Battling the Winter Blahs in the Classroom  

January 12, 2018

Holiday celebrations are past, the festive decorations are looking worse for wear and even the treats that looked and tasted so good at the beginning of the season have lost their appeal. Winter weather has arrived with a vengeance and the students who were eager to start school in August are not so thrilled to be returning after a break. What’s teacher to do? Consider beating the blahs by employing an evidence-based instructional practice in your classroom-classroom rewards. Knowing that a reward is available may increase student interest in behaviors you want demonstrated.

A class-wide reward system provides reinforcement for individuals to work for a personal reinforcer or students to work together to a class-wide reward. Let’s take a look at the class-wide system that consists of three parts: target behaviors, token reinforcers, and terminal reinforcers. 

The first part of the system, target behaviors, are skills that you explicitly teach to students, observe for throughout the day and reward when you observe them. Target behaviors are discrete skills that are brief, well-defined actions. These target behaviors may be related to social or friendship skills such as taking turns or making positive comments to peers or involve safety like how to keep classroom aisles free of hazards or following directions for moving through hallways. Other target behaviors could include self-regulation skills like using the appropriate voice volume for differing school settings, or target on-task behaviors such as watching the speaker, teacher or student, during a lesson.

Token reinforcers refer to small items that have little or no value on their own, but can be traded in for more valuable terminal reinforcers. Token reinforcers intended use is to “add up” to a goal amount. These reinforcers could be actual tokens, marbles in a jar, points, fake money, pom-poms, stickers, or links in a paper chain. These tokens are delivered immediately following a target behavior. A cumulative number or in the example of a paper chain, length, determines when a terminal reinforcer is delivered. 

Terminal reinforcers are tangible items such as food or toys or preferred activities that students receive after they have earned the goal number of token reinforcers. 

Getting started with class-wide rewards means choosing two or three target behaviors that your students will engage in to earn reinforcement. Choose specific, observable skills that you can teach. Select behaviors that, given your classroom makeup, are achievable. You might begin by reinforcing a skill, like attending for a short period of time, and gradually increase the amount of time required to earn a token. 

Start each school day, or class period, by reviewing the behaviors and rewards. Remember to teach the target behavior and to review the terminal reinforcer. If you have a student who is struggling with a skill, consider individual instruction and working at “catching” the student demonstrating the behavior. Remember to pair the delivery of a token with specific praise. Tell the student, or students, exactly what they did to earn the reinforcer/token. Recommendations for young or early learners suggest they need access to a terminal reinforcer at least once every day—that’s a good reason to make behaviors specific and the goal for a terminal reinforcer achievable. Older students may be able to work toward terminal reinforcers that are available weekly or monthly. Accentuate the positive; do not point out a failure to demonstrate a target behavior. A reinforcer, by definition, is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. That means that the terminal reinforcers need to be something your class members like and for which they are willing to work. This can easily be determined by asking or assessing their preferences or observing in the classroom or other school settings for tangibles they can’t get enough of or activities that your students enjoy and have difficulty terminating. If the preferences are not unanimous, consider modifying the reinforcer so that every child has access to a preferred terminal reinforcer. While, this requires some flexibility as a teacher, the result of offering an alternative reward assures that all students have motivation to engage in the behavior. 

Here are some sample group reinforcers that may appeal to students to help you get started: a popcorn or pizza party, music/dance time, karaoke, extra recess or free time, mini field trip, a special visitor to the classroom (an athlete or performer), game time, or community partner rewards (coupons for fast food treat). Choosing to focus on class-wide behaviors can provide motivation for better behavior and increase teacher satisfaction and provide reinforcers that influence students to earn fun rewards. Now that sounds like a win-win to battling the winter blahs!

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


-by Dawna Sigurdson, School Psychologist