Frequent positive reinforcement is key in any smoothly-run classroom. Students must know what the classroom expectations are and receive frequent feedback in the form of positive reinforcement for following these expecations in order to continue exhibiting appropriate behaviors. One of the easiest and low-cost ways to provide tangible positive reinforcement in a classroom setting is through the use of a token economy.
A token economy is a system that uses tokens that can be exchanged for backup reinforcers/rewards. The most salient example of a token economy is something that we use every day: money. Money is something that has no value in and of itself but is only valuable because we are able to trade it in for things that we want. A token economy in a classroom runs in the same way; students earn tokens for appropriate behavior and are able to trade in the tokens at specific times for preferred items, activities, or privileges. It requires the following components:
- Tokens-stickers, check marks on a chart, poker chips, or classroom “bucks” are all things that can be used as tokens. Tokens should be items that are easy to deliver and keep track of. It is important to make tokens unique to prevent students from fabricating them or finding them outside of the classroom.
- Backup reinforcers– These are the things that the tokens are traded for such as items in a treasure box, activities such as free time on the playground, computer, or library, or privileges such as being line leader or taking a break . It is ideal to have several different types of backup reinforcers ranging from actual items to privileges so that the reinforcers appeal to everyone in the class.
- Schedule for delivery– Make it clear to the students when they are able to earn tokens and when they are not. This will prevent a lot of inappropriate behavior if students are expecting to earn a token in a situation in which they won’t.
- Schedule for trading in tokens– Trading in tokens for backup reinforcers should happen at specific times. Whether this is after each completed activity, at the end of the day, or at the end of the week, make sure students are aware of when they can trade in and when they can’t.
- A scale of value for tokens– Different activities/items should be worth different amounts of tokens. Things that are highly preferred or harder to deliver regularly (i.e. trips to see a preferred staff member) should be worth more tokens whereas things that are less preferred and easier to deliver (i.e. small toys or time on the computer) should be worth less tokens. This will keep the value of tokens high since there is always something for the students to work for.
- Definitions or expectations for earning tokens– Students should know what behaviors will earn them tokens and what behaviors will not. Clear expectations that are tied into classroom expectations/rules will reduce problem behavior when students do not earn tokens.
If your classroom is new to using a token economy, it may be necessary to first “pair” the tokens with the backup reinforcers by giving out the backup reinforcers more freely at first and allowing students to trade them in immediately. This will teach the students that the tokens are valuable.
What are some good tokens or backup reinforcers that have been effective in your classroom or a classroom that you are familiar with?