By Yoshika Wason
Happy new (school) year! This month’s article will help you revamp your classroom rewards system because sometimes a little external motivation goes a long way for students. First, let’s cover the basics: in psychology, a token economy is a behavior modification system that involves accumulating tokens or points that are exchanged for prizes when desired behavior is produced. Token economies have been used in many institutions, including schools, hospitals, and group homes. As you set out to create your token economy, think through the following key questions:
- What will you use as tokens and rewards? With some thought, these two things will get even your most reluctant students to buy into your rewards system; we’ll discuss tokens and rewards in greater detail below.
- What is the target behavior you want students to exhibit? Do you want to increase student participation during class activities? Is your aim for students to produce grammar or vocabulary from your lessons? Do you want to see students improve their scores on quizzes? Beginning with an end in mind will make your reward system more effective and meaningful.
- When can students collect rewards? Don’t hide the finish line! Can students collect prizes at the end of every month? At the end of the semester? Planning a finish line might include increasing the difficulty of getting rewards over time or even phasing out your reward system later in the year. After all, external rewards should not be the sole motivator for student learning.
As you plan out your reward system make sure that it is in compliance with school rules. Now let’s get started!
By definition, tokens don’t have an intrinsic value outside of the reward system; they are more of a symbol that will lead to a reward. When choosing a token for your rewards system you should consider a variety of factors, including how much the tokens will cost, how much time it will take to make the tokens, how difficult it is to counterfeit the tokens, and how likely students will misplace their tokens. Some ideas for tokens include: plastic tokens, paper tickets, “ALT dollars,” stickers, beads, and buttons.
Japan is the land of point cards so it’s not a surprise that many ALTs have adopted a point card based reward system. This past year I created a reward system where students were given a laminated rewards card and accumulated points in the form of small stickers. Alternatives to sticker cards include hanko style stamp cards and punch cards.
If you are concerned that point cards will make students too competitive, consider adopting a whole class reward system as opposed to an individual point system. In this type of system, every time an individual student gets a point, it goes towards a collective reward. For example, you can create a large visual class tracker in the shape of an empty thermostat; every time a student gets a point, they can fill in a section of the class tracker themselves. When the tracker is full, the whole class gets a prize. A variation of this is a rewards jar; every time a student gets a point they add a marble or pom pom to a clear jar until it’s filled by the collective help of the students.
In a token economy, the final reward that points are exchanged for is called a back up reinforcer. What back up reinforcers do you give to students? In my experience, candy is a tried and true reward. Other consumables like baked goods and snacks from your home country are also a hit, but this isn’t always an option since some schools don’t allow students to eat candy and sweets. For this reason, my other go-to reward is stickers, especially character and alphabet stickers. You don’t have to break the bank buying rewards; in the past my rewards have included random things I’ve accumulated, such as small UFO catcher prizes, a new flavor of candy that I bought but didn’t like, and occasionally re-gifted items. Rewards can also be homemade; I knew someone who gave away their doodles as prizes which was a fun way for students to collect original art from their teacher.
I’m also a fan of intangible rewards that involve experiences or public recognition. A prize could be control over a small part of the class like choosing an English game to play as a warm up, receiving extra time to complete an activity, picking any seat in the classroom for the day, or selecting music to play while doing work. The prize can also be spending time with you, such as an opportunity to eat lunch with you or be your assistant for one class period. A prize can be public recognition like their photo on the English board. If you can’t decide on a reward, you can solicit ideas from students or let them choose from a range of prizes.
With the start of a new school year, I challenge you to roll out a new classroom rewards system with thoughtful tokens and rewards. You can thank me later!