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Are Token Economies Actually Effective in a Classroom Setting?

Updated on July 29, 2014

Introduction of Positive Behavior Support

The token economy system that I plan to put into place will be a school-wide positive behavior support program where students will be rewarded for positive behavior in an effort to decrease negative behavior and increase efficiency in the classroom. For the sake of this paper and presentation, I will be under the assumption that the teachers and administrators have all worked together prior to the start of the school year to develop the program, the target behaviors, the rewards, and that we will all consistently buy-in and implement the plan effectively. School-wide, the staff will choose to focus on less referrals, positive speech and language, better conflict resolution, respectful attitudes and behavior, and safe environment. Since I am not in the classroom this year, I will use a past educational setting of a K-8 school, where I would teach all grades in either theatre or music. Within my classroom, the behaviors I would like to target for change are the following: following directions the first time given, 100% participation, and respectful attitudes where all points of view and perspectives are validated.

The First Days of School

The first day and several weeks of classes will be focused on setting a foundation where my students can best learn by developing the classroom rules, procedures, mission statements and SMART goals. On day 1, after I have introduced myself and explained the syllabus and my high expectations for 100% student achievement, I will then go over the school rules and the classroom rules that I expect to be followed. I greatly appreciated Harry Wong’s book First Days of School where he shared to have a minimal amount of rules that are clear to the student and not vague. Each year, I strive to have between 3-5 rules that follow along with the school-wide rules. I have found that administrators will not support rules that are not considered “important” school-wide. In a drama or music classroom, like I have taught, I do not allow gum, candy, or food in student mouths during class time. Once I found that these items were not worthy of a referral, I had to revise the rule to become a procedure where students could not have gum, candy, or food while they were singing or acting. When the students saw that I was willing to compromise to some extent, and that they were not getting in trouble for the chewable infraction, they were much more likely to follow the directive.

In my classroom, the most important factor is that every student has an equal opportunity to learn; therefore, the rules reflect that. My first and most important rule is to follow all directions the first time given. I explain to the students that I will not give impossible or ridiculous tasks and that every direction I give will be either academic or safety-related. If I direct them to open their books or take out a sheet of paper, it is not in an effort to be bossy, but to begin an assignment. Likewise, if I direct them to quickly and quietly line up to exit the building, or I lock the doors and tell them to quietly line up on a windowless wall, I am thinking of their safety. I will never give a direction without reason or for the intent to trick or humiliate a student or class. I emphasize this as I work to build rapport and establish trust. The second rule is to raise their hands and wait to be called on when they need to say something. My pet peeve is when students constantly interrupt. Sometimes in a discussion setting, it is acceptable, but other times in lecture or student presentations, the interruptions are unsettling to the speaker and stop the flow of learning. With my students, I like to role play various scenarios of interruptions. If I have a student I’ve worked with before, I ask them to get up in front of the class and tell something exciting or fun they did recently. As soon as they get warmed up, I constantly ask questions or make random comments, until the student finally tells me to “cut it out.” I do this with several students and later on in the class as they are working on their mission statements (that I will discuss a bit later), they recall the frustration of being interrupted and start to “buy-in” to the rule. Sometimes, I will even ask them to share a personal experience when someone constantly interrupted and this helps them to grasp why the rule might be important in the classroom setting. My last rule is to be respectful of the teacher and classmates by keeping hands and feet to oneself, leaving others’ property alone, and speaking quietly and kindly. This respect rule can be vague if it is just posted as “be respectful.” Students do not always know what respect is or how to define it or act it out. Including the hands and feet, the personal property, and speaking are all useful visual hints to remind them some basics of respect. We also discuss within the group how they know when someone is respectful. Sometimes based on their discussion, they add more parameters to the rule. Their discussion also carries over into their mission statements.

