Archive for the ‘Mileage Club’ Category

Why Incentives Work

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014


The History of the Token Economy

The use of incentives to encourage desirable behaviors and deter undesirable behaviors was long ago dubbed the “token economy.” Token economies (involving cards, trinkets, money, etc.) to enhance or deter behaviors have been in place, according to Liberman (2000), for more than 50 years. This tactic is a type of reward system used with children, adults and animals. The approach grew out of the work of B.F. Skinner, the famed behavioral psychologist, and his operant conditioning principles.

In the early 1960s, the token economy method was primarily used with mentally-ill patients and animals (Jackson & Hackenberg, 1996). More recently, the strategy has emerged as a means of assisting people of all ages and psychological abilities to learn to better manage their behaviors.

The logistics of the token economy have a mixed history of endorsement and criticism. In the 1970s, researchers Kazdin and Bootzin (1972) demonstrated that token economies were being applied in a wide range of settings. They further stated there were several advantages for researchers, therapists and teachers in using tokens to establish—or at least encourage—desirable behaviors. During this same time period, another studyby Paul and Lentz (1977) demonstrated the superiority of the token economy approach over the standard psychological therapy in use at that time.

The Validity of External Incentives

Despite their endorsement of the token economy, Kazdin and Bootzin (1972) noted some potential downsides. They warned that some obstacles may impede the effectiveness and/or implementation of this therapy. These obstacles include staff training and time demands, adult client resistance, and client dependence on tokens and consequent lack of intrinsic motivation (known as the failure to generalize). The authors issued this warning: “Although token economies are successful while in operation, the issue of generalization of behavior gains or resistance to extinction has not been given careful consideration” (p. 343). Another publication by Kazdin(1982) raised certain ethical issues, such as whether it is justifiable to provide cigarettes as reinforcements for appropriate behavior and whether it is appropriate to implement “reward and punishment” systems as a means of treatment.

During the decades bookending the start of the 21st century, there emerged other opponents of using rewards to stimulate behavior change. One outspoken protagonist was Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer. Kohn (1993) strongly criticized the use of incentives—such as grades, stars and praise—to motivate young people. While his writings are interesting and at times compelling, he unjustifiably denigrates much of the evidence (from studies highlighted here, randomized control studies, empirical observations and sales data) supporting the effectiveness of the token economy for the purpose of helping people (both young and old) to increase desirable behaviors and/or decrease undesirable behaviors.

More recently, surveys, studies and scholars (Shean, 2009; Dixon, et al., 2010) have supported the veracity of the previously quoted studies and have spoken on behalf of the token economy as an effective treatment method. The research of Matson and Boisjoli(2009) provides another such example. They noted, “[O]ne of the most important technologies of behavior modifiers and applied behavior analysts over the past 40 years has been the token economy” (p. 240).

Using Token Economies with Children

As mentioned previously, in the early years of the token economy, most of the collected data centered on the issue of assisting adults with brain disorders. But more recently, attention has been focused on youth (both those with special needs and those without). Studies from Zlomke and Zlomke (2003) and LeBlanc (2004) have confirmed the token economy’s effectiveness in increasing attentiveness, decreasing disruptive behavior, increasing intrinsic motivation to complete assigned work, and promoting better social behavior.

A recent survey addressed three important examples in which actual monetary incentives were used to encourage desired behaviors (Gneezy, Meier & Rey-Biel, 2011). The behaviors evaluated were education, increasing contributions for the common good of the community, and helping people change their lifestyles. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the results from the education study only. The researchers summarized their findings as follows:

  1. Incentives work well for increasing attendance and enrollment. Furthermore, “Programs using incentives to reward enrollment and school attendance in the short term is positive” (p. 196).
  2. Incentives have mixed results on effort and achievement. In addition, “[The] overall effects of the incentives were modest with a significant effect for students on the threshold meeting the achievement standard” (p. 197).
  3. Incentives seem to work for some students, but not for all. Nonetheless, “These [rewarded] students continued to outperform their control group peers in the long run after the incentives ended…” (p. 197).

