Token Economies – What They Are and How to Use Them


  • Define the token economy and related concepts
  • Describe how to implement token economies
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages related to token economies
  • Review research on token economies

What is a Token Economy

  • A system of generalized conditioned reinforcers
  • The individual that receives the generalized reinforcer can save and exchange them for a variety of backup reinforcers
  • In other words, the individual earns those generalized reinforcers (stickers, tokens, pennies, points, etc) which can then be exchanged for an actual reward (i.e., a break, an activity, an item, money, etc.). Food, etc.


  • Unconditioned Reinforcer: A stimulus whose reinforcing value is rooted in our biology (it is naturally rewarding)  Unconditioned reinforcers are also called primary reinforcers and require no learning to know that they are reinforcing or positive for “me”.
  • Conditioned Reinforcer: A stimulus that acquired its reinforcing value by being paired with other reinforcers. Conditioned reinforcers are also called secondary reinforcers or learned reinforcers and required pairing to understand their value and be positive for “me”. Such as social, hugs, tickles, activities, etc…
  • Generalized Conditioned Reinforcer: A learned reinforcer that is a reinforcer because it was paired with a large variety of other reinforcers. In other words, it is something that the individual values because it can be traded in for things that they want to gain. E.g. money
  • Back-up Reinforcer: The reinforcer that is paired with a conditioned reinforcer or a generalized conditioned reinforcer.

What type of procedure is a token economy?

  • Tokens are often arbitrary with respect to the function of the behavior being treated
    • Back up reinforcers usually do not correspond to the identified function of behavior (It can, but it doesn’t have to, and it usually doesn’t)
  • It is partially an antecedent modification
    • Tokens and token charts/boards can be discriminative stimuli
  • It is also partially a consequence manipulation
    • Tokens are earned as a consequence for adaptive behavior
    • Tokens can be removed as a consequence for challenging behavior

Who can benefit from a token economy?

  • Individuals with learning or behavioral difficulties
  • And anyone. They can be adapted to fit all learners

Where can they be implemented?

  • Instructional and therapeutic settings, across the home, school, community, literally anywhere (the BCBA will design with environment in mind)

When are they implemented?

  • When primary reinforcers cannot be used or when trying to move away from tangibles or activities as sole reinforcers
  • Additionally, when we are trying to increase a learner’s ability to wait. Delayed gratification.

In all cases, the RBT should follow the instructions and guidance of the BCBA

Advantages of a Token Economy

  • They are easy to use
  • Allows RBT/Therapists to give immediate reinforcement for behavior while delaying the actual reward
    • Teaches delayed gratification
  • Keeps the learner motivated because the tokens can be exchanged for a variety of back-up reinforcers
    • Which helps avoid becoming bored with the same items or satiated

Setting up a Token Economy

  • While the BCBA should be responsible for the design of the token economy, the RBT may be asked to assist with creating the materials and set-up

Identify Target Behavior(s)

  • Select a desired skill or behavior to be reinforced
  • The desired behaviors should be stated in positive terms that the individual can easily understand
    • Always phrase in the positive
    • Be sure to tell the individual what to do, rather than what not to do
    • For example, “Raise your hand before talking” rather than, “no speaking out”

Decide how you will measure the behaviors

  • Percentage correct (percent correct out of opportunities to be correct)
  • Number of minutes engaged in a proper behavior
  • Number of times student displays appropriate behavior

Decide Where to monitor the behaviors

  • Only during therapy sessions (no one else working on this?)
  • Only during particular lessons?
  • Only in the classroom? Playground?
    • This will depend on the behaviors being addressed and the child’s ability

Selecting the token that will be used for exchange

  • Use an item that is easy to administer and convenient to store: consider items the learner will like to look at, their favorite characters, colors –but keep it practical.
  • If necessary, devise a token/item/marking that will inhibit theft or counterfeiting
    • For example-Pennies (which can be found in other ways and the instructor loses control of the reward system)

Select your back up reinforcers

  • Involve the individual in the selection to insure that the reinforcers will be perceived as being valuable
  • May have them list things that they want to gain access to when finished (think about naturally occurring reinforcers given the environment)
  • Preference assessment, involving physical choice between items is most reliable (but this could be a non-tangible, like an early release from a non-preferred activity into a preferred activity)
    • Consider educational value, cost, possible misuse, or danger involved
  • Back-up reinforcers can be kept permanent or re-used
    • Individual may purchase the item with tokens and allowed to keep it, or
    • Individual may be allowed access to item, for a duration and then have to “return” it for later “purchase”
      • Practicality and logic and item cost will be the basis of this decision

For systems where the individual keeps the item:

  • Place a price (in tokens) on your back-up reinforcers
  • Place a value on back-up reinforcers (the rewards) that are activity-oriented such as free-time, listening to music, or painting
  • Can develop a wall chart that lists the numbers of tokens needed to purchase each back-up reinforcer

For systems where the individual returns the item:

  • Establish a collection of items “treasure box”/activities that the individual can earn
  • Set a standard value of tokens that the individual will need to earn to access the rewards
  • Individual can choose a reinforcer ahead of time from the collection to earn, or can choose after the tokens have been earned out of the “treasure box”
  • Once the individual earns a reinforcer, they use it for the specified period of time, then return it to the treasure box again.


As an individual begins to show improvement in the behavior target skill, gradually increase the the amount of work or positive behavior that they must show to gain the same value in back-up reinforcers

  • Either increase the amount tokens required to gain an item (i.e, 10 tokens for access to treasure chest instead of 5), or
  • Increase the amount of work needed to be completed to gain a token (i.e, 2 math problem completed instead of 1 to earn a token)
    • Increasing the expectation facilitates continual improvement in behavior (make sure increases are incremental and not so dramatic as not to upset the learner)

Develop the Actual Token Board

  • Decide if it will allow for a specified number of tokens or if it will be open ended

For learners just being introduced to the token system it may be better to use shorter duration systems, so that they earn rewards faster.

