A token economy is a behavior modification technique that uses rewards (tokens) as reinforcers to shape behavior. The tokens can be exchanged later for other reinforcers that are highly appealing to the recipients.
By reinforcing desired behaviors with tokens, the student is more likely to exhibit that behavior again. This is based on the principles of operant conditioning and has many uses in an educational setting.
Token economies are often used with students that have special needs or behavioral disorders.
By giving a token to a student whenever they display a target behavior, that behavior is strengthened and therefore more likely to occur again.
Definition of Token Economy
Token economies were quite popular at one time, but interest has waned over the years. This is surprising because they have proven quite useful for special needs students.
As Matson and Boisjoli profess,
“One of the most important technologies of behaviour modifiers and applied behaviour analysts over the last 40 years has been the token economy” (2009, p. 240).
Some concerns about token economies have to do with the ethics of “controlling” students. Another criticism is that students may become dependent on external rewards, instead of being intrinsically motivated to learn or engage in the target behavior.
However, by not being over-reliant on a token economy, using an intermittent schedule of rewards, and keeping rewards reasonable, these concerns can be addressed.
Token Economy Examples
1. The Reading Train
A second-grade teacher might use a token economy to encourage reading. Each child gets a colorful poster that shows railroad tracks. The track is divided into small sections, and each time a child reads one book, the teacher will place a sticker of a train on one section.
When the child has read so many books that the track is completely full, they can exchange all of their stickers for a valued prize. Prizes can include small toys, stickers of their favorite Disney character, or any other item that child really likes.
This is a fun way to encourage children to read, even though it may not be their favorite activity.
2. Using a Jigsaw Puzzle to Increase Task Persistence
Starting with a simple 12-piece jigsaw puzzle, each time the child finds the right piece, they get a sticker by their name in the teacher’s notebook. When they have completed the puzzle, they can trade 12 stickers for a small prize.
The next time they play, the teacher uses a slightly more difficult puzzle. Over time, the child will learn the value of persisting and also develop an understanding that frustration is a temporary feeling that can also be overcome.
For younger children, completing a challenging task can be difficult. They become easily frustrated and can want to quit very quickly. However, learning to deal with frustration and be persistent helps build emotional intelligence.
3. The Mini-City and Monetary Tokens
Token economies can teach students the value of money. For example, the teacher can create a mini-city in their classroom.
It can contain scaled-down versions of a real city, such as a Post Office, Hospital, Fire Station, Bakery, etc.
Children can earn pretend money by “working” in different jobs. For example, they can pretend to be bakers and serve customers. Or, they can pretend to be doctors and nurses and take care of patients.
The students earn pretend money depending on how much time they work.
At the end of the day, the students then get to exchange their pretend money for various gifts. This is a great way to teach children the value of work.
4. Encouraging Helping Behavior
Reinforcing prosocial behavior has always been part of a teacher’s job. So, many schools implement a school-wide program to encourage children to be helpful classmates.
For example, all teachers may carry with them a stack of small circular stickers that say something like “I am helpful” or “I help others”. Whenever a student observes a student engaging in this kind of behavior, they will give that student one of the stickers.
Any teacher can give a sticker to any student, no matter which classroom they are in. Lunchtime or recess are great opportunities to witness these actions.
At the end of the month, or academic term, the school will give students that have obtained a certain number of stickers with a certificate at a school assembly.
This is an example of a token economy on a school-wide basis over a longer period of time.
5. Blast-off Token Board
The younger the student, the more interesting the token economy needs to be. A piece of paper with boxes across the bottom is fine, but not very interesting. So, using a token board that shows a rocket surrounded by 4 or 5 big stars might be more attention-getting of very young learners.
Each time the child displays one of the targeted behaviors, they get to color one of the stars. Of course, they can use any color they want. When all the stars have been colored, then the child can receive a prize or get to do something extra that they like to do, such as spending extra time playing with their favorite toy or getting to be first in line on the way to recess.
6. Animated Token Board
Special education teachers often get to work one-on-one with a student at various points in the day. Getting the attention of these students can be especially challenging. Sometimes stickers are not compelling enough and plastic chips may be a choking hazard.
An animated token board on an iPad or laptop can work perfectly in these situations. Plus, an animated token board is usually very colorful and will often include options that involve movement on the screen or interesting sounds.
