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Token Economy Impact in Special Education Units Report


Some students in the education sector have certain learning shortcomings. Their condition qualifies them to be regarded as special needs learners. In spite of this, Anderson (2008) points out that these students have the same academic competencies as regular learners. All they need is to be provided with the proper incentives to learn.

The current report is written against this background. In this report, the author highlights the experiences of special needs learners in contemporary society. The report will examine the impacts of the implementation of a token reward system in a special education unit (SEU). The setting of this research is a classroom of special needs learners.

As already mentioned above, special needs education is associated with students who face various certain learning challenges. The special needs in the reference are as a result of numerous disabilities hindering the capacity of these individuals to participate in education. Addressing these needs requires planning and systematic monitoring of teaching approaches (Richard, 1974). The aim is to enhance the learning capabilities of these students. Consequently, learners exhibiting special needs are able to succeed in school and become self-sufficient.

In efforts to examine special needs education, the author of this report relies on the critical review of existing literature to come up with proposals on how to implement the token system. Learning, physical, and communication disabilities are some of the major issues affecting learners in SEU (Scales, 2002). A major challenge arising from these disabilities is inappropriate behaviour in classrooms. However, through a rewards program, some of the impulsive behaviours exhibited by these learners can be dealt with.


Education is a universal right that every child is entitled to. However, students with impairments face difficulties in learning. The token economy proposed in this report is beneficial in ensuring that the universal access to education is made a reality. Oliver (2006) points out that through such an award system, learners with disabilities record improvements in class. During the implementation process, the learners are required to modify their behaviour. Such a move helps to improve the student’s self-esteem.

Primary education is essential in moulding the character of learners. The token economy suggested in this report is significant in the following ways:

  1. It enhances character development among learners
  2. It promotes the early development of cognitive skills
  3. It ensures learners with disabilities have a fair chance to education

In terms of professional practice, the token economy encourages the advancement of new educational techniques. Other professional benefits include:

  1. The development of new teaching practices
  2. The improvement of education for the challenged learners

Background Information

The token economy approach is viewed as a behavioural model in SEU. According to Albers (2008), the approach is used to observe several learning outcomes. Albers (2008) argues that as a teaching module, a token economy is quite effective among students with special needs. Within the SEU program, the token economy is characterised by a number of principles that are largely drawn from the reinforcement theory (Albers, 2008). The technique is beneficial with regards to its ability to address the instability of students with special needs.

A token economy approach encourages behaviour based on specific desired outcomes. In a study carried out by Higgins, Williams and McLaughlin (2001), it was established that tokens are seen as incentives. Whenever the teacher intends to have the learner remain calm, all they need to do is make a promise of an award.

There are certain instances where the token approach may not yield the expected results. Under such circumstances, the model may also be regarded as misleading to the learners. Aitkenhead (2009) advances this notion by pointing out the system’s narrow approach to the issue of special education. Aitkenhead (2009) further argues that the token economy only focuses on the measurable aspects of learning and understanding in a classroom setting. Separately, Anderson (2008) holds the opinion that this educational model ignores certain unobservable aspects. Anderson (2008) adds that the approach exposes students to the risk of relying heavily on extrinsic and unessential rewards to achieve success.

The SEU is increasingly becoming relevant in the current educational frameworks. Higgins et al. (2001) point out that there was a time when children with disabilities were not considered as the worth of education. However, with the advancement of human rights, all children are entitled to a decent education. To this end, this report comes up with a suitable token economy for a model classroom. A timeline for its implementation is also outlined.

Research Questions

As indicated earlier in this report, principles of human rights require all children, regardless of their disabilities, to access quality education. According to Robinson (2005), developing a suitable program requires responding to the prevalent challenges. In light of this, the author of this report formulates a number of research questions.

Major Research Question

What impacts does the implementation of a token economy reward system in a special education unit classroom have on impulsive behaviours of students?