  • Make the tokens appealing to the learner
  • Make the design easy for the RBT and others to implement
    • Pennies in a jar
    • Stamps
    • Velcro stickers


  • The BCBA will determine if the individual will be only earning tokens or also losing them for inappropriate behaviors.
  • Meaning, that will occurrences of inappropriate behavior result in losing a token or only withholding the earning of tokens
  • It is generally best to avoid negative procedures such as taking tokens away that the individual has earned
  • Follow the specific instructions of the BCBA
  • Collect and store back-up reinforcers in a place that is easily accessible but out of reach of the client’s reach

Important: Whatever reinforcers have been chosen as the rewards for the token system should only be available to the client by earning tokens

If a parent/caregiver is reluctant to give up access to that reward than we need to find alternate rewards.

Introduce the Program

  • Have the materials ready to show the individual
  • Explain the token system in language they can understand
  • Make you presentation very positive and upbeat
    • Implement the program with success on the right foot!!!!
      • Providing tokens immediately as soon as they are earned
      • BCBA will indicate how frequently tokens should be earned (what is the specific schedule of reinforcement)
      • Initially, good idea to start giving tokens for every correct response or correct behavior
      • Pair praise with tokens, verbal, gestures and facial expressions
      • Be encouraging and positive
    • Ensure success for the first several days
      • Usually start with high ratio of reinforcement so the student is successful and buys into the system
      • May choose to reinforce both prompted and unprompted responses and then fade to only reinforcing unprompted responses
    • Add to your back-up reinforcers to prevent the individual from becoming bored

As the individual makes improvements, there are several options to progress the token economy

  • Add more skill targets/behaviors to the system
  • Increase the amount of work needed to gain tokens
  • Increase the amount of tokens to gain rewards
  • Increase the time delay between earning tokens and gaining the reward
  • Fade tokens by reminding the student of the rules and providing rewards later
  • Fade the reward to more natural reinforcement
    • Access to activity
    • Praise


Token economies are vast. They are as diverse and varied in purpose as the populations that they can be used for. From 3 year olds who earn 3 stars before going outside today to college students who earn grades spanning semesters. They can be as complex or simple as needed for any skill. Moreover, token systems can be highly individualized for each learner simply by using themes and characters that they love.

Other ideas:

  • Use the a picture of the desired item/activity as the token: Cut the picture into the predetermined number of tokens the leaner needs to earn to access the item and once all of the “puzzle” pieces are put back together the student gets their reward

What if the token economy system doesn’t work?

  • Update BCBA
  • If the learner is not motivated by the token economy, it may be for several reasons:
    • Individual is not motivated by the rewards
    • Token economy is too difficult (has too many tokens, requires too much work, especially initially)
    • Individual does not understand how to earn tokens (i.e., what the skill or behavior rule is)
    • Individual is getting access to the reward elsewhere
  • The RBT, with the guidance of the BCBA must identify which of these factors is the problem and make adjustments

Messing up a perfectly good token economy

  • Not assessing reinforcers prior to starting the token system
    • Initially and ongoing
  • Not using the system consistently
    • Just like anything, the individual needs to have consistent rules and reinforcement to change behaviors
  • Not providing tokens when they are deserved
    • Instructors may forget to give tokens for good behaviors, so the individual doesn’t see the point of the system
  • Fading it out too quickly
  • Not teaching the system, just assuming it should work
    • You MUST have baseline information on the skill you are trying to teach the child so that you give the tokens at the right time
    • If you wait too long to administer a token, you will not get intended result
    • Make sure to start with appropriate criteria to earn the first couple of tokens–remember–it has to be reinforcing

Problems with  token systems

  • Target behaviors do not always generalize when token economies are withdrawn
  • Plans for generalization must be deliberate and well planned

Response Cost (Batshaw, 1997)

  • This is the removal of tokens contingent upon the occurrence of problem behavior.
  • Fines are small in value to increase the probability that the child will earn more “chips” than they lose” Christopherson, 1994
  • At the end of intervals, the child is routinely given the opportunities to redeem the residual chips for tangible reinforcers and privileges
  • Response cost is more likely to have an impact after the child has had an opportunity to spend earned currency and enjoy the resulting privileges
  • Response cost is seldom achieved in isolation from positive reinforcement contingencies

Benefits of Token Economies

Miltenburger, 2001

  • “Tokens can be used to reinforce the target behavior immediately after it occurs
  • Highly structured: therefore, desirable target behaviors often are reinforced more consistently
  • Tokens are generalized conditioned reinforcers because they are paired with a variety of other reinforcers… tokens function as reinforcers regardless of any specific EO that may exist…”
  • Can be quantified easily, so different behaviors can receive a greater or lesser magnitude of reinforcement (more or fewer tokens)
  • Easy to dispense and easy for recipients to accumulate
  • Response cost is easy to implement in a token economy
  • Recipient can learn the skills involved in planning for the future by saving tokens for larger purchases

Disadvantages: Miltenburger, 2001

  • “Time and effort involved in organizing and conducting the program and the cost of purchasing the back up reinforcers
  • Staff training and management are issues
  • Token systems have been implemented in an intrusive manner
  • Most natural environments do not reinforce individuals with tokens
    • Must fade this system out over time

Additional Considerations

  • Can staff be trained to carry out program consistently on a daily basis
  • Are their sufficient financial resources to conduct the program
  • Make sure you have the right to restrict the individual’s access to their back up reinforcers.
  • Do the expected benefits justify the time, effort, and cost of conducting the program?