“Joey sit down. Joey sit down. JOEY SIT DOWN!” Do you find yourself repeating this instruction or others like it al day long? With the rise of inclusive practices, many general educators find themselves dealing with be havioral issues more frequently (Myers & Holland, 2000). Most often, general education teachers have little to no training in teaching children with special needs (Crozier, 2006). What can be done in the classroom to reduce the teacher ’s time reprimanding student behaviors ?

The purpose of this article is to provide general education teachers with two strategies for managing behaviors in the classroom: token economies and response-cost protocols for individual or classwide systems.


Reinforcement is a consequence that maintains or increases a behavior. As adults, reinforcement is part of our daily interactions. Think about the following questions: Why do you go to work every day? Why do you strive to do your best? As adults, we often work for social rewards, such as administrative praise or approval, all of which are our reinforcers. Students have the same needs for reinforcement to do their jobs in the classroom.

When working with children who exhibit difficult behaviors, it is imperative that reinforcement strategies be utilized. Reinforcement can be used in multiple ways in the general education classroom, including social, tangible and activitybased rewards. Simple reinforcer sampling (see Table 1) can be conducted by the teacher to determine class and individual rewards (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 1987; Alberto & Troutman, 2006). Token economies and response-cost systems are tools for providing reinforcement and are feasible strategies to use with the fast-paced dynamics of a general education classroom.

Table 1: Reinforcer Sampling

Put a check in the column that describes the student(s)’ preference for each item.




Don’t Like

 Social Rewards      
Special helper (e.g., sit in teacher’s chair for the day)      
Tangible Rewards      
Treasure box      
Preferred toy _____      
 Activity-based Rewards      
5 minutes’ free time      
Pizza party      
Extra recess      

Token Economy

A token economy is a system for reinforcement delivery that entails identifying behaviors and reinforcers (Heron & Heward, 1987). When a child engages in a positive behavior, he is given a token, such as a ticket, to be traded later for the reinforcer. The system can be used with an entire class or with an individual.

Classwide System

As a group, students earn the tokens toward a common goal for individual behaviors (e.g., raising hand or answering questions) or for classroom behaviors (e.g., following class instructions or being compliant for a substitute). The behaviors should be well defined. It may be helpful to develop a list of behaviors with the class and then post them in a visible place for reference.

When the teacher observes the student or class engaging in one of the targeted behaviors, she delivers a class token. The token can be a bead in a jar, a number on the board, a colored square on a chart, etc. When delivering the token, the teacher also should deliver praise, such as, “I like the way Tommy is working quietly,” or “Class — thank you for being quiet while I talked to our visitor. Here are two tokens!” The token should be delivered based on the student’s behavior. Therefore, if the behavior is exceptional, the teacher should give more tokens.

Individual Token System for a Child with a Specific Behavior

When a student has an individual behavioral need, it may be necessary for her to have an individualized token board. A student with a special need, such as autism, typically needs more specific reinforcement and may not be motivated by a classroom- based token system. Following are steps for developing an individualized token board:

1. Identify the behavior: The behavior expectations should be well defined.

2. Take data: It is crucial to the success of the token board for the teacher to keep track of the behaviors. This can be done with a simple behavior tally. Taking data allows the teacher to recognize gradual decreases in behavior. For example, consider a student who throws objects an average of 10 times a day and then is provided with a token system. The teacher can see the system working when the data indicates the behavior now is occurring nine times a day.

3. Token board: The token board should be individualized for the child. If the child is interested in Elmo, then Elmo tokens can be provided. Token boards can be very simple or very elaborate. A simple board can consist of smiley faces drawn on a piece of paper each time the child engages in the desired behavior.

4. Number of tokens: The number of tokens on the board depends on the amount of time the board will be used (e.g., all day or for 10 minutes) and the number of times the child needs to be reinforced during that time period. For example, a child who has a high frequency of calling out may need to use the token board during each class period, having an opportunity to earn all of his tokens within 45 minutes and therefore earning his reinforcer at the end of the period. The token board then would be cleared and restarted the next period. Once the behavior begins to decrease, the teacher may be able to use one token board across two periods and then three. The idea is to fade the frequency of the reinforcement as the behavior decreases. Though reinforcement should not be faded completely, once the behavior is gone, it should be randomized so that the child does not know when to expect it. Essentially, the child has to behave all of the time since she cannot predict when reinforcement is coming.

