Token Boards 101

I've blogged many times about reinforcement and the importance of token boards in helping to change behavior. However, I've yet to really break down the ins and outs of token boards. Let this blog be your guide to understanding token economies and how to utilize them in your work, classroom, or home!

What is a Token Economy?

Token economies are systems that provide positive reinforcement to a learner (or learners) by giving tokens for engaging in desirable behavior. They are a method for strengthening a desired behavior. Think of tokens as a form of currency for demonstrating adaptive behaviors that the learner can cash in for their backup reinforcer (what they really want to earn).

Some people incorporate a response cost procedure in their token system, which means that when learners are not engaged in the target behavior, and/or engaged in maladapative behaviors, they will lose tokens. This can be effective, but take care to implement this strategy, as this is a punishment procedure and comes with its own unintended effects.

Why Are Token Boards Important?

Token boards help the learner visually track the reinforcement they are earning for a specific task or length of time. It also is used as a way to delay reinforcement, thus continuing to fade reinforcement to a more natural schedule.

Token boards provide important information to children, visually, about how and when they will receive the backup reinforcer.

How Do I Implement Them?

  • First you need to clearly define the target behavior that will earn the tokens.
  • Introduce your token board and tokens - these are visible and countable. Oftentimes people use poker chips, stickers, Velcro pieces, etc. that they can either add to a laminated board, a small container, or sticker chart.
  • Tokens are not the backup reinforcer. No one is working just to get tokens. The idea is that the token board serves as a visual form of "currency" that the child or adult will cash in for a bigger, more potent reinforcer, once they collect all the tokens needed for the board. These backup reinforcers need to be meaningful to the individual receiving it, therefore you should be running a preference assessment to determine what will be a potent reinforcer for the learner.
  • Make sure the amount of tokens required to receive reinforcement match the behavior/time and the reinforcement. I've seen really solid token economies, and I've also seen poorly implemented token economies. In an adult program I consulted with, the woman had a token system in which she earned one token each day she did not engage in self-injury, and if she earned 5 tokens in the week, she could earn a cup of tea on Friday afternoon. She rarely met her goal. Perhaps the frequency of tokens were not enough to increase the desired behavior of "safe hands". She also didn't appear to be too motivated by a cup of Earl Grey tea at the end of the week after working extremely hard all week long. Likely, it was both of these factors. In this case, we made the tokens more reinforcing by making the frequency of reinforcement denser, as well as ran a preference assessment to determine what she actually wanted to earn (in this case it was computer time). Making small, but individualized changes to your token economy will make or break a system.
  • Have a system for taking data. You want to ensure your system is working (or not working like the example above), therefore taking baseline data prior to implementation, as well as during the use of your system will help. Additionally, data will help you to thin the schedule of reinforcement over time, so instead of a learning earning say, computer time every 15 minutes, you will be able to stretch it out to 2 times a day, then once at the end of the day, etc.
  • Be consistent with its implementation! Your token economy will only succeed if it's individualized and staff are implementing it consistently.
  • Continuous reinforcement will occur at the beginning of implementation. That is, a learner will earn a token for each desired behavior they exhibit (based on what they are earning tokens for), then gradually decreasing over time. This is to help the learner pair the tokens with reinforcement and the desired behavior. 

Want even more? Check out my Token Board Pack to help you get started!

ABA at Play: token economies, reinforcement, positive reinforcement, behavior modification, response cost, pairing, stimulus control, visuals, schedules of reinforcement, evidence-based practice

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