Each time the student engages in the targeted behavior, they are rewarded with another funny-looking “monster” character being shown on a school bus or another colorful section of a caterpillar being lit up.
When the school bus is full or when the caterpillar is complete, the student gets a reward of their choice.
7. The Jar System
Stickers on paper are great, but after a while, students might get bored with that kind of display. So, to keep the interest level up, teachers can use a jar system to implement their token economy.
It’s best not to use a glass jar, for obvious reasons. So, finding a clear plastic jar will keep things safe. You will also need some colorful objects to fill the jar. Pom poms are very colorful and they come in a variety of sizes. So, each child gets their own jar with their name on it.
Each time they engage in the targeted behavior, the teacher puts a pom pom in the jar. Or, the student can put the pom pom in their jar to make it more meaningful and increase student ownership.
Once the jar is full, the student gets to trade their pom poms in for something they really value.
8. The Whiteboard
Using the whiteboard to implement a token economy is one of the easiest ways to increase target behavior. The process is quite simple. The teacher writes each student’s name on the side of the board. Each time a student displays the target behavior, the teacher draws a star next to their name. After a student has 5 stars, they get a prize.
Target behaviors can include raising one’s hand to answer a question instead of speaking out of turn, sitting properly in one’s chair, or finishing a worksheet.
Over time, the teacher can make the reward system more challenging by requiring more stars before receiving the reward.
9. Improving Personal Hygiene
Teaching children in kindergarten to practice good personal hygiene is a top priority. Students often forget to wash their hands after going to the bathroom or brush after meals. They also tend to enjoy playing with the soap dispenser, which can be a bit wasteful.
So, teachers can spend a lot of time and energy trying to shape student behavior to practice good hygiene. A token economy can be very effective.
One system can take place at the doorway between the classroom and bathroom. Once the target behavior has been clearly defined, for example, washing hands without being told, the teacher can stand at the doorway as students exit.
As they leave, each student shows the teacher that their hands have been washed. The teacher then gives the student a token. After a predetermined number of stickers have accumulated, the students can trade their stickers for something else.
10. Picky Eaters and Treats
Some younger students are very picky eaters. Unfortunately, spending all day at school and not ingesting enough calories is bad for a child’s development, and doesn’t do much for parents either. Implementing a token economy centered on food consumption can produce very meaningful results.
It works like this: find a treat the picky eater really enjoys. At lunchtime, explain that you are going to play “a game”. If they take two small bites of their food, they will get one plastic chip. When they have 3 chips, they can trade it for one treat (use a very small portion of that treat).
You should notice a quick change in the child’s food consumption. After one or two weeks, increase the number of chips they need to accumulate before they can be exchanged for the treat.
Note: Don’t start with food the child likes least. It’s better to have an early success than an early failure.
The token economy is a useful system for shaping students’ behavior and developing conditioned responses from students. The use of a conditioned stimulus can be applied to a wide range of behaviors, from those found in a regular classroom setting, to one-on-one use with special needs students.
The system can be implemented to increase helping behavior, hygiene practices, reading, task persistence, and even raising one’s hand and waiting for your turn to speak.
The simplest versions of a token economy need only to consist of a whiteboard and marker, or a piece of paper with a colorful illustration of a train or caterpillar. More visually captivating versions can include a plastic jar with colorful pom poms, or a dynamic APP for an iPad that also makes interesting sounds.
The token economy is versatile and effective.
Kim, J.Y., Fienup, D., Oh, A., & Wang, Y. (2021). Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Token Economy Practices in K-5 Educational Settings, 2000 to 2019. Behavior Modification. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/01454455211058077
Matson, J. & Boisjoli, J.A. (2009). The token economy for children with intellectual disability and/or autism: A review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30, 240-248. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2008.04.001
Shogren, K. A., Lang, R., Machalicek, W., Rispoli, M., & O’Reilly, M. (2011). Self-versus teacher management of behavior for elementary school students with Asperger Syndrome: Impact on classroom behavior. Journal of Positive Interventions, 13(2), 87-96.
Tarbox, R., Ghezzia, P., & Wilson G. (2004). The effects of token reinforcement on attending in a young child with autism. Behavioural Interventions, 21, 156-164. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/bin.213