The Bead Reinforcement System

What’s Here

A former co-worker of mine came up with the idea to use beads instead of the more traditional beans or marbles to keep track of students’ positive behavioral choices, and when I tried out the idea for myself, I realized the possibilities for adaptation were almost limitless.  I experimented with the format for awhile and tailored it to meet the needs of my class, and ended up with the system outlined here.  The photo shows what might be the most ridiculous-looking pipe cleaner you’ve ever seen, but trust me, this system is simple, fun, and the kids LOVE it! This page has been adapted from The Cornerstone book.

Initially, I taped each student’s pipe cleaner to his or her nametag, which hung off the front of the desks where they wouldn’t be touched (pictured above). When I moved the desks together, I couldn’t have the nametags hang off the front, so I put small nametags (post-it notes, in the photo to the right) on the upper-left corner of each desk and taped the pipe cleaner to it. In later years, I started tying the pipe cleaner to the back of their chairs so I didn’t have to use tape. I’ve found the chairs are the best place to attach the pipe cleaner.

The Basic Principle of the Bead System

Primary grade students often struggle with monitoring their behavior according to abstract concepts like showing respect and being cooperative. Beads can serve as a concrete tool to recognize their good decision making. Students can earn beads for demonstrating any on-task, appropriate behaviors that the teacher wants to reinforce. A privilege is earned at the end of the week for children who have earned a pre-determined number of beads.

What You Need

  • half a pipe cleaner for each child
  • a small bag of identical beads (I use plastic tri-beads that fit together)

How to Start the System With Your Class


1) Explain the basic principle of the system to students. Have them suggest positive classroom behaviors that could earn beads (following directions, completing work on time, etc.) and list them on a chart for the children’s reference.  (The brainstorming process was explained in more detail in ‘The World’s Easiest Token System’ section of the book and on the token system page; the process can be used with any reinforcement method you use.)

2) At the bottom of the chart, write the reward for earning the set number of beads each week and explain it to the class. 10 is usually a good number if you want all your kids to be successful. (Remember, this isn’t a behavior management system: the idea is to support students in making good choices and provide a positive reinforcement, so the vast majority if not all of your students should be able to reach the required numbers of beads each week.)  Possible rewards could be participation in Fun Friday or free time.  One year I let my kids participate in centers such as play-dough, watercolor paints, math manipulatives, and board games.  This was the ONLY time they got to do those things in third grade so it was a HUGE privilege.

3) Show students how you have taped one end of a pipe cleaner to each child’s desk or chair. Tell the children that they are each responsible for their own pipe cleaner and beads. Discuss what will happen if beads are lost or stolen. Frame the conversation around the importance of honesty and responsibility.

4) End the discussion by giving specific verbal reinforcement and a bead to each child in the class. Complimenting each student on something they’ve done well that day allows children to see firsthand how the system works, and helps them experience success and ‘buy into’ the concept right away.

What to Do at the End of the Week

At 1:00 pm every Friday (or the last day of the school week), I ask students to turn in their beads, starting with the child who has the most.  I’ll ask if anyone has 20 beads, then 19, and so on.  The children bring them up to me in their open palms for me to ‘check’ (you know which children’s beads actually need to be counted) and then they put them back into my bead box.  After a child has returned the beads, he can sign up for a center on the wipe-off board chart.  This way, the kids who earned the most beads get to pick first.  (My kids can sign up using their name or their number, which is why you see names and numbers on the board.)  The children who did not earn the specified number of beads are to work silently and independently on an assignment of their choice.

Frequently-Asked Questions


What type of things should I give beads for?

ANY behaviors you want to reinforce can earn beads.  Besides the obvious good behaviors, I give beads from time to time for: wearing the school uniform, being on time for school, walking quietly in the hall, getting a compliment from another teacher, lining up quickly after recess, and cleaning up materials when first asked (those who keep working or play around quickly learn that when you say time’s up, you mean it).  I often give beads to kids for using time wisely, staying on-task, and completing a pre-determined amount of work in a set amount of time.  For example,  I’ll tell the kids they have 15 minutes to complete an activity and after that amount of time, I walk around and give out beads to those who have done so, making accommodations for individual kids as needed.

