Class-wide Reward Systems

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What is a class-wide reward system? 

A class-wide reward system is a system in which students work individually toward personal reinforcers or work together toward group reinforcers. Class-wide reward systems have three parts: (1) target behaviors, (2) token reinforcers, and (3) terminal reinforcers.

By target behaviors, we mean discrete behaviors that you explicitly teach to students, watch for throughout the day, and reward whenever you see them. Target behaviors may be related to friendship skills (taking turns, giving compliments), safety skills (walking in the classroom, using “inside voices”), self-regulation skills (using “inside voices,” raising a quiet hand, washing hands after toileting), or on-task behavior (looking at the teacher talking, engaging appropriately in an art activity).

By token reinforcers, we mean small items with no inherent value on their own, but that can be traded in for more valuable terminal reinforcers. When we talk about token reinforcers throughout this article, remember that tokens don’t need to be literal tokens—they can be any small items intended to “add up” to a goal amount. Token reinforcers could be tokens, points, stickers, fake dollars, pom-poms, or links in a paper chain that need to reach a predetermined length.

By terminal EBIP_reinforcement_interdependent group contingency_1reinforcers, we mean tangible items (e.g., toys, edible items) or activities (e.g., extra time at recess, dancing to a favorite song) that students receive after they have earned the goal number of token reinforcers.

Typically, when class-wide reward systems are used, teachers provide students with token reinforcers immediately following target behaviors (i.e. when a student engages in a target behavior, the teacher gives him or her a token reinforcer). Once students have earned enough token reinforcers, they can trade their tokens for a terminal reinforcer.

How do I get started with my class-wide reward system? 

1. Choose two or three discrete target behaviors that your students will engage in to access reinforcement. These behaviors should be specific. For example, if a goal in your classroom is to foster friendship skills, your target behavior could be giving compliments to peers or sharing toys with peers. “Be a good friend” would not be specific enough, nor could you teach this skill explicitly to children. If your goal in the classroom is to improve circle time behavior, your target behavior might be raising a quiet hand to answer a question or sitting with pretzel legs. “Be well-behaved during circle time” would not be specific enough, nor could you teach this skill explicitly to children.

EBIP_classwide reward system_interdependent group contingency_12. Choose behaviors that are achievable, based on your students’ current level of development and typical behavior in the classroom.
Consider, for example, that you are providing token reinforcers to students for staying in their assigned seats during circle time. If no students in your class are able to stay seated for the entirety of a 10-minute circle time period, sitting for the entirety of circle time may not initially be an achievable goal. Begin by rewarding students for staying in their assigned seats for a full minute, or intermittently reward different students throughout circle time who are seated appropriately at that particular moment.

3. Start every school day by reviewing the behaviors and rewards. Discussing the class-wide reward system should be a part of your daily routine, and this discussion should include both (a) explicit instruction on the target behaviors, and (b) the terminal reinforcer that the students are working toward that day. A teacher might review the contingency with each student as he or she enters the classroom, or she might review the contingency with the entire class during circle time. For example, during morning circle time, you might put pictures of the target behaviors in a hat, and ask students to take turns drawing them out of the hat and demonstrating the pictured behavior. During this same circle time, you might ask students to select the terminal reinforcer they want to work for that day, either by casting a group vote (see “dependent group contingencies” and “interdependent group contingencies” below) or allowing each student to select his or her own terminal reinforcer (see “independent group contingencies” below). If you primarily review the class-wide system in groups, should consider individual instruction for children who demonstrate inconsistent or infrequent correct responding during the school day.

4. Pair token delivery EBIP_reinforcement_classwide reward system_dependent group contingency_5with behavior-specific praise, and praise individual students in their peer’s view, when possible. When you deliver the token reinforcer, tell the student exactly what he or she did that gave her access to the token. For example, you might call on a student raising her hand during circle time, and say, “Susie, you raised your hand to answer my question about the weather! Here’s a star to add your star chart. Now, what do you think the weather is like outside today?” Pairing token deliver with behavior-specific praise reminds the students about which behaviors they should be engaging in, and by providing the token and social reinforcer in view of the student’s peers, you offer the opportunity for observational learning (learning by watching).

5. Make sure every child is able to access the terminal reinforcer at least once every day. It may be appropriate in elementary and middle school classrooms for students to work toward weekly or monthly goals (e.g., monthly pizza parties, field trips). However, for younger children who are new to class-wide reward systems, token reinforcers will initially have very little value to them, and infrequent terminal reinforcers may not be rewarding enough to influence student behavior. In order to keep the reward system motivating and to help students learn the relationship between token reinforcers and terminal reinforcers, we recommend that all students be able to access the terminal reinforcer at least once daily.

