Building Routine and Community through Token Economies

In my last post, I shared a lengthy list of academic initiatives my colleagues and I will be working on this year. However, reflecting on behavioral interventions is equally important.

At Hillsboro, we have a pretty amazing new Dean of Students who has developed a strong restorative practice system for our students with sequences of both rewards and consequences called 3RT (Respectful, Responsible, Ready to Learn, and Team Players). It’s thrilling to have a consistent, school-wide effort, particularly because it melds very well with my own classroom behavior system honed over years of working with a challenging population of high school students: a token economy.

I was turned on to token economies about 8 years ago after my husband wrote a research paper on them. Over the years, I have used various techniques to inspire students to make good choices. One technique was rewarding students with tickets for positive behaviors partnered with a drawing once a week for a prize. However, I was always troubled by my lack of consistency and the randomness of the drawing. I wanted something that students could count on and that I could reliably implement.

So, when my husband shared this Token Economy Guide with me, I was elated by the possibility of finally having a consistent system. I’ve had so much success with using a token economy, I thought others may benefit from my experiences.

Token Economy Overview:

Token economies are systems of individual reinforcement of target behaviors in which tokens are administered and exchanged later for reinforcers. There are many different ways to implement token economies, but it is imperative that teachers have a defined and manageable implementation plan that all students understand.

Key Elements:

  • Target Behaviors:
    • Teachers must first identify which behaviors they want to target for improvement. For example, I have always been most concerned with students a) being on time, b) being on task, and c) being respectful.
  • Tokens:
    • Tokens are the reward given to students for displaying the appropriate behaviors. These can take many forms. Read below for more details on my virtual tokens called “Stoogsters.”
  • Bank:
    • Students need a way to store their tokens, whether they are physical or virtual. Teachers should consider student age and responsibility, as well as classroom space and security.
  • Reinforcers:
    • Reinforcers are the prizes or rewards students can “buy” with their tokens. Think of an arcade where students win tickets in exchange for small trinkets and toys. Reinforcers should vary and reflect student interests.
  • Business Hours:
    • Teachers need to set specific times for students to exchange their tokens for reinforcers. This can be daily, weekly, or even monthly.

How A Token Economy Looks in My Class:

Target Behaviors

As mentioned above, I have three target behaviors for my students every day:

  1. Being in class before it begins (Being on Time).
  2. Completing all assignments and directives as expected (Being on Task).
  3. Exhibiting behavior that enables others and yourself to learn (Being Respectful).

Students are made aware of these expectations on the first day of class followed by consistent reinforcement.


For me, maintaining physical tokens would be way too much to keep up with and since I work with high schoolers, more capable of understanding abstract concepts, I decided to implement a virtual economy. Also, I tend to be very playful as a teacher and long ago accepted the teacher name “Stoogie” (lovingly bestowed upon me by my students). So, I decided to name my virtual tokens, “Stoogsters.”

To keep my tracking process even simpler, students automatically earn 3 Stoogsters every single day they are in class. So, the minute they walk through the door on time, it is assumed they will exhibit all the target behaviors. Students really like this!

However, when a student is tardy, or off task, or being disrespectful, they lose that Stoogster. I track these subtractions on a class clipboard. For the first few weeks, when I take away Stoogsters, I let students know what I am doing so they associate the loss with the failure to exhibit the target behavior. Later, as students become familiar with the process, all I need to do is wave my clipboard and students will check themselves. As students learn the expectations, fewer disruptions for behavior management are necessary.

Beyond earning Stoogsters for target behaviors, I have expanded opportunities to earn through classroom jobs. This. changed. my. life.

  1. Ambassador (opens door, answers phone, greets guests – earns $1/day)
  2. Custodian (ensures the floor and desks are clean after each class period – earns $2/day)
  3. Desk Organizer (DO; ensures desks have been returned after each class period – earns $2/day)
  4. Paper Collector (PC; collects papers/assignments when needed – earns $1/day)
  5. Paper Passer Outer (PPO; distributes papers/assignments when needed – earns $1/day)
  6. Pencil Lender (PL; maintains collection of class pencils for students – earns $2/day)
  7. Materials Manager (assists in the distribution and oversight of classroom materials – earns $1/day)
  8. Media Specialist (assists in the distribution and oversight of classroom technology – earns $1/day)

Students delight in these jobs and must apply for them. Through their contributions, students develop a sense of ownership in the class and love the fact that they get tangible rewards for their efforts. Beyond developing community, student aides allow me to focus on instruction  and cut down on lost time during transitions.