Specific Research Questions

  1. What are the impacts of a token economy when used as a reward system in an SEU classroom?
  2. What happens when money is used as the preferred award token with regards to the learners’ impulsive behaviour?

Responding to the research questions will help to address the challenges of the proposed SEU program. Robinson (2005) argues that understanding a token economy and its effects on learning is the best way to determine the suitable plan to implement in a school setting. Further, it is important to understand the subject and its various definitions. The following are some of the terms that are used in this report and which may need a preliminary understanding:

  1. Special needs education
  2. Token
  3. Award System


The report assumes both a qualitative and quantitative research design. According to Christensen, Burke and Turner (2010), it is possible for a research undertaking to adopt the two approaches.

Data Collection Methods

There are several studies, on token economy, which have been published over the years. Using qualitative analysis, this report analyses the existing literature on the impacts of a token economy on SEU. Studies like those conducted by Oliver (2006), Olsson (2007), and Anderson (2008) examine behaviour management. Some of the recommendations made to manage behavioural aspects in a class setting properly include token award systems.

A total of 16 sources will be used in the study. Most of the articles will be obtained using a comprehensive online survey. The same will be achieved by using keywords and phrases on major databases. The following keywords will be used for online research:

  1. Token economy
  2. Token economy+ special needs students
  3. Token economy+ impacts on learning+ special education units

The study will also rely on primary materials. According to Christensen et al. (2010), primary information can be obtained from interviews and questionnaires. The information for this study will be obtained through a series of interviews and a review of articles in the field.

Sample Size for Interviews

The participants of the study are mostly children in lower elementary levels of education. There will be a total of 50 participants (N=5). Twenty-six will be females, while the remaining 24 will be male. The children will be drawn from 3 SEU classes in my school. The interviews will be carried out once the consent forms have been returned with approval from the parents. Each interview will be approximately 10 minutes long.

Data Analysis

The information from the literature review will be handled using thematic analysis. To this end, the information from the articles will be clustered according to topics. The data obtained from the children who are less than ten years is likely to be mixed up. To address the problem, the researcher will focus on the responses that indicate the effects of the token economy on the learners.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Selected Methodology

The two-tier research approach adopted is beneficial to the research undertaking. For example, the primary information improves the accuracy of the study. Secondly, the secondary material used will come from academic journals that are recent. The approach improves the credibility of the study. The only weakness associated with this methodology is the incoherent responses from the children.

Ethical Considerations

As mentioned in the previous section, the report adopts a qualitative and quantitative research design. The qualitative design is aptly illustrated by the secondary sources for the literature review. However, Christensen et al. (2010) point out that a quantitative research design requires primary sources. The implication of such an approach is that there will be participants involved. As such, certain ethical considerations are included in the study.


The study will include learners and teachers. It is important to secure the consent of these participants. According to Stringer (2008), special needs students are a vulnerable group. Consequently, a study involving their participation will require consent from their parents and educational authorities. Christensen et al. (2010) emphasise that consent forms are necessary for ensuring the authenticity of the participants’ responses.

The current research will be carried out in three special needs classrooms. In each of these classes, consent forms will be distributed to the parents of willing participants. According to Christensen et al. (2010), the form is required to illustrate the nature of the study alongside the preferred methods. The forms used in this study will respect the said rule. In addition, the potential risks associated with the study are indicated. For instance, when some learners are left out of the award system, there may be some tension in the classroom. However, teachers are trained to contain such situations by ensuring the safety of other children.


The current study relies on, among others, information from children with special needs. The studies used in the literature review and the primary sources are both sensitive materials. According to Abbott and Boydell (2011), action research in special needs schools involves personal details of individuals. Some of the details include medical records, which require an element of privacy owing to their sensitive nature. The current researcher will ensure that the results of the survey are handled by independent parties to enhance privacy. In light of this, names and home addresses will be kept private.

