Basic token economy

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According to Martin and Pear (2007), a token economy is a system of behavior modification based on the principles of operant conditioning. The original proposal for such a system emphasized reinforcing positive behavior by awarding “tokens” for meeting positive behavioral goals. Token economies have also been implemented to decrease disruptive behaviors and increase appropriate behaviors. Tokens can then be redeemed for reinforcing objects or activities at a later point in time.

Basic Token Economies

According to Martin and Pear (2007), a token economy is a form of behavior modification program in which individuals can earn tokens for performing desirable behaviors, and can cash in their tokens for various backup reinforcers. Individuals receive tokens immediately after displaying desirable behavior. The tokens are collected and later exchanged for items or privileges (such as food or free time) and punishing undesirable behaviors by taking away tokens. Shapiro and Goldberg (1986) have provided research to show that the use of an individual contingency token system proves to be an effective method for increasing positive student behaviors

History of Token Economies

Kazdin (1982), reports that programs based upon the administration of rewards developed long before the emergence of behavior modification systems such as token economies. One such system from the 1800s has been discovered in England. According to Kazdin and Pulaski (2006), Joseph Lancaster posted a notice that read, “All who will may send their children and have them educated freely, and those who do not wish to have education for nothing may pay for it if they please.” When attendance rose to 1,000 students, Lancaster developed a system by which selected children served as helpers or monitors. The selected monitors would check other children’s work and tokens were given to the children and the monitors. The tokens could be exchanged later for various prizes.

Risley and Wolf (1997) state that unlike the token economies used today, the 19th century system was not well defined in that it did not detail the responses that led to the delivery of tickets or give specific exchange rates. In addition, the delivery of back-up reinforcers could be delayed for exceedingly long periods, “These rewards will be exchanged, three times a year, for objects of value and useful for the children.” Risley & Wolf state, “Nevertheless, the basic elements of a token economy are clearly present in this classroom discipline system developed in the 19th century.”

Kazdin (1982) states that token economies with regard to motivating behavior were first formalized in studies performed by Ayllon and Azrin in the 1960’s. Ayllon and Azrin worked with mental health institutions and prisons to test token economy systems. They found great success in motivating the change of behavior through token economies.

Kazdin (1982) reports on a study performed by Rollins, Thompson, and their colleagues who developed token economies in several elementary school classrooms. These programs were very effective in raising the student’s academic achievement. When the researchers returned to evaluate the long-term effects they found that the school had discontinued the token economy system and behaviors returned to preprogram behavior.


Martin and Pear (2007) list several elements that are necessary when developing a token economy. First, tokens can be anything that is visible and countable and can be exchanged for privileges or merchandise. It is best to have tokens that are attractive, easy to carry and dispense, and difficult to counterfeit. Commonly used items include poker chips, stickers, point tallies, or play money.

Martin and Pear (2007) contend that tokens are to be administered in a positive manner. When an individual displays desirable behavior, he or she is immediately given a designated number of tokens. Tokens are not to have any value of their own. They are collected and later exchanged for meaningful objects, privileges or activities. In some programs individuals can also lose tokens (response cost) for displaying undesirable behavior.

Clearly Defined Target Behavior

Martin and Pear (2007) stated that individuals participating in a token economy needed to know exactly what they must do in order to receive tokens. Desirable and undesirable behavior is explained ahead of time in simple, specific terms. The number of tokens awarded or lost for each particular behavior is also specified.

Back-up Reinforcers

Back-up reinforcers are the meaningful objects, privileges, or activities that individuals receive in exchange for their tokens. Examples include food items, toys, extra free time, or outings. The success of a token economy depends on the appeal of the back-up reinforcers. Individuals will only be motivated to earn tokens if they anticipate the future reward represented by the tokens. A well-designed token economy will use back-up reinforcers chosen by individuals rather than by staff.

