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Points and levels

My name is Darren and I have been involved in Child and Youth Care work for 20 years in a residential treatment setting. Recently our agency has been in discussion about ways to strengthen our culture of care ... some of our discussion centered around the use of our current Points and Level System and if this was something helpful to our children. There were many mixed opinions about the use of Points and Level Systems.

My question: Do Points and Level Systems really work?

I look forward to your discussion.
Thank you.
Darren Facen

Please contact Karen VanderVen and the University of Pittsburgh. She has a wealth of info on this topic. I, too work with children and adolescents in care and our agency has completely removed points and levels from our programming ... is there value in points and levels? ... I say the only point is to torment the youth you work with. I don't suggest you do away with consequences just the pluses and minuses.
Cindy S Austin
Personally, I think the more important question is: do points and level systems benefit the children in care? They may work in terms of behaviour-management, motivation/encouragement, learning, etc. if a staff team is committed to the program and has the time and resources to maintain it. However, how does a points or level system help a youth once they leave care? Does it empower and enable them to gain intrinsic value from doing the right thing? There is no one to continue the behaviour-modification program for them once they are on their own, and what learning have they taken away from experiencing the program in a residential setting? They have learned that following-through with a desired activity/behaviour earns them a reward, however once they leave and the desired activity no longer earns them a reward, what is to motivate them to continue doing it? The goal should be to change what actually motivates the youth, as opposed to changing their behaviour for the short-term.
That said, I believe that we institutionalize our youth in care too much already, and the more we can move away from that and teach them skills in a way that will help them continue them when they leave us the better.
Good luck.
Jillian Hasler, CYW
See articles by Karen VanderVen at the University of Pittsburg. She has written extensively on this, advocating that they be replaced by a robust activity program. Also, any of the work by Charlie Applestein.

Jonathan J. Smith
Hello, Darren and All,
Do point and level systems work ? Absolutely not, as more and more people are coming to realize. I recently did a workshop entitled, "You've Gotten Rid of Your Point and Level System. Now What?" I asked for a show of hands in the sizable audience of 'how many had ?' There were many hands.
I reprised many of the reasons that point and level systems are destructive:
- They make children have to earn things (relationships, activities) that are the essence of treatment
- They cause children and youth to lose hope
- They are not objective (there is research on the subjective aspects of 'awarding' points)
- They teach overcompliance to some
- Behavior gets driven 'underground' - there is a subversive system of acting out created
- Many decide the 'rewards' or 'privileges' aren't worth it and thus points actually increase acting out behavior
- They pit children and youth against themselves and the staff
- They are clinically contraindicated in most examples, e.g. the formerly abused
- They dehumanize the staff. Does one really want to spend time toting up how many points Johnny lost because he didn't make his bed ? (or some such) . Wouldn't be better to take him outside to look at the stars because you're interested in astronomy ?
- Point and level systems are a 'folk culture' of their own and even a language - 'pointese' - that is transmitted from one group and residential program to another.
-They are not really tied to any justifiable rationale (e.g. applied behavior analysis) and when asked what the rationale is, most people say, "Well, that's just the way we've done it".
- Point and level systems violate the cultural norms and expectations of many
There are many other reasons.
I have studied the deleterious effects of point and level systems for about 15 years, using a multiplicity of sources. I wrote my findings and contentions up in a number of published articles that I put together in what I call a "point pack". It has to be mailed by snail mail. Let me know if you'd like one, Darren.

What to do instead ? Create a completely different culture in the milieu:
- Develop a relationship oriented program - kids will want to 'behave'  because of their relationships with staff.
- Increase the quality and quantity of the activity program. Youth should not have to 'earn' activities; difficult behavior can be handled within an activity. Some research showed that when a point and level system was replaced with an activity program, the number of incident reports went down.
- Design a 'system' based on individual treatment goals for the children or youth that they participate in setting.

One can be specific as to the instructional steps and activities to meet the goals and ensure that the role of the staff is to help and guide the youngsters in meeting them ( there can actually be levels involving greater responsibility) but they are reached not by amassing points, but rather by attaining meaningful and useful outcomes.

