Are token economies effective at influencing behaviour in the classroom?

Teachers talk a lot about rewards and discipline, and there’s little wonder why this is so – a well behaved class is much easier to teach, and a motivated class tends to get better results. This mindset has led to what is often called “token economies”. That is, classroom setups where small rewards can be accumulated and relinquished by children in line with their behaviour. But are they effective? Let’s have a look.

What is a token economy?

A token economy gives intrinsic value to good behaviour and punishes bad, and can take many forms. The commonest is a simple collection of tokens (gold stars can be used, or a table on the wall), where a merit is given for good work and one is removed for misbehaviour or children not pulling their weight.

It can be made more complex, for example having multiple tokens for particularly good work. The system doesn’t have to apply to individuals, either – teams or houses can be set up that reward groups of children, which can give kudos to those who try hardest and misbehave the least, and can create peer pressure to behave. It’s important to monitor such economies, however, as it’s never right to turn children against each other or to punish those who might have issues outside the school gates.

Finally, rewards come into play. They can be weekly, at the end of each term, or at whatever frequency fits best. They could be physical age-relevant gifts and treats, extended playtimes, or simply a round of applause from the rest of the class. It’s all worth having.

But does it work?

The question is, how effective are reward economies? We can assume that since house points and merits have been with us for decades, teachers must see real value in implementing such a scheme. Obviously, it does not work in isolation. It’s all the teachers’ educational and personal skills that make a successful class, and nobody would claim otherwise. However, as another tool in the box, it’s useful in several educational situations:

· Borderline cases – some children are just a small amount of motivation away from being in the top flight, and benefit from the push a rewards scheme gives.

· Where discipline is a problem – discipline can sometimes get out of hand, but instead of simply punishing children, displaying the alternative (reward) can make them think twice about misbehaving.

· Stand-in teachers – substitute teachers are often brought in at short notice and have to hit the ground running, all the time building and maintaining pupil respect. A token economy is a fast-track to getting there as children will be eager to please, and some of them will see it as a chance to wipe the slate clean.

Collectable tokens

All economies need a currency, and school token economies are no different. A school reward system that has physical tokens is often better than writing bar charts or moving sliders. You’re in complete control and there’s a visual display of who’s closest to the reward threshold for all to see. Throw in colours that kids love, and it’s the ideal choice for teachers.

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