One of the most recent and inclusive reviews (2013) involved a team of researchers from Gonzaga University (Doll, McLaughlin & Barretto), who evaluated the use of token economies in various home and school studies. The criterion for inclusion in the analysis was studies that implemented token economies in academic settings. What follows is an abbreviated summary of their conclusions:

  1. Token economies have been found to be an effective method of behavior management across school and community settings.
  2. There has been a sharp decline in the number of recent studies on token economies since the 1980s. They suggested one possible reason for this decline is that the existing amount of overwhelming data and research corroborates the method’s effectiveness.
  3. Elementary school settings are much more likely to implement a token economy. The studies within this group showed that children who received incentives displayed a clear increase in assignment completion rates, a decrease in inappropriate behavior, higher rates of reaching desired target behavior, and higher rates of appropriate behavior as measured through assignment completion.
  4. Middle school classroom studies showed many instances of increased positive behaviors and significantly decreased inappropriate behaviors as the result of a token economy. Other investigations revealed that social behavior and academic achievement improved with token reinforcement.
  5. Token economies occur much less frequently in high schools than in elementary and middle schools; yet, where token economies were implemented in high school environments, increases in on-task behavior were found.
  6. Community and home programs focusing on token economies were also deemed effective. Implementing the method in children’s homes produced a corresponding reduction or increase in behaviors that are found in the school setting. The provision of tokens at home resulted in improved classroom performance and study behavior. Partnerships between the classroom teacher and parent or guardian can play an effective role in behavior modification.

Practical Tips for Token Economy Implementation

These same researchers reviewed some of the criticisms and concerns that have emerged regarding the use of a token economy: accusations of bribery or blackmail, students’ dependence on tokens and consequent lack of intrinsic motivation (failure to generalize), increased staff workload and cost. These are all important issues, which can be addressed appropriately with creative thinking and planning. For example, failure to generalize can be minimized through the following methods:

  • Focusing on one target behavior (e.g. walking five miles) so participants know what they must do to earn the incentive
  • Considering the age, maturity and mental capacities of participants when determining how long it should take to reach the goal (must be reasonable)
  • Selecting incentives that are visible, countable, attractive, and perceived as highly valuable by the recipients (in other words, they should covet the awards because they are meaningful or provide status), or providing backup reinforcers: privileges or activities that are worthwhile (time off, extra playground time, etc.)
  • Giving awards immediately to successful participants when they reach the goal
  • Providing recipients with periodic reminders of the benefits the desired behavior change will confer upon the recipients after the flow of tokens has ceased.

The increase to staff workload can be minimized through the following methods:

  • Providing clear and simple directions to staff
  • Selecting uncomplicated target behaviors that are easy for staff members to explain
  • Holding participants accountable for keeping personal records of tokens
  • Ensuring the staff is consistent in maintaining the token economy

Costs can be managed through the following methods:

  • Selecting target behaviors that are challenging (though still reasonable)
  • Having participants work with staff to select tokens and backup reinforcers
  • Determining token value of behavior on monetary value
  • Providing extra free time (or similar non-cost rewards) to those who reach their behavior goals or demonstrate improvement

The opinion that token economy is nothing more than bribery or blackmail is not widespread, nor does it stand up to common sense. Virtually every culture provides some type of bartering or exchange for goods. It’s also quite safe to say that money, rewards and recognition are desired by all people. If you doubt that statement, ask yourself this question: Do you like hearing “I love you” or “thank you” from others?If so, then you understand the sort of cause and effect that we are talking about, which is far removed from manipulation or bribery.

Setting Up for Success

The token economy is highly effective, and homebrew systems abound. A quick internet search turns up myriads of practical literature, such as Morin’s (n.d.) “Create a Token Economy System to Improve Your Child’s Behaviors” page on, with numerous recommendations for how to incorporate a token economy, in the home or the classroom, for increasing desirable behaviors or decreasing undesirable behaviors.

Works Cited

Doll, D., McLaughlin, T. F., & Barretto, A. (2013 July). The token economy: A recent review and evaluation. International Journal of Basic and Applied Science, 2(1), 131-149.

Dixon, L. B., et al. (2010). The 2009 schizophrenia PORT psychosocial treatment recommendations and summary statements. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36(1), 48-70.

Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. Journal of Economic Perspectives,25(4), 191-210.

Jackson, K., & Hackenberg, T. D. (1996 July). Token reinforcement, choice and self-control in pigeons. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior,66(1), 29-49.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 15(3), 431-45.

