To investigate the use of token economy as a behaviour intervention to reduce disruptive behavior.


Learning is the act of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. It may occur consciously or unconsciously

Learning can be defined in many ways, but most psychologists would agree that it is a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from experience. This definition of learning stresses three important elements of learning:

  • Learning involves a behavioural change which can be better or worse.
  • This behavioural change should take place as a result of practice and experience. Changes resulting from maturity or growth cannot be considered as learning
  • This behavioural change must be relatively permanent and last for a relatively long time enough.

The key characteristics of the learning process are:

  1. When described in the simplest possible manner, learning is described as an experience acquisition process.
  2. In the complex form, learning can be described as process of acquisition, retention and modification of experience.
  3. It re-establishes the relationship between a stimulus and response.
  4. It is a method of problem solving and is concerned about making adjustments with the environment.
  5. It involves all those gamut of activities which may have a relatively permanent effect on the individual.
  6. The process of learning is concerned about experience acquisition, retention of experiences, and experience development in a step by step manner, synthesis of both old and new experiences for creating a new pattern.
  7. Learning is concerned about cognitive, conative and affective aspects. Knowledge acquisition process is cognitive, any change in the emotions is affective and conative is acquisition of new habits or skills.

Types of Learning

Motor Learning: Our day-to-day activities like walking, running, driving, etc, must be learned for ensuring a good life. These activities to a great extent involve muscular coordination.

Verbal Learning: It is related to the language which we use to communicate and various other forms of verbal communication such as symbols, words, languages, sounds, figures, and signs.

Concept Learning: This form of learning is associated with higher-order cognitive processes like intelligence, thinking, reasoning, etc, which we learn right from our childhood. Concept learning involves the processes of abstraction and generalization, which is very useful for identifying or recognizing things.

Discrimination Learning: Learning which distinguishes between various stimuli with their appropriate and different responses is regarded as discrimination stimuli.

Learning of Principles: Learning which is based on principles helps in managing the work most effectively. Principles-based learning explains the relationship between various concepts.

Attitude Learning: Attitude shapes our behavior to a very great extent, as our positive or negative behavior is based on our attitudinal predisposition.

Theories of learning 

During the first half of the twentieth century, the school of thought known as behaviorism rose to dominate psychology and sought to explain the learning process.

The three major types of learning described by behavioral psychology are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

Classical Conditioning Theory and Learning

The key premises of Classical Conditioning theory was established by a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, who first discovered the crucial principles of classical learning theory with the help of an experiment done on dogs to study their digestive processes. The Nobel Prize laureate of 1904, while studying the digestive processes in dogs came across a very interesting observation during his experimentation. He noticed that his subject would begin to salivate by seeing the lab assistant with white lab coats entering the room before being fed. Though Pavlov’s discovery is originally an accidental discovery, but later with the help of his experiments the classical conditioning theory came into existence. His Classical conditioning theory played a crucial role in explaining important psychological concepts like learning and equally established the foundation for the behavioral school of thought. Behaviourism is based on two major assumptions:

  1. Learning takes place as a result of the interactions with the environmental forces.
  2. The environmental forces play a key role in shaping the behaviour.

According to Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory, learning takes place because of association which is established between a previously neutral stimulus and a natural stimulus. It should be noted, that Classical Conditioning places a neutral stimulus before the naturally occurring reflexes. In his experiment, he tried to pair the natural stimulus that is food with a bell sound. The dogs would salivate with the natural occurrence of food, but after repeated associations, the dogs salivated just by hearing the sound of the bell alone. The focus of Classical Conditioning theory is on automatic and naturally occurring behaviours.

Key Principles of Classical Conditioning Theory

  1. Acquisition: This is the starting stage of learning during which a response is established firstly and then gradually strengthened. During the acquisition phase, a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus which can automatically or naturally trigger or generate a response without any learning. Once this association is established between the neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, the subject will exhibit a behavioural response which is now known as conditioned stimulus. Once a behavioural response is established, the same can be gradually strengthened or reinforced to make sure that the behaviour is learnt.
  2. Extinction: Extinction is expected to take place when the intensity of a conditioned response decreases or disappears completely. In classical conditioning, this occurs when a conditioned stimulus is no longer associated or paired with the unconditioned stimulus.
  3. Spontaneous Recovery: When a learnt or a conditioned response suddenly reappears after a brief resting period or suddenly re-emerges after a short period of extinction, the process is considered as a spontaneous recovery.
  4. Stimulus Generalization: It is the tendency of the conditioned stimulus to evoke the similar kind of responses once the responses have been conditioned, which occurs as a result of stimulus generalization.
  5. Stimulus Discrimination: Discrimination is the ability of the subject to discriminate between stimuli with other similar stimuli. It means, not responding to those stimuli which is not similar, but responding only to certain specific stimuli.