Guidelines for Getting Started

1. Identify the behavior to be changed (increased or decreased).

2. Identify reinforcers.

3. Develop the reinforcement schedule.

4. Monitor the student’s progress.

5. Fade the levels of reinforcement or increase the criteria for losing tokens.

Response Cost

A response-cost system is similar to the token economy but with an additional procedure in which an individual loses a previously earned reinforcer due to an inappropriate behavior. The response-cost protocol is concise and simplistic to use. Although some teachers are hesitant to use a punishment procedure, Reynolds and Kelley (1997) identified the procedure as having little disruption to the classroom routine while requiring minimal teacher time or effort. Because implementation is relatively simplistic, prolonged usage is increased (Reynolds & Kelley, 1997).

Classwide Systems for Response Cost

General educators occasionally are presented with students who exhibit problem behaviors. Many teachers struggle throughout the school year with getting their entire class to quiet down, get seated and, finally, be ready to learn. This is where a wholegroup response-cost system can both diminish negative behaviors and improve the overall environment in the classroom.

A response-cost system is feasible within the context of any classroom. To begin, the teacher and students identify the behaviors that need to be reduced to enable student learning. Next, the teacher converses with students about what motivates them. A preference assessment, also known as reinforcement sampling, should be administered to the class (see Table 1). This could be creatively presented as students vote for their favorite choice. Embedding choices and rewards into a student’s school day can dramatically improve behaviors.

Once the reinforcers have been chosen, the response-cost can be implemented. Consider the word (SMILEY). In this situation, the volume and fidgeting in the classroom was so heightened that the teacher could not teach. The teacher spoke with students about the disruptions and had the class identify activities and items they would want to earn. SMILEY was placed on the board, and when students were disruptive, the teacher would simply walk to the board and remove a letter from SMILEY. The class would immediately settle down. The teacher explained exactly why she removed a letter: “When you choose to talk too loud, you start to lose your choice. If you want to earn your choice today, remain quiet.” In this example, the students would earn their choice prior to lunch and again at the end of the school day, if they had at least one letter remaining.

Considerations for Classwide System

1. Make sure the expectations are reasonable. If students are never able to earn their choice, decrease the expectations a bit. Once they are successful, begin to increase the expectation.

2. Occasionally, re-do the preference assessment to ensure the students do not get bored and lose motivation. Keep it interesting and enticing.

3. Remember to praise. Reinforce students throughout the day when they are doing what they should be doing: “I like how hard the class is working. Nice job! You are earning your choice!”

4. Be consistent and immediate when removing letters or tokens. If you only enforce the response-cost sometimes, it will take much longer to diminish disruptive behaviors. The sooner you pour energy into the behavior system, the sooner the students will behave.

Individual Response-Cost Systems

An individual response-cost system could be implemented for a student with specific behavioral needs, resulting in decreased time a teacher spends redirecting a particular child. After establishing the system and identifying rewards with the child, a teacher could simply remove a token from the board without interruption to group instruction.

Considerations for Individual Response Cost Systems

1. Make sure to be in close proximity when redirecting a child. Due to behavior problems, the child already may have a difficult time with relationships. Consider the child’s feelings and model respect.

2. Stay away from words such as “bad,” as this communicates to the child that she is a bad person. This is not the case. If you feel the need to comment on a behavior, say, “This is not okay.” This defines to the child that a specific behavior is inappropriate.

3. Give the student a replacement behavior. For example, if a student continuously walks up to you rather than raising his hand, you could say, “Raise your hand and then I’ll call on you.” This defines to the child what his behavior should be to obtain your attention.


Token economies and response-cost protocols are both effective and simplistic strategies to use when managing disruptive classroom behaviors in the general education setting. These protocols provide students with motivators to work hard, just as adults work hard for motivators such as raises. Token economies are synonymous to the pay raises adults receive; the harder the students work, the more tokens they earn. Response-cost systems also operate just as systems do in our adult lives. If you get caught speeding, you’ll be fined. While token economies and responsecost systems are beneficial to reduce disruptive classroom behaviors, the systems also are a preview for life-long success.

For more information

For more information on token economies, response-cost procedures and other commonly used behavioral approaches, please see the following websites:

www.pbis.org www.ccbd.net

www.cec.sped.org http://challengingbehavior.fmhi.usf.edu


About the Authors

Leah Gongola, M.Ed., is a public school special education teacher working primarily with children who have autism. Gongola is nearing completion of her doctoral degree in special education with an emphasis in autism at Kent State University.

Jennifer Sweeney, M.A., BCBA, has a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis and is working on her doctorate in special education at Kent State University.


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