Kazdin, A. E., & Bootzin, R. R. (1972 Fall). The token economy: an evaluative review. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis,5(3), 343-72.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, a’s, praise and other bribes. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional parenting: moving from rewards and punishments to rewards and punishments. New York, NY: Artia Books.

LeBlanc, G. (2004 Fall). Enhancing intrinsic motivation through the use of token economy. Essays in Education, 11.

Liberman, R. P. (2000, Sept). The token economy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157(9), 1398.

Matson, J. L., & Boisjoli, J. A. (2009 Mar-Apr). The token economy for children with intellectual disability and/or autism: A review. Research in Development Disabilities, 30(2), 240-8.

Morin. A. Create a token economy system to improve your child’s behaviors. Retrieved from

Paul, G. L., & Lentz, R. J. (1977). Psychosocial treatment of chronic mental patients: Milieu versus social-learning programs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shean, G. D. (2009 Winter). Evidence-based psychosocial practices and recovery from schizophrenia. Psychiatry, 72(4), 307-20.

Zlomke, K., & Zlomke, L. (2003). Token economy plus self-monitoring to reduce disruptive classroom behaviors. The Behavior Analyst Today, 4(2), 177-182.

Mileage Club® Continues to Make Headlines

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

We love hearing how teachers are using the Mileage Club and the impact it is having on their students.  Check out what physical education teacher Steve Burton is doing at Bass-Hoover Elementary School:

“Perfect pace: Bass-Hoover’s ‘Stinger Stompers’ logging more miles”

Great job Steve!

Are You Throwing Away Your Time?

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Are You Throwing Your Time Away?

Does your car get good gas mileage?  Mine does not, so I decided to start checking it every day.  It’s simple.  I just fill-up my car every day on my way home.  When I get home I enter the number of gallons and mileage on an excel spread sheet and voila, I have up-to-the-minute gas mileage.*

Now some of you are saying, “What a waste of time!  Daily, up-to-the-minute readings are not needed.”

Similarly, we are afraid some Mileage Club coordinators are making Mileage Club too difficult on themselves.  Our instant, drive-up society has pushed many coordinators into thinking they have to provide a daily counting of laps and mileage.  Counting, recording and entering each lap for each child each day is similar to my car illustration.   It’s just not necessary.

My students use the card system.  Each Mileage Club Card is worth 5 miles.  Each day at Mileage Club I am greeted by students showing me their cards, telling me the number of laps they completed that day and the total number of miles they have walked.  They know how they are doing.  We’ve done that and learned that it just takes too much time.  It makes the tally process much more cumbersome than it need be.  To keep kids moving we use two punchers/markers.  The kids keep their Cards in card files in the class room.  When a Card is completed they receive a Toe Token and drop their Card in a box.

I only deal Cards when they are completed.  I love it.  My time spent tallying Cards is minimal.  Awards other than Toe Tokens are provided once a week.   The kids are fine with that.  (Delayed gratification is okay.  Anticipation often makes the award sweeter.)  The youngest kids may not know exactly to the quarter mile where they stand every day, but they have a good idea, and they are okay with that.

Are you spending your time tallying miles?  I’d rather spend my time walking with my kids.

*I really do not fill my gas tank each day.  This was just an illustration.  I hope you got the point.

Beans. Who Knew?

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Mileage Club History

Beans are a wonderful food. But would you believe they were involved in the first Mileage Club program?

In the early 80’s, Frost Elementary in Jackson, Michigan started a walking program for their students. For each lap a student covered, a bean was awarded. That’s right, a bean. The beans for each student were then counted and recorded as they entered the building. This method was very economical and worked okay until….the students starting bringing their own beans.

Beans or Mileage Marker Cards?

A new method of awarding laps was then instituted – red, round plastic chips. These worked great until … you guessed it, the kids found similar red plastic chips in their board games at home.

At that time, Frost Elementary requested the assistance of Fitness Finders, Inc. to help them create a new means of counting laps. Trial and error helped us come up with one of the best ways to count laps – the Mileage Marker Card.

Using the Mileage Marker Card –

  • Eliminated having to count and record laps each day
  • Helped kids visualize the total number of laps they had completed
  • Simplified tallying of miles
  • Was very economical

We also created a new award for the program – the Toe Token®. We now sell over 5 million Toe Tokens a year in 10 different varieties.*

So save the beans for supper and try a Mileage Marker Card instead.