Do kids get beads individually or do you give them to the whole class?

Both.  Sometimes only a few kids earn them, and sometimes I’ll compliment the whole class for a job well done and give them to everyone.

What do you say and do when you give beads out?

Sometimes when kids are working, I’ll walk around quietly and slip beads onto their desks and whisper encouragement.  Other times, I make a huge deal and reward them in front of the class.  Having the teacher smile at and compliment them is a greater reward than the bead itself for most kids.  Often, I’ll give beads to everyone when the class is doing a good job and give two beads to those who needed no reminders to stay on-task or did an exceptional job.  Once in awhile when the majority of the class is talking too much and there’s a handful of kids really working diligently, I’ll say, “Wow, thanks, Joe and Dara.  You two are determined to get this assignment done even when there’s noise and distractions all around you.  Come up and get a bead.”  The most important thing is to GIVE VERBAL REINFORCEMENTS along with the beads.  The kids need to know exactly what they did right so that they’ll do it again.  There should be no mystery surrounding how beads are earned.

Should I combine the bead system with The World’s Easiest Token System?

I wouldn’t recommend it. They serve the same purpose so using both systems simultaneously is redundant. I developed the token system first and used that for a few years, tried a year with no reward system, and then started using the bead system. I’ve explained both on my website so that teachers can choose what works best for them and their students.

Are the beads a behavior management tool?

No–they don’t address or manage negative behaviors at all. The beads simply reinforce positive behavioral choices. I developed the bead system to give young students a concrete representation of the good choices they’d made. Sometimes verbal reinforcements are not enough to support kids in overcoming challenging self-discipline issues. Complimenting students and handing them a bead–a tangible reminder that they’d done well–has a profound impact on most kids. They count up their beads repeatedly throughout the week and proudly show them off to each other. The beads are also a great tool to help the teacher focus on the positive things students do instead of only pointing out what they’ve done wrong. For students who needed a behavior management system to address excessive disruptive behavior, you can develop an individual behavior plan.

More information and resources for the bead system can be found in The Cornerstone book:  Ways to incorporate other class rewards; handle potential problems such as stealing, trading, or losing beads (the solution is simple!); and involve special educators and other school staff in the bead system for greater student accountability.

Cornerstone Cross-Reference

Find even MORE info about behavior management and the bead system in The Cornerstone book and eBook! Book-exclusive content includes:

Ch. 16: Whole Class Reinforcement Systems
*How to balance intrinsic motivators with rewards so that students behave because it’s the right thing to do (not because they expect a prize)
*2 pages of ideas on extending the token system through incorporation with classroom jobs, letting kids nominate each other for tokens, and more
*More resources for the bead system: ways to incorporate other class rewards, handle potential problems such as stealing, trading, or losing beads (the solution is simple!), and involve special educators and other school staff in the bead system for greater student accountability

Recommended Resources

In the blog post Rewarding Kids in the 21st Century, I share the research that explains why the bead system is so effective.

An Atoz Teacher Stuff forum thread about the bead system

Ideas from a 1st grade teacher at Just Add Clipart

A ProTeacher forum thread about how teachers have adapted the bead system.

Definitely check out this ProTeacher forum thread–these teachers have awesome ideas about how to extend the system! I actually made chances to the way I use it based on their suggestions. One major improvement they mentioned is tying the pipe cleaner to the chair instead of the desk: kids don’t play with it as much and you never have to worry about taping it.

There’s a very good thread on The Cornerstone yGroup comparing my token system and the bead system. There are some fantastic suggestions there, including one teacher’s idea to use marbles in a cup instead of beads. You have to join the yGroup to view the thread–just enter your email!

