What is a Token Economy System?

When my kids were really little, I needed them to do what I asked of them. We had to get out of the house in the morning. They had to make their lunches, clean up their rooms, and play nicely with each other. So, I put in a system where they can earn points throughout the week, and at the end of the week, trade in their points for something really exciting. This is called a token economy system. What is a token economy system? A token economy is a reinforcement system that is commonly used in classrooms or in ABA programs.

How to Create a Token Economy System

When my kids earned points, they essentially acted as tokens. How to use a token economy system is to use secondary reinforcers (tokens) that you can collect and trade in for some sort of primary reinforcer. In order for it to be effective, the individual needs to know what those primary reinforcers are – whether it’s a toy, a food, a game and activity. You figure out what those are, and then you create a way to pair those primary reinforcers with secondary reinforcers. 

The secondary reinforcers could be anything like tokens, points, marbles. They don’t have to actually be tokens. Then you come up with a way for your clients to collect those secondary reinforcers and trade them in for some sort of primary reinforcer. This will only work if those secondary reinforcers have been paired enough with that primary reinforcer for it to be effective. 

A token economy system can be used for anyone that can wait a little bit longer for reinforcement. We usually start with early learners or really young students. They wouldn’t be quite ready for a token economy, but they might be able to use a first then board where they just have to do one thing in order to access a primary reinforcer. But as students get a little bit older, and they can understand or pair the primary reinforcer and the secondary reinforcer, then you can start to shape up that token economy. 

How Does a Token Economy System Work?

We’d start by having a student pair the last token on the token board with the primary reinforcer. Then pair the last two tokens with the primary reinforcer. They’ll start to become excited to earn those secondary reinforcers as well. 

These secondary reinforcers can be anything. You can be as creative as you want. They could be earning puzzle pieces that complete a puzzle. Earning marbles in a jar, or cars that they’re collecting. The idea is that we want it to be motivating, and we want it to continue to be reinforcing. So it’s important to remember that if you’re using a token economy, that you shouldn’t make that primary reinforcer have to happen not often enough.

Sometimes what I’ll see is, there’ll be a token economy in place where that primary reinforcer is offered like once a month or once a week for little three, four year olds. And that’s just too far away. When putting in a token economy, you have to make sure that you’re still using that primary reinforcer often enough within the token economy to keep it working. And you may need to go back and repair those tokens with that primary reinforcer. 

How Do You Set Up Token Economy Systems?

When setting up a token economy system, the first thing is to do a preference assessment. Find out what’s motivating your students. Next get some momentum with having them do things for those primary reinforcers. Then start introducing what that token system will be. 

We have a student who recently started putting rubber bands around his wrist and trades in those rubber bands at the end of the day for four minutes of the video that he really likes. That was motivating to him. The tokens themselves can be motivating. We’ve made Paw Patrol token boards! Whatever the clients are into, we can turn that into the token board. 

We start with just them earning that last token on the token board and then getting the exciting primary reinforcer. Then it’s the last two tokens and they get that video or that toy. 

Conclusion

Use a token economy system that is somewhat age appropriate. If we’re talking about three or four year olds, they may just need to earn three or five tokens. As the kids get older, the token economies can get more complex. They could be using points or behavior contracts, or things that they can understand on a more delayed reinforcement system. It really needs to be individualized. 

I would say one of the biggest mistakes that I see with token economies is that they’re kind of cookie cutter. You’re not thinking about this specific student and what’s going to work for them. That could mean trading in a token board twice a day. It could mean just needing to start with once an hour and then fading that out to twice a day or once a day but really trying to individualize it for the student.

We have a free token board to help you get started!

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