Consequences and Interventions

Once the rules are established, shared, explained, and comprehended, I will go over the positive and negative consequences. Since I believe that most referrals are a waste of time, I share with the students that after a warning, a conference with me, a chill out location (using a team teacher’s classroom for the student to take some time to calm down or reflect), a call home, and a team conference, that there is a possibility for a referral. Instant referrals are only for items where safety is threatened. And with my older students, although cursing is a concern, it is something that a quiet, gentle reminder to watch their language has been more sufficient than a threat of referral or a trip to the office. During the first several weeks, I share with my students that some people find cursing offensive or inappropriate and that there will be times when they are frustrated and angry and want to vent. Cursing once or twice will get a warning, but part of respect means they do not curse at me or at others.

When I taught in the inner city, with some tough and mouthy kids, I found that when I treated them more like adults with some permissiveness and less punitive reactions, that their language changed, becoming less offensive. Positive consequences are dependent on students responses to the Reinforcement Survey (attached) and can include anything from a choice in activities, Mascot Money, public or private praise, a phone call home, a Star of the Week card, lunch with the teacher, or a classroom celebration. Also within this time frame, I explain a variety of interventions that I usually call coping with stress. These include the vent book, a vent partner, a vent activity, and a venting location. All ten years of my teaching experience, I have kept a notebook in the classroom called the “vent book”. If a student is having a particularly bad day, we have a pre-arranged signal for that student to spend some time in the back of the class or in the hallway writing in the vent book. They can say anything. They have the option of giving me the page they’ve written, taking it home, or ripping it up and throwing it away. Anything they tell me remains confidential unless it is a safety issue. I also always respond back to them in writing, returning to them that specific page. My responses vary from “I’m sorry that happened” to “yes, little brothers can be a pain!” Those who choose to rip theirs up find that it’s somewhat symbolic and therapeutic to rip up their bad day.

The vent partner is a watered down peer mediation tactic where the student may speak with a friend in private to vent about their day. My students have time where we learn reflexive listening. The vent activity can be anything from running an errand to heading to the gym to blow off steam, and the vent location is a place that they find calming like another teacher’s classroom or ten minutes as an aide for a favorite staff member. These interventions have all been used in my classroom and have averted several situations that could have been tense and potentially troublesome. I have partnered with several buddy teachers who will handle my students who need to vent, walk it off, calm down, or just take a break from a peer or me, their teacher.

This past year, I implemented soccer warnings. Yellow cards and red cards. The yellow card is a violation of learning and is a tangible notice (on a yellow stock paper) that the student is stopping himself or others from learning. Just like in soccer, it is a warning. He is still in the game, still in the class. I don't say anything when I hand the yellow card to a student. A big deal is not made and most of the time, the student accepts the warning. If the behavior continues, he earns a red card, which sends him to a buddy room to time out or to the office. For most of my students, the yellow card was enough. For others, the red card and five minutes out of class were all they needed to get refocused. For those who returned to continue the misbehavior, I then attached the yellow and red tickets to their office referral or to the contact home.

Where I learned Soccer Cards!


Next, I will move on to my classroom procedures. I try to have a procedure in place for everything from the beginning of class to restroom passes to transitions and to the end of class. The procedures are posted and can be revised depending on how efficient or inefficient they turn out to be. The procedures are also rehearsed with all grade levels until they become smooth and effortless. At my school in Florida, my students were so familiar with the daily procedures that they were working from the moment the bell rang to begin class to the moment the bell rang to end class. They entered the classroom before the bell, sat in their assigned seats, took out paper to work on their bell work assignment (a writing prompt), they worked silently during the 20 seconds it took for me to take attendance based on empty seats, they waited quietly for me to begin the classroom activity, and when the bell rang, their bell work served as their exit slips. Within the class period, they knew where to go for different activities. During rehearsal phases, the actors would take their place on stage, the set designers would take their place in the set design location, the technicians would go to the computers, and so on. For restroom breaks and such, they knew to fill out their agendas, wait for me to be free, and get my signature. Exits and entrances were non-disruptive and transitions were smooth. I did not have students yelling they had to use the restroom or sharpen a pencil. Though there were times the classroom was loud with actors acting and set designers using power tools, it was an organized chaos where each player knew his place. With regards to procedures, I follow Wong’s view that rules broken should be dealt with and procedures broken should be re-taught and rehearsed. I think that some items like turning in homework and chewing gum and sharpening a pencil the wrong way are not worthy of a referral. Most behaviors can be dealt with, I think, without the need for a trip to the principal.