While I track students’ daily earnings on class clipboards, I maintain a digital “Bank of Stoogie-Doo” on a Google spreadsheet. I share this with students on Stoogie Store day (see “Business Hours” section below) to help them monitor their earnings and spending.

In the example below from a former class, you can see that I have separate tabs for each block with student names pre-loaded. The final column has a formula that automatically tabulates students’ “Balance” after each Stoogie Store day.

Bank of Stoogie Doo


Finding appropriate (and inexpensive) reinforcers can be tricky. I have learned that most high school students want treats (i.e. sodas, chips, and candy), so I always have those available for purchase.

It’s also important to have a variety of items at different price levels so every student, regardless of behavior, can get a reward. Students who are consistently off task or tardy will have little incentive to start exhibiting target behaviors if the rewards seem impossible to obtain. For these students, I buy variety packs of mini-candy and toys (like finger cuffs and noise makers). Students do actually buy and delight in these toys!

Be aware that you will also encounter hoarders. Many students, especially those that consistently exhibit target behaviors, like to watch their savings accumulate. This phenomenon is common with token economies because students feel proud of their rewards. I learned early on that you should plan on having a larger item for these few students to enjoy at the end of each semester, such as a pizza party.

Tip: Anything can be a reinforcer! I have trained my eye to look for free/cheap items that students may find value in: makeup, jewelry, craft supplies, backpacks, binders, t-shirts…It’s always nice to have a few non-standard items for students to buy to keep it interesting for the whole year.

Sample Stoogie Swag         


Business Hours:

As previously mentioned, students can spend their Stoogsters, or tokens, on Stoogie Store day, which takes place in the last 5-10 minutes of class every 2-3 weeks. This time frame makes sense for my students because I only have them every other day on block schedules and they need time to build up their banks in order to value the experience of trading in tokens for reinforcers.

To put this in perspective: if students do everything they are supposed to for 10 days, they can earn 30 Stoogsters (the price I charge for a bag of chips or a soda). So, in theory, every 2-3 weeks, all students have the potential for one of these treats. In reality, only about a third of students do everything perfectly. Before each Stoogie Store day, I update my banks and take stock of how many reinforcers I should plan to have.

The dates for Stoogie Stores are preset so students know when they’re coming up. Students LOVE Stoogie Store – even seniors. I have found that Stoogie Store even helps students with chronic absences get inspired to be at school.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards:

Some may also argue that token economies put too much emphasis on extrinsic rewards and fail to teach students the intrinsic value of making good choices. Therefore, it is important to ask students to reflect on the benefits of exhibiting target behaviors beyond the tangible rewards. Make clear connections between student choices and academic performance to enhance the impact of your system on students.

Specifically, for students who make dramatic improvements in building their Stoogster balance, I make a point to have side conversations to encourage students to reflect upon the changes they see in developing mastery of academic standards.

Concluding Thoughts:

Token Economies have provided me with a consistent system for monitoring student behavior, building routine and community, and protecting instructional time. Students enjoy not just being rewarded for exhibiting target behaviors, but having a system for understanding specific behavioral expectations. To be clear, my token economy has not eliminated poor behavioral choices in my classes, but it has improved students’ consistency in making positive behavioral choices.

Here are a couple of resources to help you get started:


Setting Instructional Focus

After spending  the entire summer preparing for my return to the classroom, the big day finally arrived. I have to admit to a bit of panic. It had been three years since I’d set foot in a classroom and I wondered, “Do I still have it?”

As a recap, I’ve spent the last three years working in the world of education policy, which was an incredibly enlightening experience to be sure. However, no matter how busy or excited I was about my work at any given point, I always felt a little…bored.

So, it was an incredible relief to teach my first classes on Friday and rediscover what I’ve been missing. From making last-minute copies and gathering locker assignments before first block started, to engaging students in discussions and activities, to chatting with my hall mates during the lunch block, to wrapping up the day with a faculty meeting, I felt alive and at home for the first time in a long time.

I’ve always said that teaching is the most satisfying profession because it challenges every single skill set I have at a constant level. Planning, grading, engaging, collaborating, assessing, developing, coaching, caring, organizing, reflecting…and on and on. Despite all it’s headaches and stress, I’ve absolutely missed the buzz of being a teacher.

