A step-by-step guide to developing a classroom reward system

Maintaining effective behaviour for learning is a prerequisite for learning and pupil progress. It is important that teachers have a full and varied toolkit of strategies at their disposal to maintain ordered, safe and productive classrooms. The use of token reward systems can support the maintenance of positive behaviour for learning by supporting routines and offering a consistent response that rewards desired behaviours. This in turn maintains a climate of positive relationships in the classroom.

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Token reward systems for primary schools: a brief overview

Classroom token reward systems use tangible ’reinforcers’, such as tokens or stickers, to reward and promote positive behaviour for learning. 

These token reinforcers are used as physical ‘merit points’ and are awarded to pupils for doing something well, such as:

  • exhibiting target behaviour for learning
  • completing an academic task
  • improving concentration and focus on a task
  • being well prepared and ready to learn
  • achieving success criteria for a lesson
  • working well as a team
  • finding a creative solution to a problem
  • performing a task that benefits the class or the school community

The tokens can be later placed in a bag or collection box that represents either the individual pupil or a group within the class, and exchanged for a clearly defined reward. This can be developed into a token economy system where the tokens can be extensively used in the school to purchase rewards or privileges.

The ‘house point’ system used in many UK schools is one popular form of reward system. This sees pupils separated into different ‘houses’ and allowed to ‘compete’ in order to win the most points for their given house. The rewards on offer can be as simple as the pride and prestige of coming top, or teachers may offer actual benefits for pupils in the winning house, such as a choice of reading material or free time.

The advantages of a token reward system

Some of the main benefits of a token reward system are listed below:

  • good behaviour is normalised and low-level disruption discouraged, improving classroom atmosphere and behaviour in the wider school community
  • if implemented school-wide, can be tailored to particular needs of individuals and groups to good effect
  • rewards can be changed over time, according to discretion of the educator to improve motivation and effectiveness, as long as all pupils are made aware of the available rewards
  • token reward systems are very effective for children exhibiting attention deficit disorder (ADD) traits, especially when rewards are tailored to the specific needs of the pupil

The advantages gained from reward systems are not simply improved behaviour for learning and increased motivation. Pupils also display psychological responses, including:

  • pride through achievement
  • joy at success
  • increased self-confidence

These responses are characteristics of effective learners and are a symptom of an effective behaviour management strategy in a school.

Key factors for a successful reward system

The following table describes the three significant elements needed for a classroom reward programme:

Term

Description

Example

Target behaviours

The specific attitudes and behaviours you wish to reward your pupils for exhibiting.

Asking to talk without interrupting others, keeping on task for a target time period, being well prepared and settling quickly at the beginning of an activity,    moving between activities without delay, following specific class rules.

Token reinforcers

Small items that can be given out by the educator as ‘merit points’ and ultimately traded in, either for house points or to gain a tangible reward, such as a pencil.

Tokens, badges, stars, tickets or plastic coins.

Terminal reinforcers

Items or activities that pupils are given access to as a reward for achieving a clearly set number of merit points.

Computer time, small toys, passing out books, being in charge of sharing time.

For a reward system to work effectively, educators must first explain the process to pupils in a clear and comprehensive manner. If the system is not clear to pupils, or the educator is seen to deviate from the stated rules for how pupils are rewarded, the children will lose confidence in the system and respond less to the incentives.

To ensure consistency, educators must do the following:

  • set clear goals, i.e. the behaviours you wish to see
  • explain how the reward system works to the children, including the amount of tokens that are required to achieve a privilege
  • be vigilant of behaviour that requires reward
  • be consistent about the behaviour that elicits a reward

Step-by-step guide to developing your own reward system

1. Define the behaviours you wish to see and clearly explain them to pupils

Decide on three or four easily definable types of behaviour that you will reward in class.

It is crucial to a successful reward system that these target behaviours are clearly described to all the pupils. Ambiguity will cause confusion, which will ultimately reduce the effectiveness of the system.

The aim of a school reward system is to increase positivity through motivation. To achieve this, the target behaviour should be explained to pupils as those types of behaviour that the educator wishes to see, rather than the behaviour they would not like to see.

Be specific about behavioural goals. ‘Being respectful’ may be too open and might not achieve the results you desire. A more effective alternative would be ‘put your hand up when you want to speak and wait for the person speaking to finish’.

2. Pick behaviour that you know you pupils can achieve

This should be based on your knowledge of the pupils’ typical behaviour and level of development. It is important to set goals that you know can be achieved or else you risk demoralising the students and turning them against the system from the start.

