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Token Economies Yield Promising Results

When classroom management is a struggle, the answer might be as simple as the traditional American "five and dime!" Teachers say that management systems based on "token economies" work well with even the toughest classes. See how others put the power of the "dollar" to good use! Included: Tips for setting up a classroom auction at which students can spend their hard-earned "cash!"

"Over the years, I used a variety of incentive programs for classroom management, but Kelley Kash was my favorite," Donna Kelley told Education World. "I got the idea because I love to attend auctions, and I thought, 'Why not use an auction to encourage students to develop desirable work habits and have fun, too?' The strategy is so effective, I saved it for spring -- and my students loved it."

Kelley Kash, a "token economy" system of classroom management, was a special activity that Kelley announced each year after spring break. She explained to students that there would be a big auction during the last week of school, and that students would have the opportunity to "buy" neat stuff with the Kelley Kash they would earn during the next few weeks. Then the fun began!

Auction House Know-how
Donna Kelley, who recommends her token economy system for grade four and above, offers the following tips for an effective classroom auction.

1. Be creative when collecting items for the auction. (Kelley fills her store with "freebies" and items purchased from garage sales, dollar stores, book clubs, and donations from vendors, parents, and so on)
2. Stock the "store" with as many "hot button" items -- items popular with kids at your grade level -- as possible.
3. Be sure to explain auction rules thoroughly.
4. Before beginning the auction, sell a few pretend items. The practice will help avoid confusion during the auction.


"Every Monday, each student received ten [poker-style] chips," explained Kelley. "One chip represented one dollar in Kelley Kash. To simplify accountability, loss, and theft, each chip was assigned a student's number; it was the students' responsibility to keep track of their own chips."

Students earned additional Kelley Kash for returning assignments on time, performing deeds of kindness, and more. They also received carnival-style tickets to represent "bonus" Kelley Kash earned. When inappropriate behaviors occurred, chips were deposited into Kelley's "account" -- a recycled plastic ice cream bucket!

Every Friday, students recorded their earnings and updated in their student notebooks the total value of the chips and tickets they had accumulated. Kelley also kept a running record of the totals, and used it to verify students' data.

The following Monday, any chips she had collected were returned, and students began anew with ten chips each to their credit. Any student who lost or misplaced chips also started fresh on Monday.

"Whenever appropriate behavior needed encouragement, I fired up the students' excitement by putting some of the really cool auction items on display," Kelley reported. "That reminded them of what they might buy with their Kelley Kash."


Kelley selected one day during the last week of school for her auction. She reviewed beforehand how to start and participate in auction bidding. She also reminded students not to bid on items they didn't really want, and demonstrated how to subtract winning bids (money spent) from their accounts. All sales were final at the Kelley auction house, although one trade per person was permitted after the auction is over, if both parties agreed.

Kelley recently retired from her fourth grade classroom in Westminster, Colorado, after 28 years of teaching, although she still substitute teaches about two days each week. "During my last auction," she said, "I sold many things that had made my classroom the warm and wonderful place it was. I saw twinkles in many students' eyes when they won a hoped-for item, and I felt a great sense of satisfaction knowing my treasurers were going to wonderful new homes. I always wondered, though, what one mother thought when her child brought home a huge silk ficus tree!"


"Students have responded quite well to my five and dime," observed Linda Finn, a teacher of students with reading, math, and emotional/behavioral difficulties at Julia Rusch Elementary School in Portage, Wisconsin. "I have fewer behavior problems, and their work is completed more accurately and neatly. Parents also like the idea and have contributed items to the store."

Finn, who established her classroom store as an incentive for students to do their work well and to complete it on time, gives credit for the idea to a teaching assistant who helped with small groups of students in her room. "One reason we set up the store was because some third grade students were having difficulty with counting and the value of money," added Finn. "All transactions are conducted with plastic coins until a student accumulates $5.00. Then -- because the student probably is saving for a big purchase -- we add dollar bills. That way, I don't run low on coins!"

Each of Finn's students has a laminated piece of paper, which is divided into columns labeled with the days of the week, from Monday through Friday. Rows under each column are marked:

  • Work completed accurately. (Assignments are completed in class with 85 percent or better accuracy.)
  • Work completed on time. (Given ample time, work is completed accurately.)
  • Appropriate seating posture. (Sits in the chair with all four legs on the floor, with no more than one warning.)
  • Positive attitude. (This category is used for students who have attitude difficulties.)
  • Super Student. (This is a bonus for having achieved all the above.)
Each day, Finn places a star or checkmark in the appropriate boxes, and students receive a nickel for each star or checkmark they earn -- up to $.25 per day or $1.25 per week. Students who have behavior plans must have a specified number of points in order to earn a specific amount of money.

"I also have the option of giving bonus money to students who do something exceptional, such as getting a perfect score on a spelling test," Finn explained. "I've even arranged for students to earn money from other classes to improve their behaviors, performance, or work ethic there. "

Each student has an envelope marked with his or her name and the total amount of money in the envelope. Students count their money each week, and either purchase items from Finn's store or save the money for higher-priced items.


"When we started out, we collected items from my grandchildren, from garage sales, from our own closets -- anywhere we could get donations. We also bought items," said Finn. "I have a variety of items, from pencils for $.10 to cars for $1.50 to stuffed animals ranging in price from $.50 to $10.00. Some items are school-related (erasers, books, colored pencils, book bags); some are seasonal (kites, Christmas ornaments). There also are posters and items from fast food restaurants."

In addition, Finn offers a $10.00 "Go Out to Lunch" certificate in which she obtains permission to take the child for a special, reasonably priced, lunch. For $15.00, if parents and the school approve, students can purchase "The Ultimate" -- a trip to Finn's 40-acre farm that includes four horses, a tractor, access to a fishing hole, and more!

"One of my most memorable moments occurred when I taught a young man who had lived in a local hotel for three years," recalled Finn. "His parents worked opposite shifts, and he was not allowed out often, so he missed much socialization with his peers. He saved his money and bought three trips to my home. He rode the horse, rode a 4-wheeler, and went fishing. On one occasion, I picked up him and his mother on a Saturday, and they had lunch with my three grandchildren, one of my daughters, and my husband. My husband enjoyed it so much that he was the one who suggested the fishing expedition!"

Another positive outcome of the store is the opportunity it provides to buy gifts for family members for birthdays, Mother's Day, and other events. One parent has suggested that Finn extend her store to teach the concept of taxation, but for now, she's satisfied with its success as a simple tool to improve behavior and money skills.


The World's Easiest Token System Learn about teacher Angela Powell's simple token economy and discover some neat ideas to extend the system.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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