The theory of Classical Conditioning has several applications in the real world. It is helpful for various pet trainers for helping them train their pets. Classical conditioning techniques can also be beneficial in helping people deal with their phobias or anxiety issues. The trainers or teachers can also put to practice the Classical Conditioning theory by building a positive or a highly motivated classroom environment for helping the students to overcome their phobias and deliver their best performance.

Operant Conditioning Theory and Learning

Renowned Behavioural Psychologist B.F. Skinner was the main proponent of Operant conditioning theory. It is for this reason that the Operant Conditioning is also known as Skinnerian Conditioning and Instrumental Conditioning. Just like Classical Conditioning, Instrumental/Operant Conditioning lays emphasis on forming associations, but these associations are established between behaviour and behavioural consequences. The theory stressed the role of punishment or reinforcements for increasing or decreasing the probability of the same behaviour to be repeated in the future. But the condition is that the consequences must immediately follow a behavioural pattern. The focus of operant conditioning is on voluntary behavioural patterns.

Key Components of Operant Conditioning

  • Reinforcement: Reinforcements strengthen or increase the intensity of behaviour. This can be Positive and Negative.

Positive Reinforcement: When a favorable event or an outcome is associated with behaviour in the form of a reward or praise, it is called positive reinforcement. For example, a boss may associate bonuses with outstanding achievements at work.

Negative Reinforcement: This involves the removal of an unfavorable or an unpleasant event after a behavioural outcome. In this case, the intensity of the response is strengthened by removing the unpleasant experiences.

  • Punishment: The objective of punishment is to decrease the intensity of a behavioural outcome, which may be negative or positive.

Positive Punishment: This involves the application of punishment by presenting an unfavorable event or outcome in response to a behaviour. Spanking for unacceptable behaviour is an example of positive punishment.

Negative Punishment: It is associated with the removal of a favorable event or an outcome in response to a behavior that needs to be weakened. Holding the promotion of an employee for not being able to perform up to the expectations of the management can be an example of negative punishment.

  • Reinforcement Schedules: According to Skinner, the schedule of reinforcement with focus on timing as well as the frequency of reinforcement, determined how quickly new behaviour can be learned and old behaviours can be altered.


Learning by Observation

According to Albert Bandura, learning cannot simply be based merely on associations or reinforcements which he has mentioned in his writings in his book Social Learning Theory which was published in 1977. Instead, his focus was on learning based on observation, which he has proven through his well-known Bobo Doll experiment. He reckoned that children keenly observe their surroundings and the behaviour of people around them particularly their caregivers, teachers, and siblings, and try to imitate those behaviours in their day-to-day life. He also tried proving through his experiment that children can easily imitate negative behaviours or actions.

Another important principle of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory was that learning something by way of observation, need not necessarily mean that it would lead to a change in the behaviour. This behavioural change is entirely influenced by the felt need or motivation of a person to endorse and adopt a behavioural change.

Key Steps involved in Observational Learning

  • Attention: Attention is very important for learning to take place effectively by following observational techniques. A novel concept or a unique idea is expected to attract the attention far more strongly than those which are routine or mundane in nature.
  • Retention: It is the ability to store the learnt information and recall it later, which is equally affected by a number of factors.
  • Reproduction: It involves practising or emulating the learnt behaviour, which will further lead to the advancement of the skill.
  • Motivation: Motivation to imitate the learnt behaviour of a model depends a lot on the reinforcement and punishment. For example, an office-goer may be motivated to report to office on time by seeing his colleague being rewarded for his punctuality and timeliness.

Therapeutic techniques

Behavioral therapy techniques use reinforcement, punishment, shaping, modeling, and related techniques to alter behavior. These methods have the benefit of being highly focused, which means they can produce fast and effective results.

