Finding Success Using Token Economies

For the last few years I’ve struggled with using a consistent, appropriate classroom management system. It’s hard! I teach across 3 grade levels (k-2) and have various cognitive/behavioral/sensory/etc needs. I’ve been looking for a system that could be adapted easily for all students, no matter their level. Most of the general education teachers I work with use a clip up/clip down color system for behavior management. I felt stuck between wanting to keep the same management system as general education teachers so it was easier for my students and they could easily be included in whole class rewards and the natural language of the classroom, but at the same time I wanted something individualized for my students.

I was looking for something that was engaging, rewarding, individualized, and easy to manage. Seems impossible, right? Enter Token Economies! They give me alllll of those things, plus it’s teaching real-world skills. (I mean, let’s be real, how many of us would go to work if we weren’t getting a paycheck we can cash in for items we want and need? None of us would!). They are research backed and driven. For my classroom, it was the exact right mix of what I needed to make my students successful. Here’s how we do it:

Point System

There are hundreds of types of token economies, but I’ve found the most success by tying what my general education teachers are using to a point based system. We start each morning by determining what each student is working towards. We use visuals to remind students what item they are working for and how many points that item costs. These items go on a huge section of our white board and are a great reminder to anyone who walks in the room what students are working towards. OT, PT, Speech, Vision, etc all know what the student is working towards! Once it is determined what students are working towards, we get started with our day. 

Earning Points

Students can earn points in ten point increments. Points are earned for desirable behaviors (target behaviors for each child individualized for each student), including work completion. I wanted to do my best to stay consistent with what my general education teachers were doing. Many use the clip up/clip down system. To modify this for my students and make it a token economy, I created a clip up/down chart, added some shades of green, blue, and purple and added points to each color. Everyone starts on ‘green’ or ‘zero’ points for the day. Students then earn points for every task completion and desirable behaviors. Students have the opportunity to earn up to 100 points throughout the day. 

Staying On Track

Students use task card visuals to see how they can earn more points. We have task card visuals for Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies, ABA, Journal Pages, Task Boxes, File Folders, Speech, OT, PT, you name it we have it! Wherever we need a desired behavior, we have a task card visual. 10 points can be earned for each task. Each task card is color coded with the student’s color and when an item is completed the visual moves from the task card to the completed item (the journal binder has a velcro dot to hold the visual, same for the file folder bin, task card bin, etc). Depending on the student, some expectations are different than others. Some students must complete their task boxes independently, while others get hand-over-hand direction and are praised for compliance and limited verbal aggression…. it all depends on the level of your students! That’s what makes this system so great – you can adapt it to ANY STUDENT! Some students have recess as a task card visual because they struggle keeping their hands to themselves. Wherever I have a desired behavior, I have a task card visual, no matter if the task is social in nature (lunch, recess, etc) or academic in nature. 

Cashing in Points 

Students can cash in their points two times a day – before lunch and before going home. Some of the teachers I work with have three opportunities for students to spend points. I’ve settled on two times a day because of lunch schedules and student needs, but do what works for your students. Students may spend as many points as they have, but no more. Students can save their points to earn a larger item if they wish. Any saved points at the end of the day go on the board to be carried over and spent as the student determines. Items are all labeled with the number of points and the number of minutes a student gets the item (if applicable). 

Determining Point Loss

In my classroom, I’ve found that it works best if students lose points. Many token economies run on just point gain alone, however I had some big, heavy behaviors I needed to nip quickly. After talking with our district’s behavioral consultant, we decided to try point loss. It’s important that if you determine your students can lose points that you get entire staff on the same page about how many points a negative behavior costs, consistency is key with point loss. Point loss also gave me something to do when teachers using a clip chart would report a student should ‘clip down’. Again, in the end, do what works for your students. You may find that it’s powerful enough for students to just earn points that you don’t need to move to point loss. It’s all about your needs in your classroom. 

For the Kid Who Only Wants iPad

We all have that ONE kid, right? It’s the one you are thinking about right now going ‘this could never work for _________! All he ever wants is iPad!’. Well, friends, it can work even with the kids who only want one thing all of the time. Simply correlate the amount of time to the amount of access the child has to the item. Check out the cards I have for magnetic blocks (always a hit in my classroom). I have a student who always goes for them, however he quickly learned that while he could easily earn 5 minutes, it was harder to earn 10 minutes with the blocks. He complained several times at first that there wasn’t enough time to build before clean up – perfect teaching opportunity! We went right to the board and looked at how he could earn more points and how much it would cost to have blocks for 10 minutes. By the next opportunity to cash in points, the student had earned enough points for 10 minutes of play. We were able to get more work out of the student and the student felt as though they won by earning so may minutes of free play with the blocks!

Reasons to Love a Token Economy

  • You can set it up in a way that works for everyone in your classroom, even across multiple grade levels
  • You can instantly reinforce behaviors without having the reinforcer with you through tokens/points (secondary reinforcement)
  • Response cost is built in if you take away points (*not always necessary and should not be use for minor issues)
  • Allows for consistent positive reinforcement across staff and school
  • It’s rooted in ABA principles
  • You can individualize reinforcement while staying with a consistent classroom management system for your entire class
  • You create a reinforcement schedule through token/point exchange
  • You are preparing students for the real world! This is how adults do it, folks! We go to work, get a check, then exchange the money for things we need and want. 
  • Students learn the value of goal setting and saving – perfect growth mindset opportunity!
  • Doesn’t have to cost you a dime – no purchase necessary! Use the items your students already find reinforcing and create fun opportunities within the classroom like taking shoes off, or skipping a problem. You don’t have to fill a treasure box or candy jar. 

No matter the set up, token economies are the way to go for classroom management. They don’t have to be overwhelming, time consuming, or tedious. Rather, if done right, token economies ease behaviors and smooth transitions. After all, you are reinforcing positive behaviors! And, with a little tweaking, you can stay consistent with whatever you general education teachers are doing.

If you find yourself struggling with staff reinforcing students (positively and negatively) and student behaviors, give a token economy a shot! You may just find that with a little set up it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to your classroom!

Jen Koenig

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