The past month has been a whirlwind of curriculum development with a steep learning curve for adopting and integrating the various instructional focus areas of my new school. As a reflective practitioner, much of my writing here will center on my growth with the following initiatives, so I’d like to take some time to describe them (or at least my current perceptions of them).

  • International Baccalaureate (IB) 

Hillsboro High School is a fully integrated International Baccalaureate (IB) school with three separate programs: Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP), and Career-related Programme (CP). Our school is also situated in a  fully integrated IB cluster, with IB elementary and middle feeder schools. MYP actually begins in middle school and continues through 10th grade in our high school, culminating in a final personal project. This program emphasizes specific learner profile traits and rigorous, common criterion rubrics across content areas.

DP and CP are designed for 11th and 12th graders after completion of the MYP. The Diploma Programme is actually a mini-school (aka Academy – see next bullet) within the school that specializes in preparing students to earn an IB diploma. To obtain this specialized degree, students must complete specific and incredibly rigorous coursework as well as pass external assessments for each class. The Career-related Programme is designed for students who wish to take a handful of IB courses without taking the full load.

This year, I am teaching 3 blocks of MYP English II and 3 blocks of AP Language and Composition, which is primarily used as a pre-IB class for 10th graders planning to enter the DP academy (though I do have several seniors in the mix…). As I progress throughout the year, I want to grow in my understanding of IB best practices and unit planning, as well as fully integrate the learner profile traits into student reflective practices.

  • Career Academies

Several years ago, Metro Nashville Public Schools required all the city’s traditional high schools to develop and implement Career Academies in an effort to a) create Small Learning Communities (SLCs) of teachers for interdisciplinary planning, b) engage students with more relevant, integrated content, and c) be more intentional in providing students with early postsecondary opportunities.

Freshmen always begin their high school experience in a Freshman Academy, then decide which Career Academy they would like to pursue. One goal of these academies is purity – ensuring teachers have students from the same academy in their classes so academy teachers can work together on interdisciplinary projects and concepts.

At Hillsboro, we have four academies: Freshman Academy (FA), the Academy of International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (AIBDP), the Academy of Global Health Science (AGHS), and the US Community Credit Union Academy of International Business and Communications (USCCUAIBC).

Yes, that last one is a mouthful! The name grew longer after the US Community Credit Union offered to become a full sponsor of the “business” academy. One of the coolest things about the USCCUAIBC is that we have a fully operational student-run credit union in our school. I plan to open an account next week!

I am officially assigned to the Academy of Global Health Science. I fully embrace my academy theme and have planned instructional units around global health related content. For example, the first 9 weeks, we will read chapters from Outbreak! Plagues that Changed History alongside literature from and about the time periods of each epidemic (i.e. bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, etc.). Students will also engage with global health related content in their other classes. Academy teachers work together to help students make connections with real-world, interdisciplinary learning experiences – typically through Project-Based Learning (PBL).

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Project-Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

Within a Career Academy structure, PBL can be used for developing interdisciplinary projects across classrooms or to boost student engagement within a single classroom. As an English teacher, I have always enjoyed PBL because it is relatively easy for my content to tie into larger concepts through reading and writing. As a new teacher to Hillsboro, I look forward to finding ways to tie my content to others within my academy.

The first 9 weeks this year, my English II students will be learning about various plagues throughout history and reading narratives from and about those periods. As a culminating project, they will each research a new plague and write their own health narratives modeled after one we’ve read in class. Then, each block will have to plan, design, and publish a digital class anthology.

  • Blended Learning

Blended learning refers to a style of teaching in which a portion of traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning. These hybrid courses can take many formats and rely on multiple technologies, but at the end of the day, it is mostly about access and engagement.

Of all the instructional focus areas, Blended Learning is the one with which I am the least experienced. However, I have determined to dive in head first! To start, I have created digital classrooms for each of my classes to help students access learning materials outside of class (English II, English II Honors, AP Language). Each class site includes  a Course Instructional Guide (CIG): a living hyperlinked document that outline the activities  for each day of the upcoming 9 weeks. These guides are designed to help students monitor class expectations as well as provide easy access for making up work when absent.

