Independent Group Contingencies



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. Independent group contingencies are different from the other types of contingencies in that, although all students are engaging in the same target behaviors, they work toward individual goals and receive individual reinforcers. For example, instead of a giant class-wide token board that all students are contributing to (i.e., group contingency), each student might have their own individual token board. For tips on how to get started with your independent group contingency, see Class-Wide Reward Systems. Here are some ideas for independent group contingencies that you might use in your classroom:

  • Reinforce target behaviors EBIP_reinforcement_token boardwith a body part from Mr. Potato Head; each student
    earns his individual reward when his Mr. Potato Head has all his body parts
  • Reinforce target behaviors with pieces from a 9-piece puzzle; each student earns his individual reward when his puzzle is complete
  • Reinforce target behaviors with a token to put on a token board; each student earns his individual reward when his token board is complete
  • Reinforce target behaviors with fake coins or bills (for older children); each student can “buy” different individual rewards with the fake money they’ve earned

What kinds of reinforcers should I offer?

EBIP_reinforcement_independent contingency_1Reinforcers don’t need to be “big” or last a long time, as long as they are meaningful to children and reinforce the target behaviors. You can learn about what kinds of reinforcers might be meaningful by conducting Preference Assessments, observing your children, or simply asking children what they would like to work for. Since independent group contingencies make it possible for each child to have a different reinforcer, allow each child the opportunity to choose his or her own reinforcer every day, and provide a visual (e.g., affixed to each token board) to remind each child what he or she is working toward.

Remember to make reinforcers available only when a student meets his or her goal, and be sure to tailor your reinforcer options to the interests of your students. Because each child is working toward an individual reinforcer, it is especially important to ensure that each child earns his or her terminal reinforcer at least once per day. This may entail providing additional assistance, using prompting procedures to ensure correct responding, or modifying target behaviors to be appropriate for each child. Here are some sample individual reinforcers to help you get started:

  • 5 minutes with a special toyEBIP_reinforcement_independent group contingency_8
  • 5 minutes with a special piece of equipment (e.g., trampoline, tricycle)
  • 5 minutes in a “special corner” (e.g., corner of room with special toys)
  • Wear a “super friends” cape or special hat
  • Small edible item (e.g., Goldfish cracker, jellybean, Skittle®)
  • Choose a knick-knack from the class treasure box to keep for the day
  • Short, educational YouTube video (e.g., Dora the Explorer clip)
  • Sit next to the teacher at circle time in special chair
  • “Front of the line” pass for transitions
  • Teacher’s helper for setting up lunch or snack
  • Teacher’s helper for taking care of class pet or plant
  • Pick a song or book at circle time
  • Special trip with the teacher (e.g., bring lunch food from cafeteria, get books from the library, visit the principal)
  • Special one-on-one activity with the teacher (e.g., making the class bulletin board)
  • Frozen treat (e.g., frozen strawberry, orange juice popsicle)
  • Take a photo with the class camera or iPad

 Here’s a real classroom example of an independent group contingency in action:

Mandy used an independent group contingency called the STAR Chart Individual Reward System in an inclusive preschool classroom of children ages 4-6. (Note: the STAR Chart Reward System was later adapted into the STAR Chart Group Reward System, which you can read about on the Dependent Group Contingency page.) Her class contained a wide variety of learners, including learners with developmental delays. The STAR chart served to reinforce class-wide rules that made up the pneumonic STAR:

  • Be Safe
  • Be a Team Player, and
  • Be Respectful

EBIP_reinforcement_independent group contingency_4Each student had his or her own STAR chart, which was an individual token board that had space for five tokens, as well as a space to affix an icon of the terminal reinforcer. Every time a student earned five tokens, she received her terminal reinforcer and started token collection over again. Once students had mastered the use of the STAR chart system, Mandy’s team systematically taught the students how to reinforce one another’s behaviors. With the teaching team’s assistance, students were able to consistently and effectively reinforce one another’s appropriate behaviors.

Preparation: To prepare the STAR Chart Reward System, Mandy’s team printed and
laminated a star chart for every student. They laminated and cut out stars, and affixed Velcro® to the back of each star. They also laminated and cut out icons representing the different terminal reinforcers that students could work toward.

Selecting the terminal reinforcer: Every morning, students completed a sign-in procedure when they arrived at school. Part of the sign-in procedure was to select a terminal reinforcer to work toward that day, and then affix the icon for their selected reinforcer to the token board. If the selected reinforcer ceased to be motivating at any point in the day, the child was permitted to swap for a new terminal reinforcer.

Incorporating the reward system: EBIP_reinforcement_independent group contingency_9During morning circle time, Mandy and her team
reviewed the target behaviors for the day. Throughout the day, all teachers on the team (as well as visiting teachers, therapists, and specialists) delivered laminated stars to students for engaging in behaviors that were consistent with the class-wide rules. For example, a teacher might give a child a star token for using walking feet in the classroom (i.e., being safe) or raising her hand during circle time (i.e., being respectful). The team members also reminded students throughout the day what they were working toward. The team checked in frequently with one another to make sure all children received token reinforcement several times each day.

Modifications for individual learners: Mandy modified the STAR chart system for individual learners in a number of ways:

  • To aid children who needed extra assistance, Mandy and her assistant teachers
    provided prompting and verbal reminders as needed.
  • Mandy also created adapted materials for learners with limited verbal repertoires. For example, if the target behavior was to ask for a turn instead of taking a toy without permission, she might create a “Can I have a turn?” picture card that could be used by the student with a limited verbal repertoire. She also created multiple copies of the picture, and taught all students in the class how to use it.
  • For most students, Mandy’s team provided star tokens for appropriate target behaviors once or twice during circle time. For one student who engaged in high rates of elopement and problem behavior during circle time, this rate of reinforcement was not sufficient. For this student, Mandy’s team used a 1-minute hourglass, and gave the student a star token every minute the child sat appropriate in her assigned seat.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

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