Token Economy

What is it?

A Token Economy is system designed to reinforce certain desired behaviors in people by use of a token, which is a symbolic representation of a reward or milestone towards receiving a reward, which is earned by the repeated performance of the desired behavior.

In other words, in the context of children, it is a reward system where when the child does a certain thing defined by the parent or caregiver, for example cleaning their room, a token or an amount of tokens are earned that the child may redeem later for a reward, for instance a toy or treat of some kind.

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Where did they come from?

Token economies go back hundreds of years in practice but have been formally used since the 1960's and enjoy widespread use today in our everyday lives. As adults we encounter token economies in such things as airline miles programs. In school age children they exist in classrooms throughout the world.

With children of all ages we see them used for behavior modification. They are very widespread in use with children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum disorders and a wide variety of challenges but the principals work on children of any stripe whether diagnosed with something or a typically "normal" child.

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Some examples of Token Economies are provided below:

Adult Token Economies:

You may be surprised to learn there are token economies all around us as adults including:
  • Airline Miles programs
  • Credit Card Reward programs
  • Store/Restaurant Loyalty programs
  • Collecting UPC cutouts for rewards 
  • Government issued Currency!!
The airlines give you miles when you fly their airlines as tokens which reinforce the behavior of flying with their specific airline, which you can redeem for the reward of a free trip once the behavior is repeated often enough.

Many credit cards offer rewards in the form of points or other tokens that can be redeemed in a catalog of merchandise. They are reinforcing the behavior of spending on their card by rewarding with items you earn in the catalog by accumulating points

Many stores and restaurants have "loyalty programs" where you can earn points or some other token for shopping or eating with them and you can redeem these tokens for some reward like a free dessert or money off a purchase.

You may have used a product that offered a reward if you sent in x number UPC labels. They are rewarding you for using their product repeatedly.

Paper currency is valueless by itself. It is a token representing value that you can redeem in the general economy. Commerce and work are the behaviors being incented in this system where you are rewarded with goods and services.

Token economies are all around us and you will now start to notice them all around you in your everyday life

Token Economies for Children:
  • Behavior Charts
The most common examples used with children is the Behavior Chart. A parent or caregiver creates a simple chart listing the behavior or behaviors they want to see and the the amount of tokens the child can earn for doing the desired behavior. There is a reward or rewards available after so many tokens have been earned.

This is simple sounding but is actually a very powerful tool derived from a branch of psychology called operant conditioning. It is recommended that you educate yourself before using a token economy with your children.

Token Economies in the Classroom:
  • Teacher bucks
  • Sticker charts
It is a commonplace practice for teachers to use tokens such as "Teacher Dollars" or stickers that are earned by children completing certain tasks or behaviors. These tokens can then later be redeemed for treats, privileges, or other things the children view as rewards once they have earned enough.

These programs can be used on an individual basis or can have a team element. In either case token economies have been recognized and used by educators throughout the world successfully for decades.

Token Economies in other settings:
  • Doctor's offices
  • Dentist offices
Another commonplace use of token economies is by Pediatricians and Dentists. The medical community has long embraced the token economy as a means by which to positively reinforce the behaviors they desire from the children they treat. Many offices uses stickers or tokens that are earned during the visit that are then redeemable at the end for some prize in a goody basket of some sort.

Token economies are used by a wide range of professionals who work with children. You too can learn how this powerful behavior modification method can help you with your children or the children you care for.

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