As the year progresses, I want to develop more independent, differentiated learning sequences (i.e. webquests) to give students more self-paced learning opportunities. Additionally, I am experimenting with our new SMS/LMS system, Infinite Campus, to make online submission and grading as seamless as possible.

  • Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2)

As a Literacy PhD, I am more than excited to finally see Response to Intervention trickle up to high schools across Tennessee (note that in Tennessee we have added “Intervention” to the traditional RTI acronym and actually pronounce it “RTI squared”).

RTI2 is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs, specifically in reading and math. The process begins with high-quality instruction and universal screening of all children in the general education classroom. Struggling learners are provided with interventions at increasing levels of intensity to accelerate their rate of learning.

At Hillsboro, we have a dedicated RTI2 coordinator who will be assisting with the screening, scheduling, and planning of intervention and enrichment sessions. For this first year of implementation, literacy efforts will focus on 9th graders. Our daily schedule allows for a 40 minute skinny block where students will be assigned to a teacher for either intervention or enrichment. I will be assigned students for reading intervention and am very excited about the opportunity to help these students become better readers!

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this blog, you’re probably thinking, “holy instructional initiatives, Batman!” While I am definitely stressed about successful implementation and integration of these complex systems, I am excited for the opportunity to grow as an educator.

Here’s to a great year!


(Lunch break while reflecting on how happy I am to be back…)

IMG_20160805_151043140 (1)

(Friday after classes – excited for an opportunity to chill in my new home…)

Welcome Back Stugart

The premise for this blog?

  1. I am returning to the classroom after 3 years in education policy and advocacy.
  2. I want to be a connected and reflective practitioner.
  3. I’m scared and want your support…

Yes, I wrote #3 with a smile, but in all seriousness it has really just hit me that in 5 short weeks, I’ll be back in action with all the joys, heartaches, and stressors that come with being a teacher.

I’ve slowly been dipping my toe into preparation over the past couple of weeks – dusting off the cobwebs in both my brain and my basement (where all my teacher things got stored). It’s been exciting to scroll through Pinterest for updated ideas on classroom management, standards-based grading, and classroom technology. I’ve joined ALL the teacher communities like Teaching Channel, Edmodo, and Remind. I’ve even conducted outreach to the many wonderful organizations I’ve had the great fortune to work with over the past three years, like Student Achievement Partners, CCSSO, and America Achieves, to let them know about my plans to stay as connected as possible.

But when I sat down to start mapping units and really thought about the hard work of differentiating instruction, providing effective feedback, using higher order questioning tactics, and engaging students with relevant and culturally sensitive lessons…EVERY DAY…I realized that this is definitely not going to be ALL fun and games. Teaching is hard!

A new school means new colleagues, new classroom, new content, new culture…new passwords. Essentially, I’m going to be a first year teacher all over again!

Yet, starting fresh is probably the most exciting part of this journey. I am getting another chance to improve my practice and student outcomes by borrowing from and leaning on all of you amazing educators out there.

I feel confident about my chances of success this year for three key reasons:

  1. Higher Standards: We’ve fought a long hard battle to improve education standards in Tennessee. In 2007, the US Chamber of Congress gave Tennessee an “F” for truth in advertising for claiming 90% of our students were passing state reading and math exams, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that fewer than 30% were proficient in reading and math. Our current state standards are fewer, deeper, and highly correlated with other states, making access to quality resources like BetterLesson, AchievetheCore, EngageNY more feasible. Tools like Achieve’s Equip Rubric and Student Achievement Partner’s Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool exist to help teachers (like me!) ensure our units and lessons truly align to the standards.
  2. Teacher Leadership: No one has enjoyed the national emphasis on teacher leadership by efforts like Teacher2Teacher, #TeachStrong, and TeachtoLead more than me. Today’s teachers have more access to fellowships, curriculum design opportunities, and distributed leadership positions in schools than ever before. I’m especially delighted to rejoin the ranks of teachers so I can officially take advantage! (Seriously, y’all, expect applications…I want to be INVOLVED.)
  3. National Board Certification: Becoming a National Board Certified Teacher has been on my bucket list FOREVER and I’m officially registered to begin (and hopefully complete) the process over the next year. I most look forward to the emphasis on honing one’s practice through reflection and joining a national community of excellent educators.

Please join me in this journey. I’ll need support, resources, and friends as I throw myself back into the greatest profession in the world!