360,000,000 Minutes of Activity a Year!

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

The power of the teachers using the Mileage Club® to help fight youth obesity and help get Americans moving is truly amazing. Here’s why.

The Numbers
Each year we have at least 10,000 schools committed to using the Mileage Club. There are approximately 275 children per school. Our local project, started in 1986 (consisting of 30-32 schools), for example, has shown over the years that in an 8 to 10 week period of time (2 to 3 x a week) the typical child walks/runs 11-15 miles. We have found these distances to be characteristic of other Mileage Club schools. Now, using this as a conservative sample (many schools run the program more than 10 weeks), let’s say the normal child walks/runs a mile in 12 minutes. These numbers show some extraordinary results.

Let’s Do the Math

  • 10,000 schools x 275 children = 2,750,000 children each year engaged in the Mileage Club.
  • 2,750,000 children x 11 miles = 30,250,000 miles a year.
  • 30,250,000 miles x 12 minutes = 363,000,000 minutes of exercise per year!

In Perspective
1,200 Laps Around the Planet.
More Students Participating in Mileage Club than People that Live in Chicago.
Students had a Combined Exercised Duration of 690 Years.

WOW! That Is Impressive.
Thanks to all physical education and classroom teachers, principals, playground supervisors, parents (especially PTA/PTOs) for your incredible support in helping us all Shape America’s Youth. You have been fabulous.

Feelin Good® Mileage Club® Continues to Make News!

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Check out how one of our customers is having an impact in St. Louis.

Teacher’s Mileage Club Gets Students Moving

How to Build a Skeleton of Healthy Habits

Monday, January 16th, 2012

At Fitness Finders, we develop “programs, services and incentives to help shape America’s future.”  One of the goals we have for our programs is to keep them simple.  Simple works best for parents and teachers trying to fit something new into their daily routine.  Simple works best for the children who are trying to create habits that will change the way they live each day for the rest of their lives.  As it turns out, we also need to be working on being specific.

According to Tony Schwartz, author of “Be Excellent At Anything”, a study found that asking a group to exercise once for 20 minutes in the next week had a compliance rate of 29%.  Educating a second group about the dangers of heart disease before the request increased compliance to 39%.   A third group was asked to exercise at a certain time, on a specific day, at a designated place.  This group had a 91% compliance rate.

This is because brain power takes energy, but once the decisions have been made about when, where, and how, all we have to do is decide to show up.  Again, in the book cited above, Schwartz quotes Alfred North Whitehead:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism…that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing.  The precise opposite is the case.  Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

One of the great things about Mileage Club is automaticity.  The children don’t have to decide anything, just show up.  As we help them develop healthy habits, we need to help them succeed during the development stage.  Regardless of how we measure success, showing up is a necessary step.  Habit formation allows children to behave in healthy and positive ways without it being an effort, because it is as automatic as brushing their teeth.  If we are going to succeed in shaping America’s future, not only will we provide structure for healthy behaviors now, but we will help build the scaffolding for healthy behaviors for the rest of a child’s life.     Just like the human body is supported by and protected by its bony skeleton, these habits will be the framework to support and protect our youth throughout their lives.

School Mileage Clubs Making News

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Here are some links to news articles about schools that are making a difference using our Mileage Club.  See what others are doing and make it work for you!

   Smith Valley School in Montana

   Wheeler Avenue School in New York

   Campbell Elementary School in Michigan

   South End Elementary School in North Carolina

We want to hear from you!  Leave your comments below.

Fall Mileage Club Programs

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Here are some links to schools that are making a difference using our Mileage Club. See what others are doing and make it work for you!

I especially enjoyed the first link with video from youtube-

Cohasset Cougar Mileage club Kickoff

Mileage Club Incentives Get Kids Moving

After School Program Keeps Students Active, In Shape

Madison Students Walking for Fitness

Share your thoughts too on our website or in the comments below!

How One School Makes a Difference

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Valley Springs Elementary used the Mileage Club program to raise funds for our Walk for Water program, providing water filters and thereby clean drinking water to Haiti school children.  They designed an elegant plan where every 20 laps a child walked or ran earned $1 towards the filters.  They raised $240, providing a total of 12 filters (including matching funds) and safe water for hundreds of school children in Haiti.

Thank you to all the children who participated!