Linden first-graders learn about finances with reward-based, in-class currency system

A first-grader in Linden shows off the homework pass she ‘bought’ with her in-class currency that is rewarded for good behavior to teach students about money and math.
A first-grader in Linden shows off the homework pass she ‘bought’ with her in-class currency that is rewarded for good behavior to teach students about money and math.

LINDEN, NJ — At her desk, Malia Small, a first-grader at Linden School No. 5, counts the $2 in plastic money she’s recently earned. In class, Small has been regularly receiving nickels, dimes and quarters from the teacher for completing homework — “I love homework,” she says, “especially doing math” — as well as taking the in-class readings seriously.

After adding her savings to the week’s income, a plastic dollar coin Small was given for helping run the class’s Economy System, the first-grader realized she has enough money for the ultimate reward: Eating lunch one afternoon with her teacher, Deidre Seaman. Small’s face lights up.
“I’ve never had it,” said Small. “It’s next week. I can’t wait to have a sandwich with Mrs. Seaman — I’ve saved up for a while.”

When 17 of the first-graders at Linden School No. 5, including Small, do something commendable, they’re given plastic money: A nickel here, a dime there, a quarter for an exceptional moment in the classroom.

“They earn coins when they persevere through hard work, when they achieve a goal, when they show that they’re a good citizen — be kind, be safe, try your best — and whenever they performed a ‘job.’ This week, I have a teacher’s helper and a line leader, they get paid for those jobs,” said Seaman. “And every now and then someone comes up with a really surprising answer, or they use vocabulary words that are new to all of us, and they get an extra coin.”

Students can then spend the plastic currency on what they say are “needs,” like erasers and pencils, and “wants,” like lunch with Seaman or a can of Playdoh. It’s all part of the Economy System, which acts as an open market for the first-graders at Linden School No. 5.

The idea is to reward students for good behavior and foster an environment where the kids want to succeed, says Seaman, while at the same time actively instruct them on the value of money.

The Economy System is one of two novel approaches to classroom rewards being pioneered at Linden School No. 5, with the other being the WeDeliver system, an idea implemented for fifth-grade students this year. The top quarter of students — behaviorally, as well as academically — are put in charge of delivering letters around the school, and are looked to as leaders.

Behavior takes the spotlight among the first-graders, too. The Economy System, at least in part, is about rewarding a winning attitude: One of the students, Hassan Ballard, was rewarded with a plastic dollar coin soon after he shared real money with classmates in need.

“I gave my friends a dollar,” said Ballard. “They didn’t have pretzel money, and that felt good. I’m getting McDonald’s and going to Toys R’ Us today, anyway, I didn’t need it.”

What the students need, versus what they want, was the inspiration for the Economy System when Seaman initiated it during the 2015-16 school year. While going over the concepts of scarcity, needs and wants with the students, Seaman realized she had an unused jar of plastic coins in the classroom, and decided to put two and two together.

“I said ‘we should do something we this,’” said Seaman. “I like that they’re learning real-life skills from this, and they make connections with their parents. When they go to ShopRite, they know they have to get the necessities — first they get the milk and bread, and then maybe one sugary snack, too.”

A necessity at Linden School No. 5 is that Seaman needs to teach the first-graders about wants, needs and money. But she’s only able to do so through the Economy System, she says, because the students fully want to learn.
“The kids are what drive it,” said Seaman. “They buy into it.”

And when students have to decide between being able to erase wrong answers and getting to use a can of Playdoh, they become familiar with how wants and needs work.

“When you have needs, you can’t go with anything. But when you have needs, you have to go with your needs,” said Al-Timid Walton, one of Seaman’s first-graders. “We need dry-erase markers, because you can’t just have a board, you need to write on it. You might want a homework pass, but you don’t need it. You want fast food, at a restaurant, but that’s not a need.”