When I first heard other teachers talking about using a token economy system in their classroom, I thought it sounded far too complicated. I was fine with simpler methods of management, and a token system just sounded like more work, which I certainly didn’t need. Over the years, however, I gave it more thought, and eventually I heard enough about the perks of this system that I decided to give it a try. I have used a token economy in my third-grade classroom for six years now, and the fact that I continue to use it shows that it has worked well for me.
Before I describe this system further, let me offer a few caveats. First of all, I don’t particularly like the word system. It is important to remember that your number one classroom management tool is a caring relationship with your students. No perfect system exists, and because you are working with human beings, every management technique has its flaws and exceptions. Systems have no power to change hearts. Also, please don’t hear me saying that I think this is the only way or even the best way of doing things. Different procedures work well for different people, and you need to find what works best for you.
With those cautions in mind, I will tell you how I use the token system in my classroom. I post a chart on the wall with the names of all my students and five smiley faces beside each name, one for each day of the school week. When a student breaks a basic classroom rule or procedure, such as talking without permission, I take down his or her smiley face for that day. A second offense on the same day brings some other consequence, but with most students this rarely happens.
At the end of each week, every student gets the same number of tokens as the number of smiley faces that are left beside their name. The tokens I give them are simply laminated squares with a printed picture that fits with our classroom theme. The students are responsible for keeping these in a safe place. They also have the occasional opportunity to earn additional tokens for doing good work, keeping a neat desk, etc. At the end of every month, we have Token Store, and the students are allowed to spend the tokens they have saved up to “buy” small rewards.
One of the things I like best about this system is that the tokens basically establish a classroom currency, which can be used in all sorts of ways. One way I use it is to have students pay “fines” for some things. This is nice for using as a relatively benign penalty, especially for those students who are extremely sensitive and would be devastated to lose a smiley face beside their name on the wall chart. For instance, if someone needs to go to the back of the room to get their homework from their backpack because they forgot to unpack it before school started, they need to pay a token as a fine. Simple forgetfulness can happen to anyone (it is not deliberate disobedience), so I hate to make a big deal of it. Paying a token is no big deal, and yet it is a great motivator to help students remember to unpack their backpacks before school next time.
Another way that I use tokens is to help raise awareness of being responsible for classroom tools and materials. I give my students some things at the beginning of the year (scissors, glue, etc.), and parents at our school are sent a shopping list of things their students should bring on the first day of school. I tell my students that they are responsible to take care of their tools and to keep from losing them. Of course, they always have the option of asking their parents to buy them new things, but if we are in the middle of class and a student does not have a necessary item (such as a pencil) because they lost or broke theirs, they need to pay tokens to buy a new one. As adults, we learn quickly that it hurts us economically if we are constantly losing or breaking our tools. Schoolchildren are not too young to start learning this principle.
I love that this system also helps students to practice some basic math skills: If I have twenty-five tokens saved up, do I have enough to buy these two items that each cost fifteen tokens at Token Store? Likewise, it can help them think through saving versus immediate gratification. Most of the things I have available for students to buy at Token Store cost less than a month’s worth of tokens, but I intentionally keep a few larger items that require them to save tokens for several months if they want to buy them.
My students always look forward to Token Store, and I enjoy the excitement and positive atmosphere it generates. Children can be enthralled by simple things, and I’m often somewhat amused at how much joy it brings them to go to the “store” and buy a fun eraser, a lollipop, or some sparkly stickers.
Is this system complicated? Perhaps in some ways it is, but it also simplifies some things. For me, the benefits outweigh any extra work or inconvenience that it causes.