Token Economy Impacts on Students’ Behaviour

Literature Review

Special Education Needs

Special needs education entails dealing with students who have unique requirements. The special needs are as a result of various disabilities hindering the capacity to participate in education. The unique nature of individual requirements of special students should be addressed. In most cases, the normal classroom education is not sufficient for such learners.

Addressing special education needs requires planning and systematic monitoring of teaching approaches (Richard, 1974). The aim is to enhance learning capabilities among these students. Consequently, learners exhibiting special needs are able to succeed in school and become self-sufficient.

Learning, physical, and communication disabilities are some of the major issues affecting students in special education units (SEU). A major challenge arising from these disabilities is inappropriate behaviour in classrooms. The students exhibit impulsive behaviours, such as interrupting the learning process and intruding on others. Such behavioural patterns indicate the need for a special approach in handling these learners (Tiano, Fortson, McNeil & Humpreys, 2005).

The current literature review addresses the use of token economy in SEUs. The study focuses on how the utilisation of this model influences behaviour of special students in class. The ability of learners with special needs to retain what they are taught is also explored in relation to the application of token economy. It is apparent that the disabilities of these learners influence their behaviour in class, which in turn affects their capacity to retain lesson content.

Various authors have explored the use of token economies model in SEUs and the impacts of this approach on students with special learning requirements (Boniecki & Moore, 2003; Maggin, Chafouleas, Goddard & Johnson, 2011; Birnbrauer, Wolf, Kidder & Tague, 1965; Rickard, Melvin, Creel & Creel, 1973). Some of the studies are generalised, while others focus on specific aspects of these students’ needs.

The reviewed literature also provides information on qualitative and quantitative effects of token economy on SEU. The information is provided by authors who are authoritative figures in their respective disciplines. In addition, the literature is supported by empirical findings. The reviewed studies range from observation of one student with special needs to experiments conducted on entire classrooms. Emphasis is placed on articles highlighting the use of token economies in addressing the requirements of students with special needs.


Students with special needs are increasingly becoming a concern in our society. Impact of their behaviour on their learning capability elicits major concerns. Using qualitative analysis, this study evaluates existing literature on the impacts of token economy on SEU and the effectiveness of the approach in behaviour management.

A total of 16 sources are used in this literature review. They were accessed from online databases and from Curtin University’s library. A number of key words and phrases were used to access the articles. The key words are:

  1. Token economy
  2. Token economy+ special needs students
  3. Token economy+ impacts on learning+ special education units

A total of 32 sources were accessed using the search terms. An inclusion and exclusion criteria was applied to select those that are most relevant to the study. Inclusion criteria included sources from peer reviewed journals and sources that addressed the issue of token economy and special education. At the end of the selection process, 16 sources remained.

Implementation of Token Economy in Special Education Units

The token economy approach is commonly used in enhancing learning in special education settings. According to Boniecki and Moore (2003), under token economy, students earn points for their participation in class. The tokens are then redeemed for extra credits, which count towards their course grades. However, in the specialised units, the tokens are usually exchanged for an array of items. The items include edibles, school supplies, and toys (Birnbrauer et al., 1965).

Maggin et al. (2011) provide a working definition of token economy. Maggin et al. (2011) view it as a contingency management system. It allows participants to earn tokens for presenting desired results. The results might include positive behaviour. The earnings can be exchanged for a previously determined reinforcement. Consequently, tokens acquire value. Token economies can be likened to the money economy system in the normal society (Tiano et al., 2005).

Token economy has also been applied in other aspects of the society. It has been used to evaluate the behaviour and performance of people with special needs. According to Rickard et al. (1973), token systems seek the production of socially acceptable behaviours. Desired outcome is rewarded with points. The accumulated points are then exchanged for other benefits. Other instances where token systems have been used include in mental hospitals and institutions for the retarded (Rickard et al., 1973).

The popularity of this approach lies in its ability to link specified behaviour and outcome with tokens (Klimas & McLaughlin, 2007). The token economy differs with other approaches given that the points assume some form of pecuniary value (Maggin et al., 2011). The students weigh the costs and benefits of tokens in relation to the expected conformation behaviour or desired results. According to Filcheck, McNeil, Greco, and Bernard (2004), the popularity of token economies as an alternative intervention in SEUs is limited. It is the primary objective of this study to determine the effects of token economies on SEUs.

Impacts of Token Economy on Special Education Students

Various approaches are used to determine the effects of this approach on impulsive behaviours among students. A case in point is the ability to retain what was learnt. One of the earliest studies carried out on this subject was by Richard (1974). Various studies have indicated the effectiveness of using token economy to facilitate the achievement of desired behaviour among this group of learners. According to Richard (1974), classroom activities, including disruptions, can be effectively regulated through the use of token economy. Richard (1974) arranged the token contingencies in two ways. The two approaches included delivery and removal of tokens. The aim was to determine the impacts of this approach on disruptive behaviour.

