By in Parenting

How To Use a Token Economy to Promote Good Behaviour

Token economies are often used in elementary classrooms and in therapeutic settings with special needs populations, particularly ABA interventions for children on the autism spectrum. They can also be used at home, to improve discipline and compliance with chores or studying. You are probably familiar with the concept of a token economy already, even if you've never heard the expression before. Chore charts and charts used for such things as potty training or getting homework done on time are examples of a token economy.

How a Token Economy Works

In each case, one or more targeted behaviours are chosen and rewarded with a token that can be used to “purchase” a reward at a later time. Tokens – poker chips, stickers, happy faces, stars, check marks, points, etc. - are rewarded when the desired action is taken. A certain number of tokens can then be collected and exchanged for a reward , called the “ back-up reinforcer .” So in the potty training example, a toddler earns a sticker for each time he sits on the potty. After so many stickers are earned, the reward will be given.

Rewards can take the form of a privilege like computer time, an extra outing to the park, or getting to lead the class on the way to gym. It can also be a tangible reinforcement – like a pizza day for the whole class, a candy, or choosing a prize from a treasure chest.

Tokens Taking on Value

Because there is no intrinsic value in the tokens, a token economy is seen as a form of operant conditioning . It pairs a back-up reinforcer that has an intrinsic value with a token whose value is derived from its value in an exchange.

Over time, the token itself becomes desirable. This allows a parent or teacher to reward good behaviours immediately , when reinforcement is most effective, without interrupting the flow of an activity or daily routine. It also allows for the value of a token to be reduced in order to fine tune a behaviour.

In many primary school classrooms, teachers will use a token economy at the beginning of the year to teach and reinforce classroom rules. Later in the year different behaviours can be targeted, and the teacher can use the same token economy to encourage excellence rather than mere compliance with basic rules. You can use a similar approach with chore charts or a marble jar at home, adjusting the difficulty with which a token can be earned and the number of tokens needed to “buy” a given reward.

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Image credit: Tokens by Hannes Grobe/Wikipedia ( CC BY 3.0 )

Note: This content has been adapted from an original piece by the author, which has since been removed from Bubblews

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MegL wrote on July 13, 2015, 12:30 PM

I use a motivation chart for myself to ensure housework gets done and that I take exercise. This is a useful explanation of how this works.

Kasman wrote on July 13, 2015, 2:54 PM

My primary school teacher used such a system many years ago - probably long before it had a name - involving gold stars on our homework books. Can't remember what the reward was I can only remember I never got it! emoticon :sad:

Feisty56 wrote on July 13, 2015, 3:59 PM

As a parent, I've used such systems myself and see that my adult kids have begun to use them with their children, too. A pitfall I experienced when first using a token economy was ensuring the reward, or back-up reinforcer, was neither too difficult to attain (the child loses interest and motivation) or too easily attained (first it motivates, then it becomes a chore for the parent in and of itself without teaching much between rewards.) Trial and error were my friends in working out those dilemmas. I had to remember, too, that each child was different, so what worked for one could not always just be copied for the other.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 13, 2015, 6:06 PM

You couldn't be more wrong! Bribery is a very common tactic used by people who don't understand discipline. Usually it goes something like, "If you put away all your toys now, we'll have a big bowl of ice cream!" It usually goes hand in hand with deceit (taking advantage of the fact that young children can't tell time, and pretending it's later than it actually is so they'll go to bed early) and with extreme punishments that are meted out in a moment of exasperation.

The goal of a token system is to teach the child good habits, and eventually the habits themselves become the reward. It is a system based on an understanding of human psychology, and it works on people of all ages.

When you write on a site that allows users to receive likes and comments for their work, you are participating in a token economy. Each like, each page view, each comment, and each coin in your bank is a token. You know that the more you get, the more money you earn. And the more money you earn, the closer you are to being able to make a purchase. In the beginning, many of us focus on the tokens or on the money. But over time we learn to value the friendships and the discussions. We also come to see publishing a well-written article as a reward in itself.

So while the site's metrics, whatever they chose to measure, are a token (and the money itself is a token too) the true reward is perfecting the art of web writing. We write not because we are being bribed, but because we take pleasure in the act of writing online.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 13, 2015, 6:28 PM

We got the gold stars too, but they were the reward themselves. That, and the praise of the teacher emoticon :smile:

Ruby3881 wrote on July 13, 2015, 6:49 PM

Deb, you are so right! It can be really tough to assign an appropriate token value to a task or a reward. And it does become a chore for the parent if the system involves too long a wait or too much work. That's why I detest sticker charts, but I like marble jars. Less work for me!

What we tend to do - and this is something I plan to write more about - is to choose a number of different ways a child can earn tokens, so there are plenty of opportunities to get caught doing something good. And we also allow the kids to cash in a smaller number of tokens in the short term for a little treat like making popcorn and watching a movie. They can easily earn the smaller rewards, and still have tokens left over to save for a bigger reward emoticon :smile:

Feisty56 wrote on July 13, 2015, 9:25 PM

I think those are great ideas. A reward can't be so far in the future as to seem unobtainable to the child, so an interim smaller reward should help to keep them focused on the intended behavior/action.

cheri wrote on July 13, 2015, 10:23 PM

I believe that giving rewards is effective way of motivation.

CoralLevang wrote on July 14, 2015, 2:03 PM

In essence, what you have described is what we have here at PP. emoticon :smile:

Ruby3881 wrote on July 15, 2015, 11:06 PM

Yes ma'am, it is! But in reality, all work that people do for money is participating in a token economy. The money itself isn't the desired reward, though it has become emotionally charged by association with the things that we can do with it. So we think of it as the reward, but it's actually standing in for the things we really desire.

CoralLevang wrote on July 16, 2015, 4:35 AM

Very true. This would be a great debate topic.