There's a lot lot more about this of course.
Hope the above helps.
Karen VanderVen
Actually for me the points/level system has worked well in pretty well any setting I have worked in be it a group home, class room (behavioural, regular and M.E classroom with autistic children) It is used with my own son and with much just need to find what is the reward that works best with each client.
Toni Morra
Yes. The level system brings order to the residence and the children are aware of what they need to do in order to gain extra privs. which in turn holds them accountable for their actions, behaviours. When used properly and fairly the clients take to it without any issues, except of course when they are unwilling to accept responsibility for their behavior ... and then they will state that the level system needs to be changed. In order for it to be successful all the staff need to be on board with the levels and the consequences when it is not followed, or it won't work. When the staff present themselves as a united front it will work, however we also need to be willing to sit with the clients as a group and go over the different levels and ask for the input ... and listen to them. When they feel that they had a part in making the levels they are more willing to follow them, and we have found that they are also working as a team among themselves by assisting peers in reaching the different levels.
With ten children in one house, you need order and this particular house we find it more of a positive in all areas. Now with that said, there will always be a few clients who are unable to achieve different levels, this is where we need to use our skills to help them reach levels that are created specifically to their needs. Creativity is the key ... know your client. United front.
Hope this helps you out.
Tammy McQuaid
I have also been a youth care worker for 20 years. I think a points and level system works very well. But only for younger youth. Once they reach the age of 15 or 15.5 though, another form of treatment needs to be looked at, otherwise it could be degrading and the child may only behave only to get the reward, not because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps a more immediate reward system can be used at this point. For example, extension of bed time?

Mister Home Chef
Hi my name is Maurice Bouvier. I been in the field 11 years and this system does not work
Hi Darren,
What do you mean by work? work for whom, and for what duration?
In my experience, when children have no relationship with anyone in the centre, the points system CAN be an effective way of holding on to them.  However, for the child who genuinely cannot contain his explosive outbursts, this system can serve only to set the child up for a fall, creating a deeper sense of worthlessness, and even more anger and violence.
You also run the risk of rewarding the child for doing the things that they should be doing anyway, which can cause problems. I worked in a centre where children were rated by each individual staff at the end of each shift and the average score determined the level the child was at, and their 'privileges' for the next day. This was an awful system and I would never do it again. It only served to divide the staff in the children's eyes and to a situation where the less assertive staff bought the children off with high scores.
My advice is use with caution, and get rid of the system as soon as relationships will hold the children.
John in Ireland

Some reading around this issue - Eds.
Quotation: "We should not expect caring to be earned. We do not expect our natural children to "earn" our love. We should not expect others to "earn" our caring. We give our caring to others because we are caring, and we share a common humanity."

David Austin and William Halpin
Some features on the web site:
Bettelheim on Indulging the deprived child
Case closed short story
The season for giving ... of yourself. Karen vanderVen
Brendtro et al
Henry Maier
The best response I received to this question is the book entitled Punished by Rewards written by Alfie Kohn. Will challenge conventional perspectives on rewards.

Patricia Mugridge
Hello Darren
Your inquiry about points and level systems kind of connects to the recent discussion about how do we know if we have been helpful. For me any system is only as good as the qualities and skills of all the people that work within that system. Take a look at yourself and the people around you. what do you and they believe? What does silence mean? How open are people? Will or in what way will people support change? What education is needed to support any change? What type of supervision is needed?

A program I was involved with had an extremely difficult time with the whole issue about a culture of care. The group split into different camps where I believe not only through words but behavior sought to maintain what they believed was right. In the end no system would work and every problem was proof of a system not working.

The point and level system I was involved with was kind of like one size fits all(on paper). The curious thing was that workers seemed to apply it in an individual way according to the context in which the situation occurred. There were weaknesses in that it wasn't always used fairly and it could become a tool to punish a child for a workers frustration.

We began to examine the question of how change occurs and look at an individualized needs approach. We looked more acutely at the needs of the family and how they might fit into part of a casework plan. Some people saw this as a rather radical shift in focus although if you looked at the history of dialogue within the program it would not seem to be a new concept. the words limits and discipline became the poster words for the points and level system.

People within a program really need to be honest with themselves and others in any process of changing a program. I have seen people be successful within a point and level system. maybe they would have been successful anyway. I have seen youth fail within that system. the thought is often that the program just couldn't meet his needs. By the way, what exactly were his needs?
Hi Darren,
I wrote my MA thesis on Point and Level Systems. I used a dataset from a residential and day school and I found that one of the most strongest relationships to performance was how long the youth had been in the program.