Token delivery entails providing contingencies when children are engaged in little or no disruptive behaviour. Removal, on the other hand, involves the withdrawal of token contingency. The removal is carried out following any disruptive behaviour from the children. The study by Richard (1974) used four children who had been enrolled in special education classes. The outcomes indicated that token delivery system was ineffective in reducing disruptive behaviour.

Combination of delivery and removal, coupled with instructions on conditions under which this was carried out, proved effective (Richard, 1974). The study focuses on the effectiveness of token economy in altering the behavioural patterns of learners with special needs. Richard (1974) adds a new dimension to the approach by emphasising on instructions, behaviour, and earnings from tokens.

Mirzamani, Ashoori, and Sereshki (2011) focused on the effects of token economies and social reinforcements on intellectually disabled students. They addressed the academic performance of these learners. An experimental study was carried out using a control group of students with intellectual disabilities from selected schools. The study sought to analyse the improvements made by the students in their science class.

Token economy and social reinforcements differ in terms of the value the students attach to them. The latter involves encouragement, appreciation, and paying attention to the student (Mirzamani et al., 2011). Token economy approach on the other hand rewards the learners with such valuables as toys and food items (Mirzamani et al., 2011).

The study by Mirzamani et al. (2011) revealed substantial improvement among students with intellectual disabilities. The results obtained from token economy approach were favourable compared to those from social reinforcements. Significant improvements in sciences were recorded following the application of the token economy (Mirzamani et al., 2011). Social reinforcements also indicated improved performance in the subject. However, the use of token economy was more successful compared to the application of social reinforcements (Mirzamani et al., 2011).

Combination of social reinforcements and token economy enhanced performance (Mirzamani et al., 2011).The findings indicate that the two approaches can reduce disruptive behaviour among students. The research by Mirzamani et al. (2011) was limited to students with intellectual disabilities. The disabilities are part of SEU needs.

Filcheck et al. (2004) explored the impacts of level-system on the management of disruptive behaviour in preschool classrooms. The system refers to a behaviour management strategy. It includes token economy, which encompasses the whole classroom (Klimas & McLaughlin, 2007). Instead of focusing on individual students, the level-system is used to manage disruptive behaviour in the entire classroom. The level–strategy system supports the individual token economies (Davis, Kurtz, Gardner & Carman, 2007). Filcheck et al. (2004) found that inappropriate behaviour reduced among children when the level system was used. Consequently, individual and level-strategy token economies exhibit outcomes that are comparable.

Boniecki and Moore (2003) conducted a study similar to the one about level strategy. However, the study did not address the issue of disruptive behaviour. On the contrary, Boniecki and Moore (2003) focused on reinforcement in relation to classroom participation. Using a classroom of sixty three psychology students, Boniecki and Moore (2003) determined the variation of performance following the implementation of a token economy. Results from the study revealed increased activities among the students (Davis et al., 2007).

According to Chevalier (2012), participation of students in a classroom can be improved through the introduction of a token economy. Such participation can either be directed or undirected (Westwood, 2008). In addition, response and learning rates increase with the adoption of this approach (Boniecki & Moore, 2003). Withdrawal of the token economy indicated a decline in the improvements noted earlier.

Wolf, Giles, and Hall (1968) conducted a similar study by analysing the effects of token reinforcement on classroom behaviour among retarded pupils. At the beginning of the study, correct responses and appropriate behaviour among learners were reinforced with verbal approval. Tokens introduced for a certain period were exchanged for toys, edibles, and other appealing valuables. Withdrawal of token for a given duration indicated declining performance and an increase in disruptive behaviours (Wolf et al., 1968). Effects of withdrawal of tokens, their availability, and introduction of bonuses on the productivity of the behaviourally disturbed children were made apparent in the study by Rickard et al.

Rickard et al. (1973) established increased productivity and appropriate behaviour following the introduction of bonus tokens. Students in the group without tokens exhibited deterioration in behaviour and level of productivity. The significance of token economy on behaviour is made clear. In addition, the classroom approach provides generalised comprehensive results.

The study by Rickard et al. (1973) seems to complement Wolf et al.’s earlier works. The latter was an experiment that used a remedial classroom of low performing students from a poverty stricken urban area. The study examined the impacts of token reinforcements on the performance of the learners. However, the research did not include students with special education needs.

The study by Wolf et al. (1968) revealed changes in attitudes and increased participation among students in the remedial class. In addition, the performance of the students impacted positively on other learners in regular classes. The perspective introduced by Wolf et al. (1968) indicates the positive influence of token economy on education. The effectiveness of this approach was made apparent even among regular students without special education needs.