Are Positive Behavior Support programs really effective in your school?

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SMART goals and Mission Statements

On the second, third, and fourth day of classes, my students develop personal SMART goals and a class-wide mission statement. A SMART goal is a goal that is specific, measurable, aligned with class goals, realistic, and time bound. If I am teaching a language arts class and the student’s goal is to pass math, then his goal is not aligned with the class. The goal must be specific (such as participation, passing with a certain grade, turning in homework) and measurable with a number. A goal to lose 50 pounds in a week is unrealistic, so the goal must be realistic. I tell my theatre students in the 6th grade if their goal is to be on Broadway that week, then that is not very realistic. The time bounded-ness of the goal gives a time frame for how long it will take to accomplish the goals. I have my students focus on 9 week periods and then mid-way through the 9 weeks, they reflect on how they are doing and at the end of the 9 weeks, they reflect on how they did. My students also develop an action plan of how they will accomplish their goal and a tracking system to keep in their data folders.

Once SMART goals are made, my students write them and put them in a visual place. With my middle school students, they wrote them on stars and stapled them to the wall. It made the classroom very festive to have a wall full of stars. After the SMART goals are posted, the students work together to form a class-wide mission statement. Through various activities and discussion starters, the students brainstorm what they want from the class, what makes a class run smoothly, what makes a class successful, what makes them happy in class, and answer the questions: What is the purpose of this class? What is the vision for this class? What behaviors should a quality student possess? And based on your answers, what should the class mission statement be? They then write a mission statement on how the class will be approached. In an in-service I took in Florida, we were taught that the mission statement is the pathway the students will take to accomplish their goals. Once the mission is decided, the students also have an enjoyable time developing a classroom name for their class period. The mission statement is made into a poster and is read through as a class, discussed in detail, and then each student signs his or her name on the poster. The three years I have done this in my classroom, I found that the students felt they had more control of the classroom atmosphere when they knew what was expected, that we were all on the same page, that I would behave in a certain way, and that their specific classroom needs and wants would be met.

In the 2013-2014 school year, my students made quarterly SMART goals. During the second quarter, I offered the incentive of extra credit and a reward (treat or free time) if they achieved their goals. We also made the goals into a giant chain circling the classroom with a poster that stated "You are only as strong as your weakest link." We made accountability our classroom motto and students began to keep each other accountable of their goals which were also written in their journals and known by their peers. On the last day of the quarter, we had a big celebration where we reflected on the goals, extra credit was given (100 points for meeting the goal was enough to bring a grade from a B- to a B). Students received their treat and free time and those who didn't make their goals had the chance to reflect on what they needed to change. We then made our next quarterly goals and students aimed a little higher. By the third and fourth quarters, students were actively policing each other on completed assignments and goal action steps. I didn't need to remind or "nag" about missing work because the students wanted the entire class to succeed. At the end of the year, in my final feedback from students, the majority of students said to keep the SMART goals, the chain and poster, and the rewards.

Do Token Economies work?