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Meg Robertson July 15, 2010 at 9:49 am

Dear Angela,
I have just ordered your book from Amazon and can’t wait to get started reading it. I need something to get me jump-started this year. I am a veteran teacher but am feeling somewhat burned out and can use some motivating ideas. Our school has just come out of a long dark tunnel (Reading First Grant!) and No Child Left Behind has left us feeling like we are all lousy teachers. We nicknamed it “No Teacher Left Standing”. Now we are in the “Race to the Top” phase and we are calling it “Race Over the Cliff”. Anyway, I am feeling better about my teaching again and just beginning to recover the love and passion for teaching I had felt before NCLB. The teachers in our district attended a workshop in June called L to J by Lee Jenkins. I loved it. He uses the work of a man call W. Edward Deming and applies it to education. I believe you would love his ideas. His mentor Deming was the man responsible for turning Japan around after WWII. If you get a chance, please read some of his “stuff” (Lee Jenkins, that is) and let me know what you think.
By the way, I am a devout Christian, also, and love how you keep Jesus “front and center” in all you do. I’m so glad I have discovered your new website. Sorry for the long ramble!

Meg Robertson

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2 Angela Watson July 18, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Ah yes, the long dark tunnel that is a Reading First Grant. I taught at a school that had one–I mostly remember all that DIBELS testing and the results were never shared or analyzed! Arghhh! I love “No Teacher Left Standing”–hilarious! I will look into Lee Jenkins, thanks for the recommendation. Many blessings to you in the upcoming school year! :-)

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3 Mary Frazier July 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Hi Angela

I just wanted to thank you for all your wonderful advice. I have purchased your book and in the middle of reading it. Cornerstone is filled with great insight on how to manage any classroom. This will be my fourth year teaching and I am so fragile about the upcoming school year. I really don’t know where to begin as far as your book goes. Please point me in the right direction.

Mary Frazier

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4 Angela Watson July 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Hi, Mary! What’s your biggest concern right now, organization or behavior management? Take a look at what’s holding you back the most and concentrate there first. If you can get into your classroom over the summer to set up and organize, you’ll be able to focus more on creating routines and procedures once your kids start back. If you want to email me, feel free–angelawatson [at] live [dot] com. I’ll be glad to help you.

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5 Jennifer Reese January 24, 2011 at 11:40 pm

I want to say thank you for such great advice! I have not purchased your books yet, but you have some great resources on your website. In addition, I have been trying to incorporate the token system in my class, but I did not want to deal with tokens/money. This bead system seems like an easier token system that can be controlled. I have a very talkative class this year and I cannot find anything that will consistently control their behavior. I have used a system, after awhile, it was not useful anymore. So you know what that is like. Hopefully this will help me. Plus, I like how this system seems more POSITIVE than NEGATIVE REINFORMENT. I feel that my systems were more geared towards focusing on the negative behavior, instead of reinforcing the positive behavior. I am excited to tell my class tomorrow!

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6 Angela Watson June 30, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Hi, Jennifer! That’s exactly the point of the bead system–it causes the teacher to focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. Not only is that beneficial for kids, it keeps the teacher’s attitude positive.

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7 AHSM July 31, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Hello-
We 4th grade teachers departmentalize…So I have 3 science classes per day. Any suggestions for storing/maintaining approx. 75 sets of beads?

Thank you for this GREAT website!

Reply

8 Angela Watson August 16, 2011 at 10:54 am

You are very welcome! Tough question. I’m thinking you may need to keep the pipecleaners someplace other than at students’ desks. Maybe there could be a small bulletin board display for each class with the pipecleaners attached. Would something like that work?

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9 RC October 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm

After a difficult day of homeschooling, I was browsing sites and stumbled on your devotion. What a wonderful reminder that God is indeed gracious and merciful. I am taking a breath and will get up and do this again tomorrow. Thanks for the encouraging words.

And, your bead idea might be just the thing I need!

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10 Sarah October 27, 2011 at 10:40 pm

How would you use the bead system in a PreK classroom? I think this would be GREAT because stickers are so transient and they lose them so easily!

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11 Tami February 10, 2013 at 12:03 am

I love this idea but could already see the beads disappearing, many of my students are highly impulsive and destructive. any suggestions. How do you get other adults to buy into this? Many times I work w/adults and they don’t buy into it and it is so hard for something to truly work if not all adults in the classroom don’t but into it.

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