Token economies and reward systems assume the issue is motivation, when we know, as Dr. Ross Green of livesinthebalance says, “kids do well when they can.” Reward systems fail to identify the actual need and attempt to gain compliance by offering tokens/rewards as extrinsic motivation rather than identifying the need and helping build the missing skill (when possible), which would help build confidence and intrinsic motivation. Reward systems can also be shaming. They often reward behavior a child is not actually able to produce, potentially causing shame and even backfiring, telling that child there’s no use in trying and reinforcing their deeply held belief that they are unworthy or broken. Also, the research shows a reduced responsiveness to rewards in some children with some types of trauma, with results leading to a higher likelihood of negative physical and mental health effects in later life.
It’s important to note that some schools and classrooms are doing much better than before by offering these types of systems rather than focusing on punishment like exclusionary discipline, withholding recess, silent lunch, etc. If this is where a school needs to go to stop those sorts of practices, so be it. But, it’s analogous to time out vs. spanking in parenting. We know spanking is awful for children. We now know time out is also not good for children. But, the idea behind time out was well, it’s better to send a kid to be alone than to physically abuse them. Here, it’s maybe better to dangle rewards, even if they actually sometimes cause worse behavior and are really a punishment in disguise, rather than take away things kids need like recess and not being publicly shamed.
For example, a student with a history of trauma that included neglect, poverty, food scarcity… imagine a two year old who searched pockets and sofas and sidewalks for change, which was used for food or which got lots of praise from their caregiver, the only time they recall getting positive attention from that caregiver… No trinkets and little prizes have been part of their life. Now, child is in foster care. They enter kindergarten or first grade. They are overwhelmed 99% of the time. Their system is on a state of high alert for danger. They can’t sit still. They won’t do their worksheet. They have “behaviors.” Here comes the token economy. Every time another student earns a token, this child feels a deep sense of lack. Each time they feel like they are trying their absolute best to the point of exhaustion beyond their limits and a teacher doesn’t notice and they don’t earn a token, they learn they are unworthy. They can’t do it. Why try. These feelings of shame being out even more behaviors. Etc. etc.
Imagine a child who has a history of trauma, bounced around foster homes, and struggles to make friends. They are desperate for attention. They go out of their way all day every day to earn as many tokens as possible. They are in a high state of stress, seeking more more more. Other kids notice. They don’t like it. They accuse the kid of gaming the system. This kid is not learning to produce the desired behaviors absent a reward/token. They’re learning to game the system to get their token, even if it means other kids don’t like them. The token economy is not reinforcing the behaviors intended. It’s causing stress and social struggles for a child who cannot handle this type of contingency basis for positive attention.