EBIP_reinforcement_classwide reward system_dependent group contingency_26. Use reinforcement-based contingencies, avoiding shaming or punishing students for “bad behavior.”  What we mean here by reinforcement-based strategies is that you reward “good behaviors,” rather than calling out or shaming children for “bad behaviors.” Reinforcement-based systems should aim to “catch children being good.” We are not saying that challenging behavior should be ignored entirely—it is important for teachers to keep their students safe, which might mean blocking a child from throwing a toy or stepping between students aggressing toward one another. However, if a student enjoys getting attention from you, his challenging behaviors may persist in order to get access your attention (i.e., reprimanding, one-on-one discussions). By reserving your attention for appropriate behaviors, this student is more likely to engage in appropriate behaviors in the future to get access to your attention. See the Challenging Behavior as Communication for more information.

7. Reserve terminal reinforcers only for when students have earned a sufficient number of tokens. Just as you might be less likely to go to work every day for your paycheck if you had a money tree in your backyard, children are less likely to work toward terminal reinforcers if they are available freely in the classroom. If your terminal reinforcers are tangible or edible items (i.e., toys, candy), make sure that those items are only available in exchange for tokens. Likewise, if your terminal reinforcer is a special activity (e.g., special song at circle time, extra recess time), only allow children to engage in that activity when they’ve reached their token goal.

How do I make sure that my class-wide reward system works for all children in my classroom? 

1. Modify target behaviors for children who require extra assistance. For students who
cannot typically engage in group-wide target behaviors, modify the behavior requirements. For example, if the target behavior is to give compliments to peers and you have a student with limited verbal abilities, make that student “compliment cards” that she can deliver to her peers, teach her how to use them, and reinforce use of the card by any child. You might find that modifications provided for one child are helpful for other children as well (e.g., children with the verbal ability to compliment may be more likely to use the “compliment cards” because they might provide a physical cue to engage in the behavior)

2. Modify theEBIP_reinforcement_token board_2 schedule of
reinforcement for children who require extra assistance. 
Students with limited appropriate behavior or on-task behavior may initially need to access terminal reinforcers more frequently to engage in target behaviors. For example, if most of your students are able to sit in their assigned seats for the duration of circle time, you might reward students for this target behavior. If one student continues to run away from circle time frequently despite this contingency, you might consider assigning an assistant teacher to deliver a token reinforcer every minute the student is in her assigned seat during circle time. To learn more about schedules of reinforcement, see the Differential Reinforcement section.

3. Modify the reinforcers so that all children are working toward something they really want. Items and activities that are really motivating for one child may have no impact at all on another child. It is important to make sure every child is able to work toward a reinforcer that he or she really wants. Independent group contingencies (see below) lend themselves well to individualizing reinforcers, as each child is able to select his or her own terminal reinforcer. For group contingencies and interdependent group contingencies (see below), you may need to offer alternatives to children who are not excited about the reinforcers selected by the group. For example, if 7 out of 10 students vote for a dance party at the end of the day, but 3 students don’t enjoy dancing, you might allow them to go to a “special zone” during the dance party, a part of the room with special toys available only after earning a sufficient number of tokens.

What are the different types of class-wide reward systems?

There are three different types of reward systems that you can use in your classroom: (1) dependent group contingencies, (2) independent group contingencies, and (3) interdependent group contingencies. For many classrooms, dependent group contingencies work well. If a child does not seem to understand or care about the group contingencies, an independent individual contingency (in addition to the class-wide contingency) may be needed.

EBIP_reinforcement_classwide reward system_dependent group contingency_1Interdependent group contingencies are reward systems in which all children earn token reinforcers for engaging in target behaviors, and work together toward a group goal. When the group has collectively earned enough tokens to reach the group goal, they then trade their tokens in for a group-wide terminal reinforcer. Interdependent group contingencies work well for most classrooms. To learn more about interdependent group contingencies, read real classroom examples, and download sample materials, click on the link above.

Independent group contingencies are reward systems in which children individually earn token reinforcers for engaging in target behaviors. When each student has earned enough tokens to reach his individual goal, he then trades his tokens in for a terminal reinforcer. To learn more about independent group contingencies, see real classroom examples, and download sample materials, click on the link above.

Dependent group contingencies are reward systems in which a few select children earn tokens that go toward a group goal. When the few select children have earned enough tokens to reach the group goal, they then trade their tokens in for a group-wide terminal reinforcer. To learn more about dependent group contingencies, read real classroom examples, and download sample materials, click on the link above.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Class-wide reward systems. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from