A token economy is a technique which is designed to modify behavior through the use of positive reinforcement. It is based upon the principle of operant conditioning, in which the frequency of good behavior can be reinforced, and the frequency of bad behavior can be reduced, with the eventual goal of extinguishing bad behavior altogether. Token economies are commonly used in institutional settings such as prisons, schools, and residential treatment facilities, and they can also be used at home by parents who understand how to apply a token economy.
In a token economy, people earn tokens when they exhibit good behavior. The tokens themselves are not a reinforcement, but people can save their tokens up and trade them for things they want, which is a form of reinforcement. For example, people might collect tickets for exhibiting behaviors deemed desirable, and at the end of the day, they could trade their tickets for candy, outside privileges, and other things they might want.
Several characteristics have to be present for a token economy to be effective. In the first place, “good behavior” must be clearly defined, with people understanding what they need to do in order to earn a token. The value of tokens must also be defined, so that people understand how many tokens they need to earn to redeem rewards of their choice. For people who are highly visual, tokens are sometimes awarded on punch cards or grids so that they can see how many tokens they have earned, and how close they are to a reward.
A token economy also cannot involve deprivation and neglect. People cannot trade tokens for basic needs such as food, bedding, access to the bathroom, and so forth, because these needs must be met regardless of good behavior. It is important that the things people receive in trade for tokens be rewards, and that they be appropriate to the person and setting. Token economies must also be consistently applied; if Johnny earns a token for sitting quietly in circle for 10 minutes, so does Susie.
When a token economy is first introduced, people usually earn tokens quickly. The idea is to familiarize people with the system and to show them how good behavior results in rewards. Over time, people must exhibit behavior more consistently and for longer periods in order to earn tokens. For example, a teacher who is trying to get a child to calm down for nap time might at first give the child a token for every 30 seconds that the child can lie still. Over time, the intervals would increase to a minute, two minutes, and so forth, until the child might be receiving a token for five or 10 minutes of good behavior in contrast with the 30 seconds at the start.