A token economy is a behavioral modification technique that was first used in mental institutions to reinforce and establish desirable behaviors in their patients. Today you can find token economies being used in schools, treatment programs, and some families have found its usefulness in shaping their children’s behavior. The token economy is a system in which targeted behaviors are reinforced with tokens (secondary reinforcers) and are later exchanged for rewards (primary reinforcers). Tokens can be in the form of fake money, buttons, poker chips, stickers, etc. While rewards can range anywhere from snacks to privileges/activities.
To establish a token economy in your home first you must identify the behaviors you want your children to change (desirable behaviors). These behaviors could include completing homework, brushing teeth, coming home on time, completing chores, not arguing, going to bed without a hassle, etc. You will want to limit your focus to a maximum of three or four behaviors at a time in order to keep things manageable.
Next, decide what you will use for tokens. You may want to assign different tokens for each of your children to reduce the risk of taking each other’s tokens. You will also want to use something that can’t be counterfeited.
Primary reinforcers need to be identified and can include such things as snacks, activities, or privileges like watching television, playing at a friends, computer time, etc. Now that the desired behaviors are identified, as are the primary reinforcers, you will need to set a value for each of them. That is, when a desired behavior occurs how many tokens is it going to be worth. Also, when your child wants to exchange the tokens they have earned for a primary reinforcer, there will need to be a predetermined value placed on the primary reinforcer. For example, if your child goes the entire day without fighting with their brother they could earn one or two tokens. As a primary reinforcer you could have playing at a friends house. It could cost them thee tokens. The trick is striking the right balance between what they are earning each day and what they will typically expend on primary reinforcers. If tokens come to easily then the primary reinforcers lose their value. While if primary reinforcers are priced too high or tokens are too difficult to earn then your child may give up.
Now that you have they system in place you are ready to implement it. First, identify three or four behaviors you want to reinforce. Then list them and decide how many tokens each behavior is going to be worth. You may want to put this list on the fridge or some place where it can be easily seen. Next you will identify what will be used as primary reinforcers and determine how many tokens each will cost. This list should be placed some place easily seen too.
When you catch your children engaging in the behaviors you have identified, reinforce the behavior by providing the predetermined number of tokens. It is important to couple the dispersing of tokens with a behavioral description of what you saw and verbal praise. Eventually, you will want to move on to other behaviors that you want to reinforce and will rely solely on verbal praise to maintain previously established behaviors. The reinforcement schedule should transition from a continuous schedule of reinforcement (1 behavior : 1 token) to a variable ration schedule of reinforcement (3-5 behavior : 1 token). Last you will fade out tokens completely using only praise to maintain the behavior. You will then focus on other behaviors and repeat the same pattern.
Your children will need to be responsible to keep track of and manage the tokens they earn. There will come a time when they will want to purchase a primary reinforcers. They should always pay for them before being allowed to engage in or partake of primary reinforcers otherwise the program loses its credibility. If they run out of or lose their tokens they simply can not purchase a primary reinforcer until they have earned enough.
What does this kind of a reinforcement system do for your children? It takes away the sense of entitlement a lot of kids have today. Instead of expecting privileges or activities for nothing on their part, they now have to earn them by the acquisition of tokens through their good behavior. A token economy can help a child be more responsible and teach them how to manage their resources. Something else that it does is teaches children to delay gratification where the world teaches them to expect and desire instant gratification. Lastly, the token economy can be used to extinguish misbehaviors and establish positive behaviors.
A token economy will require some effort on the part of the parent but the benefits far outweigh the small amount of time a parent has to invest in the program each day.