement behaviour, the therapist must know the function of the behaviour. Then, they need to choose a replacement behaviour for hitting that gets the student the same functional outcome. 

In order to implement a token economy, a board format needs to be used, as depicted in the schematic below. (Fig 1)

here are a lot of different types of token board and the most suitable one can be selected based on student level and preferences. Token economies can possibly take the form of sticker charts, chore charts, marble jars, etc. When it comes to selecting tokens, as suggested by the term, a physical object is implied, something that the student can hold in their hands. The tokens can consist of anything, as long as it is of special interest to the student. Some examples are: sea shells, toy cars, Legos, poker chips, stickers, laminated tokens or marbles, etc. Literature suggests that ticks on a simple sheet of paper could also be used, or a hole punched in a card, or a stamp put onto a card (Foxx, 1998). These non-physical tokens are sometimes called points (Miltenberger, 2008).

Advantages of a Token Economy System

According to Kazdin and Bootzin (1972, p. 343) and Miltenberger (2008), the use of tokens as a method of delivering reinforcement has a number of advantages. For example:

  • Reinforcers should be awarded during or immediately following the desired behaviour. Quite often, however, circumstances make this impossible or inappropriate. For example, handing out food would be inappropriate in the middle of a lesson. Therefore, token economy permits the reinforcement of the target behaviour at any time, bridging the gap between the behaviour and the backup reinforcer.
  • It keeps students engaged. Over time children can reach a satiation point when it comes to the reinforcers they receive repeatedly. Children often find a token economy fun and it helps reduce the number of times they receive the same reinforcer. 
  • It can be used with multiple children.  The teacher can provide the same reinforcement for students who have different preferences in back-up reinforcers.
  • A child’s future planning skills can be developed because different amounts of tokens need to be earned for different types of backup reinforcers and the tokens must be kept until enough have been earned. As mentioned earlier, the token economy is, essentially, the world economy. Thus, when students are taught that tokens have value, they will have an easier time understanding the value of money later in life.
  • Teaches delayed gratification. Students must earn several tokens to be able to earn the reinforcer. 
  • Is flexible. A token economy can be used to reinforce any behaviour. You can adjust the number of tokens required or even change the tokens and token boards according to each child’s interests.

Disadvantages of a Token Economy System

A token economy is an effective tool, but it might not be the best choice in all circumstances. This is because:

  • Tokens don’t have innate value. Even after trying to teach students the value of the token, they might struggle to understand this idea and become frustrated with this process.
  • A token economy takes planning. For a token economy system to work, quite a lot of planning is required ahead. So, the implementer needs to take this into consideration.
  • Students might lose interest or become frustrated. They might struggle to learn the value of the tokens, maybe the backup reinforcer might not be motivating, or the students do not earn tokens fast enough. If the system doesn’t seem to be working, a different backup reinforcer can be used, or adjustments need to be made in order to make it easier for students to earn the tokens. 

Provide some research about its previous use with children with ASD

To encourage social behaviours, children with Intellectual Disability (ID) and/or autism have typically been given token economies. The most frequently focused abilities for kids with ID have been those dealing with behaviour and school performance.

Therefore, the majority of the research reported in the literature has been based on behaviours including staying seated, making relevant remarks, finishing homework correctly, finishing activities on time, improving attention during test administration, and improving self-help skills (Matson et al., 2009). 

Conclusion remarks

Token economy incorporates principles of operant conditioning and behavioural economics and the main objective is the systematic reinforcement of a target behaviour. The aim is to teach children which behaviours are desired and which are not.

During the last 50 years, much research has been conducted on token economies and they have been used in multiple settings (classroom, group, etc) in ASD as much as in psychiatric or other developmental disorders. Token economies have advantages and disadvantages and careful consideration of each case needs to be done, in order to decide whether or not a token economy implementation would be suitable. 


Kazdin, A. (Ed.). (2012). The token economy: A review and evaluation.

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

McLaughlin, T. F., & Williams, R. L. (1988). The token economy. Handbook of behaviour therapy in education, 469-487.

Boniecki, K. A., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 30(3), 224-227.

Liberman, R. P. (2000). The token economy. American Journal of psychiatry, 157(9), 1398-1398.