How to Create and Use an Interest-Based Token Economy

Jessica Chappell | Program Supervisor
June 5, 2018

Token economies are a commonly used tool with children and adults of all ages and abilities. They provide a visual representation of work that is completed and what remains to be done and also remind the learner of what they are working towards.

What is a token economy?

Token economies involve the delivery of small tangible items (tokens) that are contingent on the learner performing or not performing a targeted behavior. For example, let’s say the learner is working towards remaining on task with a non-preferred activity. The instructor would provide the learner with a token, often delivered on a time schedule, if the learner remained on task for the designated time interval. The learner continues this until she has collected enough tokens to exchange them for access to a preferred item or activity. Often times general tokens are used, such as stars or check marks.

Research about token economies

A recent study demonstrated that incorporating the learners interests into a token economy can strengthen its acceptability to the learner and lead to marked increases (i.e. engaging in on-task behavior 64% of trials with an interest based token economy, versus 11% of trials without the token economy) in appropriate behaviors and decreases in maladaptive behaviors (Carnett et al., 2014).

Creating an interest based token economy

Target behavior

Prior to creating your token economy, you must determine the behavior that is to be targeted. Saying “please” is an example of a behavior that can be increased with the use of a token economy. If the learner independently says “please” then a token would be delivered. This reinforces the learner for saying “please” and thus makes her more likely to repeat the behavior in the future to gain access to additional reinforcement. Make sure that is clear what behaviors result in a token and which do not. This will allow the learner to understand how tokens are earned.

The token board

The first step is to determine what motivates the learner. If a student is motivated by movie characters, her favorite characters can appear as tokens and on the token board itself. This allows the learner to come into contact with preferred items in smaller increments as they work towards the larger reward.

Reinforcement schedule

When creating the token board take into consideration the learner’s ability to wait for access to reinforcement. If her current wait time is short, then limit the amount of tokens that must be earned to receive the reward. If you are unsure, you can always begin with a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio for reinforcement. As the learner progresses, the ratio of tokens to reward should increase.

The reward

Prior to using the token board, allow the learner to select what she would like to work towards. This can be an edible item, time with a preferred toy, or access to a preferred activity. It is important that the learner determine what she is working toward. A preference assessment can be conducted prior to beginning use of the token board. Make sure to explain how the learner will get access to her selected reward and how tokens are delivered prior to beginning.


Carnett, A., Raulston, T., Lang, R., Tostanoski, A., Lee, A., Sigafoos, J., & Machalicek, W. (2014). Effects of a perseverative interest-based token economy on challenging and on task behavior in a child with autism. Journal of Behavioral Education, 23, 368-377.


Photo by Jessica Chappell, M.A.

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