Use Token Economies to Provide Positive Reinforcement and Modify Behavior

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

When a behavior is reinforced, or rewarded, it is likely to be repeated. For example, when you do something that earns a smile, a “thumbs up,” or a pat on the back from a friend, family member, or colleague, it is more likely that you will do it again. The same is true for a child who earns a reward for completing his homework. If the reward, or reinforcer, is something he really wants, he will likely repeat the behavior that earned him the reward.
This response to positive reinforcement is a part of everyday life that we can utilize when we work to modify the behaviors of children and adults with special needs.
One effective method of reinforcement is the use of “token economies.” Token economies have three major components: 1) a behavior or behaviors someone needs to exhibit; 2) tokens or points earned for engaging in those behaviors; and 3) exchanging tokens or points for a choice of reinforcing rewards.
Tokens and points can come in many forms. An everyday example is a paycheck. To earn a paycheck, you need to go to work and complete your job responsibilities (behavior); in turn, you receive money (tokens) for working; and you can exchange this money for a nearly unlimited number of reinforcing items (choices).
When working with individuals with autism and other special needs, it is at times most appropriate to use continuous reinforcement and provide a reinforcing item directly after they engage in a behavior you want to increase. In the classroom, however, this can slow down instructional time because you have to interrupt teaching in order to deliver the reinforcer. It can be quicker to have the student work for tokens or points. A token economy will allow for a quicker pace of instruction and, with the correct introduction and exposure, the tokens or points themselves will become reinforcing.
The tokens become what behavior analysts call generalized conditioned reinforcers. In a token economy, tokens can be paired with so many things (all of the choices you can make in regard to exchange) that they themselves become reinforcing in many situations and environments. This makes it a useful tool when preferences change quickly and/or environmental factors change the person’s motivation for reinforcement of a certain kind. If he or she becomes uninterested in a certain previously preferred reinforcer, the token may still be motivating because it can be exchanged for a different reinforcer.
The best way to present and explain a token economy will vary depending on the person. The type of tokens, behaviors, schedule of exchange, type of exchange, and choices can all be adjusted for individual needs. Sometimes token economies look like actual economies; students will earn money or fake money they can exchange for items they desire. Other times, a student is earning points on a board, and after obtaining a certain number of points, he or she will be able to earn something. This is a modified token economy, as there is no direct exchange. However, the type of responses, number of responses, and choices are all still present.
It is important to note that, in many cases, token economies need to be introduced and taught in specific ways so the person obtains enough reinforcement and understands the rules as much as possible. The reinforcers and rules are easily adjusted and should change over time as the individual uses the economy.
The goal for all reinforcement is always to get it to a “naturalistic” level where additional resources are not needed. For token economy purposes, this may mean that an individual is no longer working for tokens and instead is working for social praise or the reward of completing a difficult task.
If you think that your child could benefit from the use of a token economy, you may want to consult a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA).
By Sarah Helm, M.A., LABA, BCBA

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass., and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit