The Ultimate Guide to a Token Economy for Schools

A token economy is a classroom management tool to engage students and incentivize learning and behaviors.
By 
Justin McElwee
 | 
April 13, 2022

Why do you go to work? Think about that for a second. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons you may mention or list out. However, eventually we ALL will get to one in common: we’re paid for our services! 

It’s not a selfish thing to admit. Heck, while I love doing my job, the paycheck is definitely an incentive to keep me going. 

Our students are no different in this regard. If anything, it is even more apparent that they require an incentive to do their work. Students at a younger age may not have that intrinsic value that adults take for granted when they are successful. This is what makes a concept like creating a token economy in the classroom so vitally important! 

What is a Token Economy?

Alright, picture this! Imagine you’re a teacher. The year has been going fairly well, however, you’ve noticed after a few months that the buy-in from your students is starting to become subpar. 

Are your lessons not engaging? 

Are you giving too much homework? 

Is the material not exciting? 

These are all questions teachers and educators have had to wrangle with since the beginning of time. If you’re feeling this way, do not stress out! It happens. All teachers have been there. 

However, the key aspect is being able to pick yourself up and implement a technique that will reinvigorate students into wanting to be successful.

This can be done by implementing a token economy in your classroom. 

However, before we get into the specifics of implementing it, we need to understand just what it is by having a definition. It’s actually quite simple, and by the time you're done reading this article, you’ll have the information to hit the ground running on improving your classroom. 

Token Economy Definition

A Token Economy is an economic system put in place where students can earn some sort of “token” for a behavior you want to improve upon. Those tokens can then be redeemed for prizes in a class store that you may set up. 

Just like an adult may “redeem” their paycheck for a new television, groceries, or paying bills, this token economy allows students to redeem their tokens for a prize or potential perk that will be available to them in the classroom. 

Token Economy & Behavior

In order for this system to be successful, you have to figure out what behaviors you are trying to increase or improve. It’s important to start out small in this regard. 

Target three to four behaviors you'd like to see be more prevalent in your classroom. Your targets can be a combination of the three listed below: 

  1. Academic
  2. Social-Emotional (SEL) 
  3. Behavior-Focused

Academic Behaviors

For example, your students may be having an issue turning in work on time or completing it to the best of their ability.

With the incentive of a token economy at work, a teacher can suggest that once a student has turned in work successfully a few times during the week they earn a token. 

Social-Emotional Behaviors

If we’re going the SEL route, an educator can request that anytime a student sees another student showing kindness to others, they can be nominated to earn a token. 

This is a great suggestion because not only does it get students wanting to perform to a higher level, but it also has their classmates actively looking for these behaviors so they can recommend them for a token. 

General Behaviors

There’s always a chance that behaviors are an issue, as they are in just about any classroom. As a teacher, you can suggest one of two potential options. 

First, you can stipulate that if certain behaviors are decreased (or replaced with positive behavior) a token can be earned. 

The other component could be that if a student is struggling with their behaviors, but is actively able to refrain from them or “come back from them” they can earn a token as well. 

Why Does a Token Economy System Work?

The key aspect that makes the Token Economy System work is the actual incentives themselves. 

As we discussed earlier, younger students do not have that same intrinsic motivation or value to succeed that adults may have when it comes to their work. It’s understandable! A token economy can nudge them in the right direction, especially when a reward or perk is on the line. 

This is why the Token Economy System is so powerful. It’s a versatile system that can be implemented quickly and with little effort because if there is buy-in from the students then they will help carry the system. 

Token Economy Ideas

You might be asking yourself, “what can a teacher offer as an incentive?” You’d be surprised just how much you have available at your disposal. Let’s look at two different approaches to classroom rewards and incentives.

  1. Physical/Tangible Rewards

Physical rewards are often immediate and satisfy students who want to work towards something they can see and hold. For example, maybe students can redeem their token for school supplies they need, fidgets, small toys, affordable gift cards, and anything else tangible

These particular rewards work because it is something students can point to and make the connection that their behavior is what allowed them to earn them. It’s a powerful concept that really shows just how valuable the token economy can be.

  1. Special Perks/Opportunities

The other aspect of rewards that you may choose to offer students in your classroom fall more into the “perks” or opportunities category. 

As a teacher, we see how often students aim to please and help their educators. This is where we can honor that mentality. 

Perks in the classroom can include five minutes of free time, teacher/student assistant (where they help classmates who are struggling), runner (where they can deliver messages to other staff when needed), and so on. 

The potential is really endless because these perks are really just basic small tasks or opportunities that a student may be excited to earn because it will set them apart from others.

A One-Stop-Shop for Better Behavior

A token economy is an invaluable behavior management tool to not only re-engage students who may be struggling but also incentivize both their learning and behaviors. 

One of the strongest aspects of this particular system is that it can be both implemented in all grade levels and tweaked to support a variety of needs and issues. 

Regardless if you’re having academic, behavioral, or social-emotional issues in the classroom, a token economy can act as a literal one-stop-shop to help improve those potential issues and make your classroom a more exciting place to be.

Learn more about the author, 
Justin McElwee
 

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