For example, you may wish all your students to stay seated during story time. However, if none of your pupils are able to do this for the whole duration, start by rewarding those who stayed seated the longest and those who have shown the most improvement. Make sure of course that the time you expect them to focus on the story is appropriate for their age and stage of development and that the story is exciting and motivating in itself so that pupils can succeed.

To begin with, it is best to choose between two and four behaviours you wish to reinforce. These can be added to or substituted for different behaviours at a later date.

3. Clearly define the behaviours

Make sure you clearly define the type of behaviour you wish to see. It is important that you are able to easily observe when a pupil has behaved according to your definition so that you can dispense the reward fairly and consistently.

Behaviour that is hard to define and monitor may cause pupils to feel hard done by if teachers miss when it has occurred.

Well-defined behaviour is:

  • easily observable
  • specific
  • clear

and may be time related.

If two educators can see and agree that a pupil has behaved according to the definition, this usually means the behaviour is well-defined.

4. Keep a record of the awards

It is important to keep track of the tokens that have been given out. Rewards that can easily go astray start to lose their meaning and cease to be effective.

Tokens can be placed in a collection box or other container and counted up after a defined period of time. Similarly, stars and other forms of stickers can be placed in a work book or planner, to be counted at a later date.

5. Involve the children in choosing the rewards

Allowing the children to take part in designing the system increases their engagement. It also helps you to identify the type of reward that a child finds most desirable.

One method of choosing an appropriate reward is to conduct a class discussion aimed at generating a list of rewards.

The following table includes some examples of possible rewards:

Free time in the classroom

Library time

Handing out books

Helping the librarian

Leading songs

Field trips

Extra break timev

Small toys

Time on the computer

Taking register

Collecting work

Cleaning the blackboard

Watering plants

Acting as line leader

Playing games

Snacks

Another way of generating rewards is by observing what the children like to do. These activities can then be presented to the children as a list from which they can choose.

6. Define the finishing line

If you are promising a reward that you will not grant until later, it is important that you tell the pupils what they must do to achieve it. This will usually involve an individual student, a class ‘house’ or the whole class collecting a certain number of tokens. The time scale between earning tokens and reward needs to be shorter for younger children and those with additional needs . Good knowledge of the pupils will ensure that an appropriate timescale is chosen and maintained.

For example, for a whole class reward for older students, students may be expected to earn 500 tokens over a term. When this is achieved, the class can then choose a field trip from a set of prepared options. This timescale would be too long for some pupils.

Whether individual students or the entire class, it is useful to set the goal at an achievable level. Set the starting goal just above your normal expectations for student/class behaviour. Setting an achievable goal allows the children to experience success and learn what gaining success leads to.

How to maintain the reward system

It is not enough to simply launch a reward system and hope it will run itself. For the best results, it is important to reinforce with the pupils how the system works and what you hope to achieve.

The following will help you maintain a smooth and effective reward system:

  1. Discuss the reward system with the class at least once a week, but as much as once a day. Talk about the behaviour you wish to see and the rewards that will result.
  2. Be visible when praising students for behaving according to the system. Allow ‘observational learning’ by making sure both the rewarded pupil and their nearby classmates know why the prize has been given. This lets pupils know what behaviour they should try to achieve and creates a social element whereby peers will want to achieve the same behaviour/reward.
  3. Give all students the chance to achieve a larger reward (terminal reinforcer) at least once a week. This helps to maintain pupil motivation towards the reward system and reinforces the relationship between the tokens and the ultimate prizes.
  4. Do not use the system to shame pupils. Use the tokens to reinforce good behaviour rather than shaming children for “bad behaviour”.
  5. Be strict and consistent when handing out the final rewards (terminal reinforcers). Reserve such prizes only for when a pupil has reached the required number of tokens. If children learn there is another way to achieve these rewards — such as simply by asking or being upset — the rewards will lose their power to positively modify behaviour.
  6. Ensure that all staff maintain a good understanding of the principles of using your reward system by clear induction for new staff, ongoing monitoring by senior leadership and careful explanation in school policy and procedures.
  7. Ensure parents have a clear understanding of the systems you are using so that they can support and celebrate success with you and their children.

As an educator, you will understand the limits and behaviours of your pupils. These guidelines are a framework around which you can build a reward-based system. It is perfectly acceptable to modify this framework to suit specific needs. The important thing to remember for a successful system is:

  • clearly explain the rule
  • pick achievable behaviour
  • be consistent when rewarding