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The Token Economy

During these introductory weeks, I will introduce the token reinforcement program based on their responses to the reinforcement survey. When students are on task, behaving exemplary, or increasing desired behaviors, they will receive Mascot Money[1] to spend in the Mascot Market. All students will be able to earn the Mascot Money as they behave well, but also, dependent on the students’ personal motivators, there will be in class rewards tailored to suit that student’s specific personality and preferences. There are two ways that I will keep track of points. The first places the responsibility in the student’s hands as they collect their Mascot Money. Because the program is a school-wide program, the agendas have a built in pocket designated to hold the Mascot Money. When students receive their Mascot Money, they are to put it into that pocket. They will keep track of how many dollars they have to spend and decide how they will spend their earnings. The second method requires me to keep track on a spreadsheet that I maintain daily, using a variety of shorthand and symbols to indicate good and poor behavior. This tracking sheet helps me to determine patterns of behavior as well and remind myself, as needed, when things went well or didn’t go so well. For example, some of my shorthand includes “m” for mouth (indicating they were talking) or “ph” for peer helper (to indicate they were helpful towards a classmate). This personal tracking sheet serves as a reminder for me; however, I will also have a wall chart per class period where the entire class can earn a star based on their daily behavior. The class-wide tracking and tokens will allow the class to choose a suitable award for themselves.

Based on the Reinforcement Survey, I will have a good idea as to what the powerful motivators are that will be successful in my token program. Within the classroom and school-wide, the students will have a chance to set a goal as to how many tokens (Mascot Money) they will need to exchange for a prize. School-wide, the PTO will fund a Mascot Market where students may exchange their Mascot Money for various items from 1 Dollar to 500 Dollars. Items range from school supplies and candy to books, toys and hand held video games. Within the classroom, students may exchange tickets for choice classroom activities or responsibilities. The class, as a whole, can trade in tickets together for 10 minutes of free time on a Friday or for their activity of choice. Or the class can choose to wait until they’ve earned a number of stars on their wall chart. What I especially like about class incentives is that the majority of the time my classes have chosen theatre games or improvisations or script readings as their activity of choice and so I feel confident that my theatre curriculum remains largely uninterrupted. The same has been true in my Language Arts classroom. The students choose to have a Socratic discussion, participate in Round Robin Writing, or play Scattegories, Scrabble, or Bananagrams. However, that being said, there have been times that they have chosen to socialize during a free ten minutes and I feel that this has worked to build stronger relationships in the classroom, especially as there is always a group of students who chose to socialize with me, thus reinforcing the teacher/student dynamic. The Mascot Market within my classroom will include more classroom focused activities than physical rewards like toys or food. In a middle school classroom, I have found that when students can direct some of the activities or choose, that they feel they have a modicum of control. Within my class, those activities can include theatre games, charades, board games, word games, puzzles, time on the computer, story games, costume play, creative play, improvisation, art work, social time, time outside, and for some students, helping out around the classroom.

When all of these elements have been decided upon after the surveys are taken and the data is collected, then the program will be explained to the students. Since my target behavior revolved around my classroom rules, I will explain that when a student is “caught” following directions, raising his hand, or respecting others, that he can earn a Mascot Money. There will always be students who cry out for fairness or feel unrecognized, so it will also be explained that if I don’t “catch” them, there will be a chance for them to remind me at some point during the class period. I will also share that they can earn Mascot Money for helping others, doing the right thing (which could include choosing to ignore an insult), being positive, and just for showing exemplary engagement in the activity. As targeted behaviors occur, I will distribute the Mascot Money. For my younger students, this will sometimes accompanied with public praise and a statement such as “I appreciate your…” whereas for my older students who might find public praise embarrassing, I will rely more on proximity as I hand them the Mascot Money and a quiet comment of praise as I let them know that I appreciate the specific behavior.

As students begin earning their individual Mascot Money and their classroom points, I will use Fridays as a chance to check in with them as to their progress. If they were hoping to raise 10 Mascot Monies for a certain reward in class or at the Mascot Market, then they can use that time to exchange. If they have not raised their desired amount yet, I will encourage them that there is still time and to keep working at it. Those middle school students who would like to shop at the Mascot Market will be sent down with a hall pass. Third, fourth, and fifth graders who would like to shop at the Mascot Market will use their homeroom time to spend their money. As Mascot Money is spent, behavior is always on target, and progress has been made, I will take the time to revisit the program and see how I can modify the reward system. With certain classes, I may have them work collectively for a larger reward and dispense of the Mascot Money while they work together. With other classes, as other issues may have arisen, I will focus on a new targeted behavior and plan the rewards accordingly.

