Using a Token Economy and Differential Reinforcement in SPED

As a special education teacher, you know firsthand the importance of reinforcing positive behaviors in your students. One way to do this is through a technique called differential reinforcement.  This can be implemented through the use of a token economy.

What is differential reinforcement?

Differential reinforcement is a behavior management technique used in special education classrooms that involves selectively reinforcing desired behaviors while ignoring or providing minimal reinforcement for undesired behaviors. It focuses on reinforcing alternative or replacement behaviors that are more socially acceptable or appropriate. 

Let's get really technical.

Here are some examples of differential reinforcement in a special education classroom:

  1. Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA): Providing positive reinforcement when a student engages in an alternative behavior that serves the same function as the problem behavior (e.g., using a communication device instead of engaging in disruptive behaviors to express needs).

  2. Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO): Reinforcing a student when they refrain from engaging in a specific problem behavior for a specified period of time (e.g., providing praise or a token when a student avoids interrupting during a group discussion).

  3. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI): Reinforcing a behavior that is incompatible with the problem behavior, making it impossible for both behaviors to occur simultaneously (e.g., providing praise or a reward when a student keeps their hands in their lap instead of engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors).

  4. Differential Reinforcement of High Rates of Behavior (DRH): Providing reinforcement when a student exhibits behavior at a predetermined high rate (e.g., giving praise or a preferred item when a student raises their hand and participates actively during class discussions).

  5. Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL): Reinforcing a behavior when it occurs at a lower rate than usual or when it decreases over time (e.g., providing positive feedback or a small reward when a student reduces the frequency of off-task behaviors during independent work periods).

What is a token economy?

In a token economy, students earn tokens for exhibiting targeted behaviors.  Then, they can later exchange those tokens for preferred items or activities. But before you get started, it’s important to identify the behaviors you want to focus on. These should be specific, observable, and measurable.  They should also align with your student’s individualized education plans (IEPs). For example, you might want to reinforce behaviors like staying on task, following classroom rules, or completing assignments.

The Reinforcement Schedule:

Next, you’ll need to choose a reinforcement schedule.

There are four main types:

  • continuous
  • fixed ratio
  • variable ratio
  • fixed interval


Continuous reinforcement means a student gets a token every time they exhibit the targeted behavior. While this can be effective in the beginning, it’s important to eventually switch to a partial reinforcement schedule to help maintain the behavior over time.

Fixed ratio means a student gets reinforced after a set number of responses, like completing five math problems correctly.

Variable ratio means reinforcing a student after an unpredictable number of responses, like completing a certain number of math problems correctly but the number of required responses varies each time.

Fixed interval means reinforcing a student at set time intervals, like staying on task for 15 minutes.

Once you’ve decided on a reinforcement schedule, it’s time to set up your token economy. You might create a visual representation of the token economy that shows the targeted behaviors and the corresponding tokens earned. You can also create a list of preferred items or activities that students can exchange their tokens for, such as extra recess time or a small prize. It’s important to be consistent and follow through with the token economy, reinforcing targeted behaviors every time they occur and allowing students to exchange their tokens when they have enough. You should also periodically review the token economy and make any necessary adjustments.

If you want to learn more about how to use Token Boards in your self-contained classrooms, you can head over to this blog to learn more!

f you are ready to get started with token boards you can check out my token board resource here.  I have a bunch to choose from!!

Of course, it’s not all about reinforcing positive behaviors. It’s also important to address any problem behaviors that may arise. One way to do this is through a time-out procedure, where the student is removed from the reinforcing environment for a set period of time. This can be effective in reducing the frequency of problem behaviors, as it removes the reinforcing consequence (i.e., the tokens).


As a special education teacher, you have the power to make a real difference in your students’ lives. By using techniques like differential reinforcement and a token economy, you can help your students learn to make positive choices and reach their full potential. So, keep up the good work!

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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