Token Economies

Use for Positive Behavior Interventions

Most students gain a sense of security when their environments are consistent, predictable, and have clearly defined expectations. As such, the use of a token system, which incorporates the principles of consistency, predictability, structure, appropriate expectations, and positive reinforcement, can be an effective tool for some students. A token economy is a visual support which:

  1. Is a permanent reminder of the identified classroom rules and expected behavior
  2. Provides concrete feedback on demonstration of desired behavior(s)
  3. Allows a student to see and understand when they will access reinforcement

Construction of a Token Economy

  • Because a token economy is a visual support, they are typically placed on a small sheet of paper that a student can carry with them or have on their desk. It includes a visual representation of the rules and tokens that are provided. Tokens can be chips, coins, pictures, or simply stars drawn on a paper.
  • The student must be taught that the tokens have value and can be exchanged for reinforcers at a designated period. Some students may acquire this through a verbal explanation; others will require direct instruction.
  • Identify specific rules and/or behaviors to target. Place these on the token economy board, so the student can reference them. These rules/behaviors may be text or visual, whatever is appropriate for the student's developmental level.
    • Initially, only one or two rules/behaviors should be taught at a time. The student should demonstrate these behaviors consistently before introducing additional behaviors.
  • Actively teach these specific rules and behaviors; it should not be assumed that the student "just knows" what to do. Rules/behaviors should be stated in a positive manner that is incompatible with challenging behaviors and it should be clear what a student needs to do when demonstrating the behavior. If a general or umbrella term is used to describe multiple behaviors (e.g., quiet working, friendly talking), these individual components must be specified and taught to the student. Rules should be stated or reviewed before the student begins work. For example, before the student begins a lesson, the teacher would state, "Jordan, the rule is you must work quietly and stay sitting at your desk." The student would be reinforced for following those rules.

Using the Token Economy

Step 1

Use the token economy in a positive manner. Evaluate students regarding the appropriateness of their behavior and whether they demonstrate the predetermined behavioral criteria. If the student meets the criteria, the teacher or instructional assistant provides a token paired with positive feedback: "You worked quietly and kept hands and feet to self. Great!"

  • Remember to provide tokens for the specified rules or behaviors. Token economies should target specific behaviors identified to increase. When tokens are given randomly, particularly when not accompanied by additional feedback, the student will not connect earning a token with specific desired behavior.
  • If using a marker to provide the token, do not mark sad faces, Xs, etc., for challenging behavior. Additionally, never remove tokens which have already been earned. If a student questions why they did not earn a token, restate the rules for earning the token and focus on earning it for the next opportunity. Refrain from telling the student what they did "wrong".

Step 2

If the student begins to engage in challenging behavior, they can be redirected by referring to the appropriate rule while being reminded how to can earn tokens and reinforcers. For example, if it appears that the student is not following directions, the teacher could say, "How do you earn your token, Anita? (by following directions)."

Step 3

Determining the interval at which students can turn their tokens in to access reinforcers must be based on the student's ability to meet behavioral goals, delay reinforcement, and how frequently they need to access their reinforcer. Some students may need to access reinforcers more frequently than others. Additionally, when first teaching the token economy, students should access reinforcers more frequently to learn the system, eventually the frequency may be decreased.

Step 4

If the student is consistently not receiving tokens, the teacher needs to determine why. Some reasons could be that:

  • the student needs to have his chart reviewed on a more frequent basis,
  • the goals/expectations may need to be modified,
  • the student does not understand the goals or needs more direct teaching of the behaviors,
  • the student has satiated on the reinforcer or does not actually find it reinforcing at all.

On the other hand, if the student is easily earning the tokens, the time interval can be increased in successive increments.

Originally created by Wright, Cook and Morton from PENT document "Using Star Charts for Positive Behavior Intervention." Adapted here to ensure accessibility.