[1] In Florida, our mascot was a dragon, so our tokens were called “Dragon Diamonds”. Other schools have Cougar Cash and Panther Pesos…

Staying Positive

As with any Positive Behavior Support program, in addition to incentives, my focus should also be on maintaining a positive attitude that nurtures and encourages the students and where I use every opportunity I can to give positive feedback, praise, encouragement, and develop an environment where students want to do their best. The two weeks of preparation at the beginning of the school year serve as a tool to build rapport, establish rules, rehearse procedures, and allow the students to have the feeling that they have some valid input into how the class is run. As I implement a Positive Behavior Support program and a token economy system, all of these factors work together to make my classroom environment one where students are motivated to learn, work together, behave well, and succeed.

The Reinforcement Survey

Classroom Reinforcement Survey

Student Name ___________________________ Grade _______ Birth date _____________

  1. How do you learn best? A. alone. B. with a group.
  2. What do you find easiest? A. Reading B. Listening C. Hands-on D. Discussion
  3. What topics interest you?
  4. What are some of your strengths?
  5. Would you rather? A. Sit still B. Move around C. have planned breaks to move or stretch
  6. When are you at your best? A. morning B. after lunch C. at the end of the day
  7. When do you find it hardest to concentrate? A. When hungry B. When bored. C. When tired. D. When upset
  8. What helps you behave well in class?
  9. Rate how much you like each of the subjects? Circle response. 1 for not at all, 3 for very much.

Reading 1 2 3 Spelling 1 2 3 Writing 1 2 3

Math 1 2 3 Science 1 2 3 English 1 2 3

Social Studies 1 2 3 Music 1 2 3 P.E. 1 2 3

Art 1 2 3 Foreign Language 1 2 3 Other __________ 1 2 3

10. My favorite adult at school is:

11.My best friend is:

12. When I am angry, I need to:

13. When I do well in school, a person I’d like to know about it is:

14. When I do well in school, I wish my teacher would

15. When I have free time, I like to

16. I feel great at school when

17. I am motivated by: A. private praise. B. public praise. C. written praise D. notes or phone calls home.

18. The kind of punishment at school I hate the most is

19. I will do anything to keep from

20. I don't like it when teachers

21. When I do good work I want to get A. points. B. good grades. C. sticker on paper

22. The thing that upsets me most is

23. The thing that upsets my teacher the most is


Which of the following would you like to be rewarded with?

Candy (specify)____________________

Snacks (specify) ___________________

Fruit/veggie (speficy) _______________

Drinks (specify)____________________

Which of the following would you like to be rewarded with?

Going to the library.

Making projects.

Having good work displayed.

Completing creative writing projects.

Getting good grades.

Earning teacher praise.

Having parents praise good schoolwork.

Getting a note sent home.

Sharing a report or story with the class.

Other. ________________________

Which of the following would you like to be rewarded with?

Stuffed animals.

Sports equipment.

Pencils, markers crayons.





Other. __________

Which of the following makes you feel rewarded?

Teaching things to other people.

Having class parties.

Being the teacher’s helper.

Working with friends in class.

Spending time with friends.

Helping keep the room clean.

Spending time with teacher.

Being a tutor.

Spending time with the principal.

Being a leader in class.

Spending time with __________

Other ____________________

Which of the following recreational opportunities would you like to be rewarded with?

Using the computer.

Building models

Listening to music .

Woodworking and carpentry

Singing .

Sports ___________________

Playing a musical instrument.

Working with crafts.

Watching TV or a movie.


Picking a theatre game Improvisation games

Reading a script

Time outdoors

Time to socialize

Creative writing

Writing a skit or play

Other _____________________

Should students be motivated intrinsically or extrinsically?

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