School reward systems: Plastic tokens vs the alternatives

The use of classroom-based reward systems is a tried-and-tested method of motivating pupils and promoting good behaviour for learning. Over the years, ingenious teaching professionals have devised many different ways of using tokens and other incentives to build effective reward systems.

Here we look at some of the most popular methods and outline their advantages and drawbacks.




The tactile nature of tokens makes them particularly popular among younger pupils; receiving a solid token they can hold in their hand helps to reinforce the reason behind the reward. Pupils are motivated by the active participation involved within a token system — pupils must either keep hold of their tokens until a later date, or deposit them in a collector.


The act of handing over a token offers teachers a chance to personally engage with the pupil. This small but significant moment of personal praise strengthens and cements the teacher’s recognition of the pupil’s motivation to demonstrate good behaviour for learning.


Tokens allow for the implementation of a number of different reward strategies, such as house points or a school token economy system.


The best system is one that a busy teacher can use easily. It has to be simple enough that the rewards can be given out consistently and monitored with little effort.


Tokens offer the chance for immediate positive reinforcement, regardless of whether or not there is a larger prize on offer, as might be the case when an individual or house has accumulated the most tokens.



As with all reward systems, if the teacher is not consistent, or the process is not properly monitored, students will lose faith in the system.

Electronic rewards



Gives teachers the chance to record details about the pupil’s behaviour for learning.


An individual’s positive behaviour history can be presented as visual data in the form of a graph. This can be displayed on screens around the school or on a website.


Allows teachers to easily assess a pupil’s development over time.


Some electronic systems offer pupils the chance to donate their ‘points’ to charity, especially in the case of virtual money. This allows for a different, more selfless dynamic, which is less about ‘what you can get for yourself’.


There is less chance that a teacher will disappoint pupils by forgetting or running out of the physical rewards.


Allows for greater communication between teacher and parent via e-mail or text.



The lack of a physical transaction can mean rewards are less effective.


Whatever the platform, the teacher must still download information to a website. Children may also need to learn how to access the site and understand exactly what the information presented means.


Teachers are tasked with logging on and downloading the information themselves. They must do this immediately or risk being seen as inconsistent. Many primary teachers could find this time-consuming when they have a busy class to manage.


The reward may be delayed due to IT access issues and therefore may be less immediate and effective.

Requires electronic infrastructure

To work effectively, a classroom will be required to have enough tablets and similar electronic devices all al the children to access, as well as an electronic screen on to which praise and comments can be posted.


Used correctly, electronic reward systems allow data to be recorded and grouped for convenient access. However, in a busy classroom it is not always possible or practical to spend time filling in all the correct fields. This can leave pupils confused about why they were rewarded.




Most children find stickers intrinsically fun. If the teacher allows, pupils can enjoy sticking their stickers into a book or on to a card or chart.


Stickers come in all shapes and sizes, from small dots and stars to large shield-sized badges and tags. These different shapes can help teachers categorise the types of rewards they give out.


Much like a token, the act of handing over any sticker can help to reinforce good behaviour for learning in the mind of the pupil.


Stickers can be used for a number of behaviour reinforcement strategies.



Stickers have a tendency to become unstuck and go astray. They can also be damaged when placed on cards or booklets.


Losing stickers from their recording card can lead pupils to find the process pointless. Once pupils feel that the desirable behaviour has not been adequately recorded, they can easily lose interest in the system itself.

Hard to record

Whether stickers are placed in work books, on a chart or on individual cards, space can become an issue. As stickers start to overlay one another, correctly recording totals can become difficult.

Traffic lights

In this system, a traffic light-style set of lights is placed in the room. When the pupils’ behaviour for learning remains on target, the green light stays on; as behaviour deteriorates, the lights turn to amber and then red. Each colour has its own set of consequences, depending on the number of times they are seen in a day and the length of time each light stays on.



This strategy does not require any small pieces. Nor do any individual instances of behaviour need recording.


As the lights indicate to the pupils that the teacher is unhappy, there is no need for voices to be raised in order to quiet the class.


Neither pupil nor teacher is required to maintain a score card. Behaviour can be reinforced with the flick of a switch.



What is gained in ease may be lost through an inability to directly praise individual pupils.


Not only do pupils lose the benefit of individual praise, each pupil will have different requirements that need to be catered for directly.

Alternative traffic light systems involve the placing of children’s names under red, amber and green sections of a board according to the child’s demonstration of target behaviours. Though such systems offer similar benefits in terms of simplicity, their effectiveness has been called into question, with some experts suggesting the systems tend to solidify behaviour habits rather than change them.

Achievement tree

This strategy works by introducing a model or picture of a tree into the classroom. Pupils who have shown good behaviour for learning are allowed to add leaves to the tree. The leaves will carry the name of the pupil and the behaviour for which they have been praised.



The involvement of the pupil in building up the tree helps to reinforce the target behaviour.


Both pupils and visiting parents can see the achievements of the pupils who have placed leaves on the tree.


The fun element that comes from writing on the leaf and placing it on the tree acts as a positive incentive.



Any model tree only has a limited amount of space. This may lead teachers to restrict their praise, compromising consistency.


Such a system is at risk of damage. Once leaves fall off and become lost, pupils may stop believing in the system and lose interest.

Final thought

Whatever system of positive reinforcement you choose, keep it simple, personal and immediate. The more complex the strategy, the harder it is to maintain consistent praise as the weeks go on. If pupils feel that their behaviour is not being recognised, they will quickly become demotivated and grow bored with the system.

Regardless of the prizes and benefits that a reward system may offer, nothing is as effective as personal praise. Making pupils feel valued and appreciated is always the best way to motivate and encourage a class.

Similarly, although deferred rewards may create an initial response, a disconnect between target  behaviour and ultimate reward can weaken the overall beneficial effect and prompt pupils to lose interest.

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