The backbone of the action research is the advancement of a token award system in schools. One of the major assumptions in the study is that the incentive provided by tokens is responsible for controlled behaviour among learners. In such cases, it is prudent for the researcher to be sensitive to the reactions of the learners who do not respond positively to the intervention. Similar sentiments are echoed in the study by Powell and Houghton (2008). Powell and Houghton found that behavioural management can be enhanced by the use of parameters other than incentives. As such, it is insensitive to rely on the token award system as the only means of controlling behaviour.


Research undertakings should be credible for them to be propagated into policy. The current research will analyse information from special needs students and reviewed literature in this field. One way of enhancing the credibility of a study is by outlining the primary sources of information (Christensen et al., 2010). According to Stringer (2008), action research must be current. Consequently, the sources used in the literature review will be those published from 2000. However, there may be some sources that were published before 2000, but which are relevant to the study.


Special education requires an equally special approach to the learners who, in this case, our children. According to Savage and Young (2006), SEUs in many jurisdictions are adopting the token economy approach. With the help of this model, learners earn points for their participation in class. The benefit of such a system is that the tokens can be redeemed for extra credits, which count towards their course grades. There are certain cases where the tokens are exchanged for items. In the study carried out by Savage and Young (2006), it was found that tokens can be exchanged for such items as food, toys, money, and school equipment. As such, whenever such an economy is introduced, the exchange has to be something valuable to act as an incentive to the learners.

In a school setting, a token economy can be described as a system used to manage the behaviour of learners. In the opinion of Oliver (2006), the approach is perceived as a contingency management system. To this end, it allows participants to earn tokens whenever they accomplish certain tasks set before them. A positive behaviour among the students is awarded. The earnings can be accumulated over time and exchanged for a preferred alternative.

Token economy has been applied in other aspects of society. It has been used to evaluate the behaviour and performance of people in general. According to Stringer (2008), token systems are used to influence positive behaviour among individuals. In a class setting, a teacher can opt to introduce the system to encourage participation among students. In such a scenario, learners who participate in in-class activities, including responding to questions, are awarded points.

Over the past couple of decades, the token economy has gained acceptance in many SEUs. The popularity of this technique lies in its ability to link specified behaviour to outcomes (Oliver, 2006). However, there are various shortcomings associated with the token economy. Stringer (2008) insists that there are a number of approaches that can be used to motivate learners to perform desired tasks. Without the pecuniary value attached to the tokens, the said system would not be beneficial in SEUs.

Token delivery entails providing contingencies when learners are engaged in little or no disruptive behaviour. Removal, on the other hand, involves the withdrawal of the contingency. The removal is carried out following any disruptive behaviour from the learners. The study by Richard (as cited in Stringer, 2008) used four learners enrolled in special education classes. The outcomes indicated that the token delivery system was ineffective in reducing disruptive behaviour.

Combination of delivery and removal, coupled with instructions on conditions under which this is carried out, proved effective in the study by Richard. According to Stringer (2008), instructions, behaviour, and earnings from tokens can collectively be used to improve the technique. Similar opinions are held by Albers (2008). Albers (2008) insists that the quality of the system is realised through constant modifications.

The token system can be pegged on performance in classrooms. One of them is academic performance. Oliver (2006) carried out an experimental study using a control group of students with intellectual disabilities from selected schools. The study sought to analyse the improvements made by the students in their science classes. According to Oliver (2006), academic performance corresponds to the value of the exchange item in the token economy.

Token economy and social reinforcements differ in terms of the value the students attach to them. The latter involves encouragement, appreciation, and paying attention to the student (McNabb & Webster, 2010). Token economy, on the other hand, rewards learners with valuables. One aspect that makes this approach the preferred system is the incentives involved. According to Oliver (2006), learners respond better to awards. However, as they grow, it is advisable to supplement the system with social reinforcements.

The token economy focuses on the cognitive faculties of learners with special needs. McLaughlin (2004) compared this approach with social reinforcements. McLaughlin (2004) obtained favourable results from the token economy approach. Significant improvements in sciences were recorded following the application of the reward system in a separate study carried out by Olsson (2007). Social reinforcements also indicated improved performance in the subject. However, the use of a token economy was more successful compared to the application of social rewards.

