Token Economy System Teaches Lasting Life Lessons
By Jess Clarke

At the SUWS Seasons wilderness therapy program outside Old Fort, N.C., an item as simple as a plastic bead can motivate young people to keep up with their daily goals.
The token economy system, which rewards students with beads they trade for various types of rewards, is an incentive for responsible behavior that also fosters internal motivation. SUWS Seasons is a coeducational, clinically focused wilderness program for children ages 10 to 13. Seasons is part of SUWS of the Carolinas, a wilderness program for teens. SUWS of Idaho also uses the token economy system in its SUWS Youth Program for children ages 11-13.

Seasons students call it the bead program or “beads for store.” Kids earn beads when they complete tasks on a daily check-off list of therapeutic goals the staff prepares for each student. Lists commonly include such responsibilities as keeping a journal, personal reflection time, and honing fire- and trap-making and other wilderness skills.   

Students may earn up to 15 beads a day, and keeping track of the coveted beads is another tool to teach responsibility. Some kids string their beads on necklaces made from tree bark. Others save them in plastic bags. Lost beads aren’t replaced, so students must work to earn more. “They definitely look forward to earning those beads and definitely feel a sense of pride at having those beads,” Seasons therapist Kelly Moore says.

Several times a week, students may barter for their beads at the “store,” a mobile supply of cereal, fruit drinks, and other snacks that are not a regular part of their daily diet. If a student loses a spoon, bandanna, pen, or another necessity, he or she must replace the item before getting a treat. “That really encourages them to keep track of their belongings,” Moore says. “There’s some pride involved in keeping track of all your things so you don’t have to buy back necessities, you can earn treats.”
“For younger students, it works really well as far as getting them invested in completing everything they need to complete on their list of daily goals,” Moore says.

Fostering motivation in students is key. “Developmentally, you want them to start having a certain amount of carrot but have it become internal motivation,” says Jesse Quam, clinical director for Seasons and SUWS of the Carolinas. “The goal isn’t just that ultimately you get the prize, the goal is internal motivation. That is sustained and integrated at the next step whether it be home or another program.”
The group environment increases the kids’ motivation level. Students encourage their peers to accomplish goals so they’ll earn beads. “It keeps them honest, just like punching in a time clock,” Quam says.

As with a time clock in the real world, the token economy has practical applications for students after they leave Seasons. “We talk about needing to be able to earn things. Eventually we have to earn money when we get older. We have to put something in to get something out. With school, you have to put forth some effort to get that A. And when you get that A, you feel really good inside. It’s moving more toward intrinsic motivation and trying to make that connection,” Moore says. “Seeing them at the store, it’s not just about getting a pack of Oreos. It’s about knowing they’ve earned that pack of Oreos.”

Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville, N.C.