Developing a system for exchanging tokens

Martin and Pear (2007) have stated that a time and place for purchasing back-up reinforcers is necessary. The token value of each back-up reinforcer is pre-determined based on monetary value, demand, or therapeutic value. For example, if the reinforcer is expensive or highly attractive, the token value should be higher. If possession of or participation in the reinforcer would aid in the individual’s acquisition of skills, the token value should be lower. If the token value is set too low, individuals will be less motivated to earn tokens. Conversely, if the value is set too high, individuals may become easily discouraged. It is important that each individual can earn at least some tokens.

Consistent Implementation by the Staff

Martin and Pear (2007) state that in order for a token economy to succeed, all involved members must reward the same behaviors, use the appropriate amount of tokens, avoid dispensing back-up reinforcers for free, and prevent tokens from being counterfeited, stolen, or otherwise unjustly obtained. Staff responsibilities and the rules of the token economy should be described in a written manual. Staff members should also be evaluated periodically and given the opportunity to raise questions or concerns.

Initially tokens are awarded frequently and in higher amounts, but as individuals learn the desirable behavior, opportunities to earn tokens decrease. (The amount and frequency of token dispensing is called a reinforcement schedule.) For example, in a classroom, each student may earn 25 to 75 tokens the first day, so that they quickly learn the value of the tokens. Later, students may earn 15 to 30 tokens per day. By gradually decreasing the availability of tokens (fading), students should learn to display the desirable behavior independently, without the unnatural use of tokens. Reinforcers that individuals would normally encounter in society, such as verbal praise, should accompany the awarding of tokens to aid in the fading process.


Mathur (1996) states that many behavior management techniques, if applied correctly and consistently in a systematic fashion over an extended period-of-time, token economies can be a highly effective method for changing or controlling student behavior. Many factors make a token economy effective. One such factor is that tokens can be easily dispensed without disrupting the teaching/learning process. Another effective factor is that tokens can be exchanged for a variety of individualized backup reinforcers. Requirements for earning reinforcement can be adjusted as the needs of the students change. A token economy system may give the teacher flexibility in adjusting the relationship between certain behaviors and rewards, and may allow for continued pairing of tokens with more natural social reinforcers. Finally, token economies can be used to help the student acquire skills that will eventually lead to other more natural reinforcers such as good grades (Mathur, 1996).


According to Martin and Pear (2007), some include a form of “response cost” in their token economy. This involves penalizing students for inappropriate behavior by taking away tokens they have earned. The ethics of taking away what a student has fairly earned is questionable. In addition, a threat to the student is implicit in response cost. Response cost may lead to a student behaving appropriately only out of fear or anxiety of losing points or tokens. Additionally, it may lead to power struggles that become setting events for undesired behaviors.

Martin and Pear (2007) state some disadvantages of implementing a token economy include cost, effort, and extensive staff training and management. If staff members are inadequately trained or there is a shortage of staff, desirable behaviors may not be rewarded or undesirable behaviors may be inadvertently rewarded, resulting in an increase of negative behavior. Some professionals find token economies to be time-consuming and impractical.


A token economy, when used correctly, is an effective form of behavior modification that increase desirable behavior, and decrease undesirable behavior with the use of tokens and back up reinforcers. The tokens are collected and later exchanged for a meaningful object or privilege. According to Martin and Pear (2007) token economies have been used effectively in “psychiatric wards, in institutions and classrooms for persons with developmental disabilities, in classrooms for children and teenagers with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, in normal classroom settings ranging from preschool to college university classes.”


Ayllon, T. (1999). How to use token economy and point systems (2nd ed.). Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 15, 431-445.

Kazdin, A. E., & Pulaski, J. L. (2006). Joseph Lancaster and behavior modification in education. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 13(3), 261-266.

Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2007). Token Economies. In Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it (pp. 323-334). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

Mather, S. (1996). Why token reinforcement works. Teacher Mediator, 2, 10-14.

Risley, T. R., & Wolf, M. M. (1997). The origin of the dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 377-381.

Shapiro, E. S., & Goldberg, R. (1986). A comparison of group contingencies for increasing spelling performance among sixth grade students. School Psychology Review, 15, 546-557.

Token Economy System Definition. In Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders [Web]. Advameg, Inc. Retrieved 4/9/2009, from

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