The system is also used to gauge the behaviour of learners in pre-school settings. To this end, a comparison is made between an individual and a class-based economy. According to Scales (2002), concrete responses are recorded when the system is applied in the entire classroom as opposed to just on one individual. Scales (2002) observes that disorderly behaviour is drastically reduced when the approach is used in a class setting. As such, the model can be used to improve behaviour.

The participation of students in a classroom can be improved through the introduction of rewards. According to Stringer (2008), participation can either be directed or undirected. In addition, response and learning rates increase with the adoption of this approach. Withdrawal of the token economy often leads to a decline in the improvements noted earlier. Such a notion is illustrated in a study carried out by Wolf, Giles, and Hall (1968).

At the beginning of the study, correct responses and appropriate behaviour among learners were reinforced with verbal approval. Tokens introduced for a certain period were exchanged for toys, edibles, and other appealing valuables. Withdrawal of rewards for a given duration of time indicated declining performance and an increase in disruptive behaviours (Wolf et al., 1968). Withdrawal of tokens, availability of rewards, and introduction of bonuses has effects on learners who are behaviourally disturbed. As such, it is in the interest of the teachers to sustain the token economy.

There is increased productivity and adoption of appropriate behaviour following the introduction of bonus tokens. Students in groups without tokens often exhibit deterioration in behaviour and level of productivity. The significance of the approach to behaviour is made clear. In addition, the classroom approach provides comprehensive generalised results. The study by Richard (as cited in Oliver, 2006) seems to complement the one by Wolf et al. (1968) and other earlier works. Wolf et al. (1968) conducted an experiment that used a remedial classroom of low performing students from a poverty-stricken urban area. The study examined the impacts of token reinforcements on the performance of the learners. However, the research did not include students with special education needs.

The study by Wolf (as cited in Oliver, 2006) revealed changes in attitudes and increased participation among students in the remedial class. The performance of the students impacted positively on other learners in regular classes. The perspective introduced in this study indicates the positive influence of the token economy on education.


A reasonable timeline for the implementation of a token economy is about three years. Stringer (2008) posits that a long timeframe is essential in determining any potential shortcomings.

Table 1: Timeline.

April 2014 to December 2014 Conducting preliminary research on the viability and applicability of the system A proposal will be prepared. The token system will be implemented after the approval of this proposal.
1 January 2015 to 31 March 2015 Introduction of the token system Children are taught the benefits of the system
1 May 2015 to 31 July 2015 Exchange toys introduced Children urged to behave well to get awards
1 September 2015 to 30 November 2015 Evaluation of the impact of toys as exchange items If there is an improvement in the behaviour, more valuable exchange items should be introduced
1 January 2016 to 31 March 2016 Introduction of recreational tours as an exchange item Parameters like academic performance used to qualify a class for this award
1 May 2016 to 31 July 2016 Introduction of package awards for good behaviour and academic performance To ensure that children develop in terms of academics and behaviour
1 September 2016 to 30 November 2016 Evaluation of the package award system If there are shortcomings of combining two parameters, then they should be separated. If no shortcomings, then advancement in the quality of the exchange item is in order.
1 January 2017 to 31 March 2017 Introduction of an array of exchange items that the children can choose from. A variety of exchange items increases the stimulus to attain certain desired responses
1 May 2017 to 31 July 2017 Comparison of performance per class and per individual The effectiveness of the token system is evaluated
1 September 2017 to 30 November 2017 A publication of the performance of the token economy over the three years period The errors in the system will be improved upon. More exchange items will be introduced.

Within a three year timeframe, it will be possible to establish tangible results as far as behavioural changes are concerned. The proposed timeframe will provide the teachers with time to evaluate the trend of the academic performance of individual students and the class (McLaughlin, 2004). The timeline will start with the identification of the idea and preliminary research on the system. It will end with the implementation and review of the proposed system.


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