  • Contingency management: This approach uses a formal written contract between a client and a therapist (or parent or teacher) that outlines behavior-change goals, reinforcements, rewards, and penalties. Contingency contracts can be very effective in producing behavior changes since the rules are spelled out clearly, preventing both parties from backing down on their promises.
  • Extinction: Another way to produce behavior change is to stop reinforcing behavior in order to eliminate the response. Time-outs are a perfect example of the extinction process. During a time-out, a person is removed from a situation that provides reinforcement. By taking away what the person found rewarding, unwanted behavior is eventually extinguished.
  • Behavior modeling: This technique involves learning through observation and modeling the behavior of others. Rather than relying simply on reinforcement or punishment, modeling allows individuals to learn new skills or acceptable behaviors by watching someone else perform those desired skills.
  • Token economies: This strategy relies on reinforcement to modify behavior. Parents and teachers often use token economies, allowing kids to earn tokens for engaging in preferred behaviors and lose tokens for undesirable behaviors. These tokens can then be traded for rewards such as candy, toys, or extra time playing with a favorite toy.

Token Economy

The Token Economy refers to an incentive system in which clients receive tokens (in the form of points, tickets, marks, credits, etc.) for engaging in preselected behaviors. The tokens can be exchanged for a variety of rewards and operate in much the same way that money functions in ordinary life. Typically, the Token Economy is a way of providing positively reinforcing consequences to a number of individuals in institutional, rehabilitation, and educational settings. Several therapeutically relevant behaviors can be focused upon with many clients simultaneously. The use of tokens allows restructuring the entire therapeutic environment so that desired behaviors and diverse incentives in the setting are expressed in terms of token earnings and expenditures.


Antecedents to the Token Economy can be traced to applications in educational and prison systems in the 1800s. These applications provided the equivalent of tickets to students or prisoners for desired behaviors. The tickets served as a medium of exchange for privileges and tangible rewards in the setting. For example, a widespread program in England, beginning in the early 1800s, was based upon providing students with tickets for making progress in academic areas. The tickets were exchangeable for prizes as well as being associated with social recognition.

Despite the historical antecedents, contemporary programs can be traced directly to the development of operant conditioning principles pioneered in the work of B. F. Skinner. Animal and human laboratory research established principles and findings pertaining to the influence of positive reinforcement on behavior, variables that determine the effectiveness of

positive reinforcement, and the means of establishing events as reinforcers. This research has served as the experimental basis for contemporary token programs.

Token economies as such developed in the United States in the early 1960s. The development was part of a larger movement of applying research findings from psychology to clinical problems, an area known more generally as behavior modification. Early applications of token economies were conducted with hospitalized psychiatric patients and mentally retarded

children in a special education classroom. These early programs demonstrated dramatic behavior changes. For example, in controlled experiments, psychiatric patients were shown to increase their performance of self-care behaviors and jobs in the hospital, and retardates were shown to increase their academic accomplishments in the classroom. Since these early successes, the Token Economy has proliferated in terms of the populations studied and the complexity of behaviors altered.


The Token Economy consists of providing positive reinforcers (tokens) that have attained their value by virtue of being exchangeable for a variety of other rewards. In a token economy, tokens can be earned only by performing preselected and well-specified behaviors. The specific behaviors focused upon in treatment and the events for which tokens can be exchanged vary with the treatment population and setting.

Actually, the Token Economy is not a unitary technique. Token economies vary widely across a range of dimensions, including who decides what behaviors earn tokens, who administers the tokens, the extent, and range of events for which tokens can be exchanged, whether tokens are delivered for an individual’s performance or for the performance of the group as a whole, and others. Also, token economies may not only provide tokens for appropriate behavior but also withdraw tokens for inappropriate behavior, a variation that tends to be more effective than merely presenting tokens. Ideally, individuals who receive tokens (e.g., patients, clients, inmates) have some influence in deciding either the behaviors to be focused upon or the events that will serve as rewards.


