Token Economy System ABA Behavior Visuals Reinforcer for Autism Angry Bird PECS


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What is a Token Economy?

Within an educational setting, a token economy is a system for providing positive reinforcement to a child or children by giving them tokens for completing tasks or behaving in desired ways.

Token economies are used as a method of strengthening a behaviour, or increasing its frequency, because the tokens are a way of paying” children for completing tasks and the children cathen use these tokens to buy desired activities or items (Miltenberger, 2008).

Interestingly, ‘tokens, in the form of clacoins, first appeared in human history in transition from nomadic hunter-gather societies to agricultural societies, and the expansion from simple barter economies to more complex economies’ (Hackenberg, 2009, p. 257; Schmandt-Besserant, 1992).

How does a Token Economy work?

The basic principle is that a child earns a certain number of tokens by engaging in desired behaviours (calle“target behaviours”) and can then exchange these tokens – effectively using them as payment – to gain access to backup reinforcers.

This image presents an example of how a token economy can be viewed as a cycle.
The basic "cycle" of a token economy.

The target behaviours could be anything. For example, completing academic tasks like getting a certain amount of spellings correct, or it could be saying hello to their teacher in the morning, or playing nicely with their peers.

What a target behaviour will be depends on each individual child. Some token economies could be used to increase a child’s desire to complete academic tasks while another token economy could be used to decrease the amount of aggression a child engages in by giving tokens for not engaging in aggressive behaviours.

What is a Back-Up Reinforcer?

A backup reinforcer is an activity, item or privilege that the child likes and enjoys. The token economy works because the tokens become paired with the earning of the back-up reinforcers and the child only gets tokens for engaging in desired behaviours (Miltenberger, 2008). Therefore the target behaviours (should) occur more often.

Token economy example.
One example of a token economy chart with space to place a PECS sized reinforcer and twelve tokens.

Money is a type of Token

The world economy where people go to work, do their job to earn money and then spend this money for things they want or need is pretty much identical to a classroom token economy. The money you earn from employment itself isn’t really what you want – it is a means to an end. What you really want is what you buy with your money because getting money means you get desired items and activities (e.g. car, house, jewellery, food).

For a classroom token economy, a child will go to school, complete academic tasks to earn tokens and then spend these tokens for back-up reinforcers. Again, the tokens aren’t really what the child wants. Just like our money, the tokens are a means to an end – getting tokens means getting things the child wants (e.g. 5 minutes playing a computer game, a break from work, chocolate, sweets).

Image displaying how the world economy with money is virtually identical to a classroom token economy.
Comparing the world economy to a classroom token economy.


  • ‘the number of tokens can bear a simple quantitative relation to the amount of reinforcement
  • the tokens are portable and can be in the subject's possession even when he is in a situation far removed from that in which the tokens were earned
  • no maximum exists in the number of tokens a subject may possess
  • tokens can be used directly to operate devices for the automatic delivery of reinforcers
  • tokens are durable and can be continuously present during the delay
  • the physical characteristics of the tokens can be easily standardised
  • the tokens can be made fairly indestructible so they will not deteriorate during the delay
  • the tokens can be made unique and nonduplicable so that the experimenter can be assured that they are received only in the authorised manner.
  • In addition, tokens provide a visible record of improvement. This may facilitate social reinforcement from staff members, as well as self-reinforcement.’

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