4 Things You've Wondered About Token Economies but were afraid to ask



Token economies: If you have even spent a day inside an autism classroom, it’s more than likely not your first rodeo using token economies.  Token economies are used so often because they are so versatile: you can target reinforcement of several behaviors at once, you can run them so that students are using them independently or in a dependent or interdependent fashion, and it allows for students to earn whichever type of reinforcement their little hearts desire.

However, I think the versatility and simplicity of token economies sometimes lends to us making some mistakes when using them.  You might be in the middle of working with a student, and all the sudden you’re at a lost for how to administering the token economy in the moment, or worse, it seems like the token economy is not working at all to change your student’s behavior.  You second guess yourself for a minute.

Well, I am here to clear the air about some of the things you might have silently asked yourself while using a token economy.

This is a great question that I don’t think people ask nearly enough.  It seems like common sense to most of us to just show a kid a token board and they’ll magically understand that they can earn stuff.  Not the case many times!  Yes, often you can get away with explaining the token economy, the schedule of reinforcement, and possible backup reinforcers.  However, there are some students that need somebody to actually TEACH them.  How to do so?
Tokens should be paired with tangible reinforcers at first.  To do this, a token should be delivered at the same time as the tangible reinforcer.  So for a while, you might have to hand over a cookie or give them a moment with an iPad and simultaneously slap a token on their token board.  It might be a nuisance to do this, especially since you are probably using a token board for the whole ease of it.  However, if tokens aren’t reinforcing to the student, there will be no point of even using them!


Nah, son.  Pretty much anything tangible can be used as tokens to exchange for backup reinforcers.  I have seen blocks, marbles, even simple tallies on a piece of paper.   If you think your guys might be too big for token boards, things like paperclips, poker chips, and other small items can work.  If you want to stick to a whole-class system, you can make it super functional and use (fake) money as tokens where students have to “pay” for their backup reinforcers.  If you want to up the ante and make it really fit life skills application, you can have your students use a balance that they have to use to keep track of their tokens.
If you have students that you can rely on to administer tokens to themselves, you can also put a self-monitoring system in place.  Not only does it take the onus of administering tokens to the learner, but it also teaches students to taken responsibility of making sure they are exhibiting desired behavior.  Read more about how I use self-monitoring.

The term “fading” seems simple enough, but there are some things to keeps in mind when fading a token economy.  First, you want to make sure you’re not doing it too abruptly.  Just because Johnny was able to earn tokens in 3 minute intervals on Monday does not mean they should be moved up to 5 minute intervals on Tuesday.  Make sure to wait to increase the intervals/ratios after the student has been earning consistently.  Take data so you are not second-guessing about whether the learner is ready or not.

I have seen token economies run like this.  However, do make sure that it’s made known to the student about which behaviors will cause them to lose tokens.  It’s not fair to threaten a student that they will lose a token because they are acting up without defining to them what “acting up” is.  Make sure that if there’s a system of punishment, they are made aware and it is ALWAYS paired with a system of reinforcement.


Have any other questions about token economies or anything else behavior related?  I have something in the works and I would LOVE to answer any and all questions related to behavior.  Click below and shoot me an email!



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