Token Economies: An Example

Joe was a 14-year old boy from a low-income family. He had frequently been in trouble with the law for minor offenses such "thefts" and "fighting," and had a history of "school truancy" and "academic failure." After his most recent court appearance, he had been ordered to live in a home with several other "predelinquent" boys in the local community. The house was run by a pair of "teaching parents," who supervised the program. Here is what they told him on the day he arrived. In many ways his daily routine would be similar to that of a typical family. He would arise at 7:00 A.M., shower and dress, and then tidy up his bedroom and bathroom. After breakfast, he would attend school, and when he returned home, he was to complete his homework. Then, he was free to engage in various recreational activities (e.g., watch TV), provided he had earned the right to do so. Dinner was served promptly at 5:30 P.M. and bedtime was 9:30 P.M. He might be assigned kitchen cleanup duties after breakfast or dinner. Activities on weekends and holidays would include special events such as trips and athletic events.

The group home was unusual in one major way, however. Joe would be required to carry with him at all times an 3 inch by 5 inch index card. Depending on what he did throughout the day, points would be added or subtracted on this card. If at school, his teacher would monitor his behavior and record points; if at home, this would be done by a house parent or one of the other residents who was working as the manager for the day. The points he accumulated could be exchanged for various desirable items, including special activities (e.g., being allowed to go downtown), treats (e.g., pop and chips), and "one-of-a-kind" opportunities such as serving as the manager of the other boys. Exactly what behaviors earned and lost points and the cost of each privilege were posted on a bulletin board in living room for easy reference (see Table 1). The system was designed to be fair - if he engaged in all the appropriate behaviors and few of the inappropriate ones, he could expect to earn all the available privileges.

In the beginning, the points accumulated throughout the day could be used to buy things that would be received the following day. For example, Joe could exchange 150 of the points he earned on Monday for the opportunity to watch TV on Tuesday. Later on, once Joe was comfortable with and working well under this system, the exchange of points for privileges would occur at the end of the week. Thus, Joe would buy all his TV time for the next week with some of the points he accumulated during the current week. Ultimately, the point system would be phased out and all the privileges he had been required to earn would be freely available to him so long as he maintained his improved behaviors. Once he was able to do this, he would be released from the program.