Maggin et al. (2011) systematically evaluated the effects of a token economy when used as a tool to manage classrooms of behaviourally challenged students. Students with these challenges are those who exhibit difficult and problematic behaviours (Chevalier, 2012). The participants used in the study by Maggin et al. (2011) included those who showed problematic attributes and those with high incidences of disabilities. However, the study excluded individuals with cognitive or other severe disabilities, including autism and mental retardation.

Higgins, Williams, and McLaughlin (2001) carried out a highly restricted study in relation to the impacts of token economy on behaviour among students with special needs. The study addressed three inappropriate behaviour patterns. The behaviours included poor posture, talking out, and getting out of the seat (Higgins et al., 2001). The study focused on one elementary student with learning disabilities. The student was of normal intelligence. However, his basic reading and writing skills were below grade level.

Awarding tokens due to the absence of the target behaviours bore positive results (Westwood, 2008). The inappropriate behaviours diminished over the baseline duration. However, the study faced various limitations. One of them was the short baseline duration of twenty minutes per day. The shortcomings notwithstanding, the outcomes reflected the efficiency of token economy in managing inappropriate behaviours among special needs students.

Alter, Wyrick, Brown, and Lingo (2008) used a varying dimension to explore the effectiveness of token economy in SEU. Alter et al. (2008) tried to establish methods of improving problem solving abilities in mathematics among behaviourally challenged students. Based on their findings, Alter et al. (2008) recommend the use of token economy to develop appropriate behaviours. The approach would enhance the abilities to solve mathematics problems.


The token economy approach is a behavioural model. It focuses on observable learning outcomes. It is effective among students with special needs. The approach is characterised by a number of principles drawn from reinforcement theory. Another advantage of a token economy approach is that it facilitates behaviour based on specific outcomes. It addresses specific behaviour. The strength is made evident in the study by Higgins et al. (2001).

However, the approach can mislead the students in some instances. It has a very narrow approach since it only focuses on the measurable aspects of learning and understanding. It is known that understanding and knowledge rely on other unobservable aspects that are ignored in this model. In addition, the approach exposes students to the dangers of relying heavily on extrinsic and unessential rewards for them to achieve success. It disregards other forms of improvements that are not tied to behaviour.


Alter, P., Wyrick, A., Brown, T., & Lingo, A. (2008). Improving mathematics problem solving skills for students with challenging behaviour. Beyond Behavior, 17(3), 2-7. Web.

Birnbrauer, J., Wolf, M., Kidde, J., & Tague, C. (1965). Classroom behaviour of retarded pupils with token reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2(1), 219-235. Web.

Boniecki, K., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 30(1), 224-227. Web.

Chevalier, N. (2012).The token economy: Reducing the disruptive and off-task behaviour. Web.

Davis, T., Kurtz, P., Gardner, A., & Carman, N. (2007). Cognitive-behavioural treatment for specific phobias with a child demonstrating severe problem behaviour and developmental delays. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 28(1), 546-558. Web.

Filcheck, H., McNeil, C., Greco, L., & Bernard, R. (2004). Using a whole class token economy and coaching of teacher skills in a preschool classroom to manage disruptive behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 351-361. Web.

Goodmand, R., & Burton, D. (2010). The inclusion of students with BESD in mainstream schools: Teachers’ experiences of and recommendations for creating a successful inclusive environment. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 15(3), 223-237. Web.

Higgins, J., Williams, R., & McLaughlin, T. (2001). The effects of a token economy employing instructional consequences for a third-grade student with learning disabilities: A data-based case study. Education & Treatment of Children (ETC), 24(1), 99. Web.

Klimas, A., & McLaughlin, T. (2007). The effects of a token economy system to improve social and academic behaviour with a rural primary aged child with disabilities. International Journal of Special Education, 33(3), 72-77. Web.

Maggin, D., Chafouleas, S., Goddard, K., & Johnson, A. (2011). A systematic evaluation of token economies as a classroom management tool for students with challenging behavior. Journal of School Psychology, 49(5), 529-554. Web.

Mirzamani, S., Ashoori, M., & Sereshki, N. (2011). The effect of social and token economy reinforcements on academic achievement of students with intellectual disabilities. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, 6(1), 25-30. Web.

Richard, B. (1974). Relative efficacy of two token economy procedures for decreasing the disruptive classroom behaviour of retarded children. Web.

Rickard, H., Melvin, K., Creel, J., & Creel, L. (1973). The effects of bonus tokens upon productivity in a remedial classroom for behaviourally disturbed children. Behavior Therapy, 4, 378-385. Web.

Tiano, J., Fortson, B., McNeil, C., & Humpreys, L. (2005). Managing classroom behaviour of head start children using response cost and token economy procedures. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 2(1), 28-39. Web.

Westwood, P. (2008). What teachers need to know about learning difficulties. Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Wolf, M., Giles, D., & Hall, R. (1968). Experiments with token reinforcement in a remedial classroom. Behavior Research and Therapy, 6, 51-64. Web.