This morning, as I spent a good chunk of my planning time standing at the photocopier and paper cutter, my mind began to wander. I was completing my monthly task of copying page after page of cartoonish, fake money. This is the "token" that we use to reward students for their good behavior at one of my schools.
|This is a view of the top of my cart.|
You can see the Star Bucks tucked away in one of the blue bins.
Actually, all four of the schools where I have taught have been PBIS schools, so they have all used some type of token economy. PBIS, for those unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and is a nationally recognized program for behavior management. (You can read more about the program here.)
This is the definition of PBIS, taken directly from their website:
PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students. PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.
In my school, we implement it school-wide. This means that every student and teacher has recognized our four major goals:
- Respect Myself
- Respect Others
- Respect Learning
- Respect Property
As a music teacher, my main relationship with PBIS comes in the form of recognizing these correct behaviors and positively reinforcing them with my students. In order to give positive reinforcement, we use a token economy. At one of my schools, because our mascot is the Star, our tokens are called "Star Bucks." (This CONSTANTLY confused me during my first year here because I heard people talking about them and I thought they were discussing coffee.) Basically, I am supposed to hand out a Star Buck every time I see a student doing the right thing.
This brings us back to me, this morning. While I was hunched over the paper cutter, trying to trim pages and pages of these little fake dollars, I couldn't help but ponder the futility of it all. "Why do I waste my time doing this?" I thought to myself, "My students should want to succeed in my class without me having to pay them." I also thought, "I could really use an assistant to do my copying and cutting for me."
Is it really worth my time to dole out the Star Bucks, day in and day out?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer? Well, keep reading...
I've been plagued by an internal struggle, a love-hate relationship, over this token economy. On one hand, it feels like bribery to me. I see correct behaviors in my students, which is GREAT. However, I can't help feeling that the only reason I am seeing these correct behaviors is because the student knows that he or she will get a Starbuck as a reward. Later, a certain number of Starbucks can be redeemed for a toy or prize from the "Star Cart."
One of the worst side-effects that I've seen from using the token economy is how students come to expect it. I daresay they even feel entitled to it. Sometimes when I compliment a student on correct behavior, they respond by looking at me expectantly or even blatantly asking me if they can have a Starbuck. I can't help but compare this look to a trained dog who has just performed a trick and is waiting for a doggie biscuit.
|Photo Source: Murphywrites.com|
Is this really how we want our children to view life? Do a good deed, get a reward. By training our students to use the token economy, we are destroying their sense of intrinsic motivation. Rather than behaving well because it's the right thing to do, they are only doing so because they think they will get a reward for doing it.
On the other hand, most adults that I know do the exact same thing. We can't really blame children for acting this way when we all do it. I worked some minimum wage, dead-end jobs while I was in school. Did I serve fast food because I felt intrinsically motivated to do it? Was I selling clothing to get a sense of self-satisfaction? Of course not. I did these things because I was getting paid.
For students, school is their job. Why shouldn't they expect to earn something when they have done their job well?
After toying with various methods of using the Star Bucks (and observing some very skilled veteran teachers), I've come up with my own system for distributing them. These are my own personal guidelines for giving them out:
- Never distribute them to every student in a class.
Be spontaneous with them. If students never know who is going to get one and for what, they will be more patient. I never want my students to think they earn one just for showing up.
- Never give a student more than one per class.
Rather than just letting one child rack up the money, I will say something like, "Great job, Susie. You are staying so focused and quiet today. This is why you earned a Star Buck earlier."
- Always state the reason why a student has earned the Star Buck.
Make sure to tie the reward in with the behavior you are looking for. Students don't just earn them because you like them or because they are a good student. In fact,
- Never use a Star Buck to reward academics.
These are for rewarding behavior only.
- Never use a Star Buck as a bargaining device.
I never use phrases like, "I will give a Star Buck to the first student who stands quietly in line." To me, this defeats the purpose because then I know I'm only seeing correct behavior because I made the bargain.
Personally, I feel that the main reason for using a token economy is to prepare our students for a time when it will be taken away. They should be getting used to what's expected of them in school and consistently demonstrate it regardless of a reward. I think of my Star Bucks as training wheels. They are a useful crutch for when I feel my students need a little extra push. I use them frequently at the beginning of the school year and right after a long break, and gradually give out less and less as my students settle into our school routines.
Please let me know in the comments if you or your school uses a token economy and what your thoughts are on the subject. I'd love to know what other methods are out there.