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Token Boards in Special Education

Updated: Jan 21

Why do you work? Why do you get up every day and go to work? Obviously, if you're a special education teacher its because you love your students so incredibly much! And if you're a teacher, I know your only reinforcer isn't the money! Haha! But, typically, we go to work and follow instructions and complete our tasks at hand because in return we earn something valuable and enticing to us. That's usually our paycheck. We are working every single day towards that reward. In return for our work and efforts, we get paid on pay day.

That's exactly how the framework behind using a token board works. Token boards for students with special needs and autism provides a concrete visual for your students to help them understand expectations. They understand why they are working (to earn a desired reward) and they understand how much more is expected (depending on the rate of earning). It helps to keep them on task and it helps to motivate them- which can be great when you want a desired behavior.

You NEED token boards in your special education class.

They are ESSENTIAL in a self-contained classroom. I keep a drawer full of generic token boards to have on hand for any of my students to use at all times. I also create very specific boards based on student interest- yes, I have had a dyson vacuum token board. Another unique one was a token board of wrestlers. I remember that time someone came to my room and upon first glance thought I had a token board of men posing in underwear! Ha! I'm sure you can relate to that!

I have also often given token boards to other teachers in the building who need a simple solution for a student unwilling to work. I keep a token board in each of my students' belongings. Token boards can range in size, shape, features, and more. You can use simple laminated cutouts or you can use physical items such as erasers, coins, etc..

Token boards can be designed and used for specific activities, reinforcers, or locations.

They can also be used in a general way throughout the day. Token boards can be used to help extinguish unwanted behaviors, to keep students on task while working, or to help them increase independence towards a goal (such as toileting, arrival routines, being in inclusion, etc). 

When you use a token board with your students, it is important that you know your students. You need to choose a token board with the right amount of tokens that student can handle working towards. When your students are just starting out, or younger, they will likely need a simpler board (maybe 1-4 tokens). But as they grow and progress, you can increase the number of tokens to be earned. I usually wouldn't go past 10 tokens but I am also an elementary teacher. I typically choose a 4 token, token board for my students. But, anywhere from 1-10 tokens on a board is an appropriate amount for your students.

token boards scattered on the table

Stop and think about your student.

Before using a token board with your students, you need to also know what motivates them. What makes them want to work for you? Think back to you going to work and getting paid. Would you keep working if your job decided to give you a pair of socks instead of money every payday? I highly doubt you would! But you know what? A pair of socks might be SUPER motivating for some of our students. It's important to conduct a preference assessment with your students throughout the year. This will help you know what items are highly motivating for your students, and what items to avoid. I have a free preference assessment you can use in my free resource library. You can sign up to get instant access to it here.

Your students will ALWAYS work- if they are motivated.

Say that again to yourself. Your students will ALWAYS work when they are motivated. We will also always work when motivated. Our students with autism and other special needs will stay focused and on task when they know a few things. They need to know what is expected of them. They need to know what they will get in return. And they need concrete cues and visuals to help them stay focused and on task. I have a great behavior folder that can go anywhere with your students. It also has a token board, first/then board, visuals, behavior reminders, and more all in one place. If you are interested in this folder, you can grab it here or read more about how to use it here.

autism behavior folder


ake a look at the simple token board above (below). It is a 5 token-token board. You will see a square next to the words, "I am working for:". That square is where you will attach what the student is working for. My students mostly prefer to watch youtube, sit in the beanbag, or physical activity such as swing/slide. The 5 squares below are where the tokens will go.

Storage hack: I attach the tokens for each board on the back of the board using Velcro. This helps me keep up with the tokens that go with each board. I also want to mention that these boards are simple and minimal. I have both simple token boards and unique token boards (that you see in the first image). Both can be found in my TpT store or Free Resource Library.

I am working for token board

How you should distribute tokens.

When you are working with your students, you will distribute tokens to them on a fixed or varied schedule. With a fixed distribution schedule, the student will receive a token on a fixed ratio schedule. For example: after every 2 math problems, after every 10 minutes of being in music class, or every time they put their folder away (in a morning arrival routine). This is a great way to start using the token boards. Your students will start to learn when to expect tokens, you will build trust with your students and this will help them feel successful.

A varied schedule simply means that your students won't know when they are getting a token. They might have to complete 2 math problems or 5 math problems before getting a token. When you have earned trust in your students, and they can count on you to provide, this is an appropriate option for your students. This is a great way to increase task demands, time on task, and steps within an activity. This is a great way to challenge your students while also helping them stay motivated and on task. 

So let's recap.

  • We have talked about when, how and why to always have and use token boards in a self-contained class.

  • Token boards provide concrete visual cues for your students.

  • Token boards provide reminders, expectations and motivate your students to work towards that desired reinforcer.

  • They can travel ANYWHERE with your students throughout the school day, at home or in the community.

  • They can be used for specific activities or for general activities.

  • Token boards help in reducing unwanted behavior, supporting on-task learning, and provide a challenging way to increase demands and independence.

  • You can get FREE token boards here and here! I can't think of a reason why you wouldn't have these in your classroom!

Talk to you soon!


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