The Token Economy requires only specifying the behaviors to be changed, a medium of exchange (tokens) to be provided for these behaviors, and incentives for which the tokens can be exchanged. Hence, it is an extremely flexible technique. Indeed, this is evident in extensive research that has demonstrated the efficacy of token economies in altering diverse behaviors of psychiatric patients, the mentally retarded, children in institutional and educational settings, delinquents, and adult offenders. In addition, the Token Economy has been applied to alcoholics, drug addicts, geriatric residents, and other populations. Individualized token programs frequently are used on an out-patient basis to alter the behaviors of children and adults in everyday situations, such as the home or at school.

Although the token program has been effective in changing behavior in a plethora of well-controlled studies across different treatment populations, relatively few studies have compared the Token-Economy with alternative techniques. With a few exceptions, the available evidence has shown the Token Economy to be more effective in altering behavior than verbal psychotherapy, milieu therapy, and routine ward care with psychiatric patients; more effective than pharmacotherapy with hyperactive children and the mentally retarded, and more effective than routine educational practices in “normal” and special education classrooms.

An important issue in the application of Token Economy is the durability and transfer of behavior changes. Behavior changes achieved in token economies are not automatically maintained and do not usually transfer to settings outside of treatment after the program is discontinued. Specific procedures, such as gradually phasing out the program, need to be implemented after behavior change has been achieved to ensure enduring and widespread changes. Currently, research is focusing on techniques to sustain behavior changes when programs are withdrawn.


Name: Mr. A.S

Age: 13 yr

Gender: Male


Pediatric Symptom Checklist and token economy chart.


The following instructions were given to the parents of the child,

“There are certain behaviours of your child, that can be considered as problematic behaviour, to identify these certain behaviour patterns, that are problematic and to eliminate them, we will have to identify these primarily. You will have to rate certain behaviours, that your child depicts on a checklist, with the following rating scale, 0-not true, 1- sometimes true, 2- very true or often true, after completing the checklist provided, we will have the identified problematic behaviours on which we will have to work upon.

Further, you have to instruct the child that we will be practicing an exercise for a week, in which you will have to perform a certain desirable behaviour and if you perform as instructed, you will be awarded a ‘star’ (which is our token for the correct portrayal of the desired behaviour or our secondary reinforcement). If you continue to portray the ‘good’ behaviour for a week, you will have 7 stars, which you could redeem after a week (our primary reinforcement).”


In the present hypothetical situation, the following procedure was followed.  A hypothetical situation was taken. Pediatric Symptom Checklist was administered a pre-test to identify the problematic behaviour of the child.

  1. After identifying the behavior, a token economy chart in regard to the desired behavior was drafted.
  2. A daily activity chart was also prepared to monitor child’s daily activity and behavioral modification.
  3. Primary reinforcement (Reward) was discussed with the child based on his likes and dislikes.
  4. Secondary reinforcement (Tokens) was discussed with the parents.
  5. The child was informed about the ‘rules’ of earning the reward, and how to achieve it.
  6. The post-test checklist was administered again to check that whether the problematic behaviors are corrected with the help of token economy.
  7. Further result was discussed later.


The problematic behaviour was modified into the desired behaviour successfully using token economy.

Target behaviourWhen checked?Tokens
Completing homework on timeParents re-checked after having dinner1
Finishing meals properlyAfter giving any food, left-out food was checked on the plate1
Greeting everyone in the morningWhen the child wakes up1
Bonus: follow all behaviour rules all-dayBy observing him the whole day4
Daily total:7+ Tokens

The child was told if he goes to bed in the first reminder he will get dessert after diner, play for an extra half an hour in part if doesn’t get into fights, and 30 min play on a cell phone in the evening if he doesn’t break any things whole day.

Problem identifiedMonTuesWedThursFriSatSunTotal
Completing homework on time4
Finishing meals properly6
Greeting everyone in the morning7
Bonus: follow all behaviour rules all-day4

After 1 week the Pediatric symptom checklist was administered again, and it indicated no more problematic behaviour in the child.


The aim was to identify and reduce the problematic behaviour of a child. We identified the problematic behaviour that is the child doesn’t complete homework on time, lefts out food on the plate, and doesn’t greet anyone in the morning after waking up. The child was told if he completes the homework on time he’ll get his favorite dish in dinner, if he finishes the meal properly he’ll chocolate, and if he greets elders he gets to play some extra time with friends. The child followed it for the whole week, except few days. There were changes in his behaviour the child started doing his homework on time, and finished every meal properly, and made a habit of greeting everyone he came across.

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