A “token economy” is a system in which students earn “tokens” for exhibiting targeted behaviors. These tokens can then be exchanged for rewards or reinforcers (e.g., a pizza party, homework pass, etc.).

These are common in the classrooms of new or inexperienced teachers, and usually used over a short period of time. Some schools, however, adopt a schoolwide system in which tokens are given out to students who are “caught being good.” Thus, students can receive tokens at any time from any staff member.

My question is not, “Are token economies effective?” The answer to this is indisputably yes, as long as by “effective” we mean that the use of token economies can reduce unproductive behaviors and increase targeted behaviors over a short period.

What I am curious about is the message that they send and the long-term effect of that message. Whenever adults offer an external reinforcer as a reward for exhibiting a preferred behavior, are we not in essence telling the student that she is unlikely to want to exhibit the preferred behavior in the absence of the external reinforcer?

The list of targeted behaviors varies from school to school, obviously, but I’m certain that any behaviors that are on a school’s list are behaviors that we would want those students to exhibit naturally. When we tell them that we will give them candy if they exhibit those behaviors, are we not basically giving up on the idea that they would want to exhibit those behaviors on their own?

The last thing I want to do is denigrate the work of well-meaning educators who find this system effective in improving their school’s learning environment. When it’s Monday morning, you do what works to enable your school to run effectively. I get that. But the cost of the token economy just doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice of losing the opportunity to teach kids how to exhibit productive behaviors without needing to be “paid.”


3 thoughts on “What message do schoolwide token economies send?

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