Plastic Tokens Help Enforce School Rewards Systems For Children With Additional Needs.

 House point systems have long been employed in schools, proving to be an effective way of encouraging and motivating pupils. Intangible rewards, in the form of verbal or written praise, are commonly used, with most children understanding that a point from the teacher is equivalent to a merit.

 However, children with additional needs such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), working memory or attachment difficulties can find it hard to understand that such praise equates to future rewards. When looking into ways to tackle this problem, some teachers have found that using ‘concrete aids’ — objects that pupils can see and physically hold — are a productive way of reinforcing that the praise is real.

These tangible rewards, often in the form of a token, help to form a ‘contract’ between the teacher and pupil. Tokens have been noted as having a measurable impact in the classroom, particularly for children with additional needs.

Educational psychologist Dr. Jemma Taylor describes plastic tokens as a useful classroom aid for teachers working with children who display attachment difficulties.

Dr. Taylor says: “There’s evidence to suggest that ‘concrete’ resources such as plastic tokens could help enforce the rewards system in school. Children experiencing difficulties with attachment often need help trusting that they’ll actually get the reward that they’re promised. If they’re physically handed something that they can actually hold in their hand, it helps them understand that they’ve been rewarded.”

Trust-building strategies for children with special educational needs have been very successful, and the use of a ‘token economy’ system is particularly common among teachers of children with ASD. A token economy is described by Educate Autism as a ‘system for providing positive reinforcement to a child or children by giving them tokens for completing tasks or behaving in desired ways’.

The principle behind a token economy is that children are able to ‘earn’ tokens by behaving in certain ways, known as ‘target behaviour’. As the target behaviour may differ from child to child, tokens can provide a convenient way to achieve an inclusive reward system for pupils of all abilities and needs.

For example, one child’s target behaviour may be based on an academic task, such as achieving a certain score in a spelling test. The target for another child with additional needs could be anything from concentrating on a task for a specified time, sharing and working nicely alongside peers or even greeting the teacher in the morning.

As all pupils will be working towards earning tokens for their own target behaviour, the system allows teachers to apply a blanket rule to the class i.e. good behaviour equals reward. This helps to produce an inclusive environment without needing to single out particular children or behaviour.


Pupils who earn tokens can then exchange them for activities or items, and the teacher can adapt rewards to suit different children. For example, some pupils will respond well to additional break time or time out of class to play a group sport or watch a film, while others will prefer a small gift or time to engage in an individual activity.

Another benefit of using tokens is that the reward can be offered instantly, something that is particularly beneficial when encouraging children with additional needs. Amanda Wood, principal psychologist at Real Therapy Solutions, says rewarding target behaviour ‘immediately’ is highly important, as it allows the child to make a connection between their actions and the reward. 

Working towards a bigger prize can be a difficult concept for children with additional needs, says Amanda. The token itself is not the reward it simply helps the child to see they are making progress toward a more significant prize when they display their target behaviour.

Amy Coghlan, from plastic tokens supplier TokensFor, said: “The feedback we’ve had from teaching professionals is extremely positive. Tangible rewards as part of a token economy system are very helpful in instructing children with particular needs how to manage their own behaviour. Receiving a physical token of praise has been proven as an excellent way of reinforcing that the behaviour a child has shown is positive. It also works to motivate children to continue with that behaviour in the future.”

The Autism Helper has some helpful dos and don’ts for effectively implementing a token economy in the classroom:


·       Be consistent with all students and in all subjects/classrooms — pupils will engage much better if they feel that the rules are fair.

·       Ensure pupils understand what is expected of them to earn a reward — clear guidelines are much more likely to achieve a result.

·       Give praise while awarding a token — the whole concept of token economy is that pupils feel rewarded.

·       Record how children are responding to the token system — if they aren’t responding, you may need to adjust their target behaviour.

·       Pick age-appropriate tokens — different age groups will respond better to certain types of token.


·       Forget to follow through with reinforcers — why strive to achieve a reward that never materialises?

·       Set goals that are too high or involve too many behaviours — pupils will be overwhelmed and unsure of what is expected of them.

·       Stick with the same goals for too long — once targets are met, set new challenges.

·       Overcomplicate — pupils need an instant understanding of what is expected of them.

·       Allow students to accrue too much debt — deducting tokens is fine if there is a realistic way for them to earn them back, otherwise there will be little incentive.

Creating a truly inclusive classroom environment can sometimes feel like a distant dream for teachers, especially when faced with a year group of children with extremely different needs and abilities. Although seemingly small, tokens have been seen to make a huge difference to managing the behaviour of primary-aged children. Most children respond well to an element of structure, and having guidelines in place that can result in physical reward not only provides an incentive for positive behaviour, it also helps breed a feeling of mutual appreciation between pupils and teacher.

  Link to this article:
(Copy and paste the following code to your web page.)

Education Magazine | Advertising | Education Emails - More Articles