Kids performed well at the beginning and ends of their stay but not so well in the middle.
I just ordered a book called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'S, Praise, and Other Bribes that may also be useful for you. If you're interested I can send you the reference list from my thesis. Point and level systems are a really important topic and, besides the work of Karen VanderVen, there has been little written on them.
Good luck!
Newton Centre MA USA
I think, as with all approaches, it depends on the individual. This particular approach is not my preference, but it sure works with some children I work with: once you find out what motivates them, this is a tool you can use to extinguish behaviours and promote new ones. From my experience it works best when it is immediate and the child is involved in creating the goals and evaluating themselves. Points and level systems can easily be turned into something child-friendly..using images that the child likes etc...
My two cents..
There is some valid points made as to why the points/level system do not work but it is also how you follow up with each consequence both good consequences and bad consequences and discuss with the child/client as to why they earned the reward or lost the privilege.... I do not ever withhold caring, affection or love from my son or clients.... for me it is always the discussion as to why they have earned level or a points....It is not necessarily about the points/levels, that is just tangible and right is the discuss that follows afterwards.
Toni Morra
Interesting comments, seems to be support for both sides. I think that regardless of what method we use we must be sure that it is always in the best interest of everyone involved. As caregivers we can't only think of ourselves nor can we only think of the youth...we must consider the effects our methods of giving care have on everyone.
Karen VanderVen - I am interested in a copy of your "point pack" if possible.
Marsha Orien
Hi Darren
I guess it depends on your group and their dynamics.

I work with school age children in childcare programs and I had one group that needed a little incentive. I used tokens and they earned them by following rules, helping a friend, doing something without being asked...They had 3 levels of choice where they could exchange tokens for a privilege, extra time in an activity they liked or a small prize from my treasure chest. It worked very well as it enforced values and they had goals they could set and achieve. They could tangibly see the tokens fill up over time... (I used Bristol board squares and just put stamps on them and used small clear containers or ziplock bags to hold them).
A friend of mine tried a similar thing, but her group didn't really care, until she made up teams. Each team would earn points if they collectively did things and participated together. I think she also awarded individual points for various good deeds that went towards the group. At the end of the week the team got a prize. This group was pretty active and would fight and argue a lot, so it worked better when she had them work together as a team and encourage each other to stay focused and on track.

With that being said... if there are no problems why fix what ain't broke? If what you are already doing is working and token/rewards are not needed then why implement it?
By rewarding children with gifts it sometimes sends the wrong message, and they won't always perform unless there is a reward involved. So if rewards must be used often special privileges or extra time on an activity that they enjoy may be the best option.

Good luck
Check out Alfie Kohn's work on Beyond Punishment...another way of saying what Karen has to say. He also has written a book on debunking Homework....for the parents in the crowd.

Rick Kelly
I've seen many young people over the years come into programs and do what they needed to do to achieve their points and gain their privileges but not learn much about themselves or what they may need to change in terms of their thinking and their actions. But they achieved the "bribe" if it was worthwhile to them. Isn't it really about the work you do with the young person beyond the points system that matters? If anything could be considered valuable about a points system perhaps the young person's accomplishment demonstrate that they do have the ability to set a goal for themselves and take the steps to achieve it.
More commonly in my experience the level board in programs where I worked seem to be filled with consequences for misbehaviour and for some young people they didn't seem to think they'd ever get out of the hole they dug or it was a great way to play the blame game and blame staff for their troubles.
I know of a residential program where they recently got rid of their points and levels. The young people having been setting goals, developing action plans and doing very well without the points and levels. However, a senior child and youth counsellor had a major meltdown because she confused not having a level system with there being no consequences for the youth.
Barrie, Ontario, Canada
Hi guys,
Interesting thread. I have tried various reward systems over the years and ended up being more fascinated with the imaginative manner in which some youth subverted the system. For example some tasks could be sub-contracted with a more appealing reward substituted by the young person.

This form of intervention is good for producing compliant wage slaves unable to imagine possible worlds beyond their exploitation. The down side is that you need to lock up or label as mentally ill those that refuse to play the game. Actually isn't that what we do? The reward of a mutually caring relationship is now what I would aim for.
I have to agree with Patricia Mugridge in that Punished By Rewards is an awesome book.

Mister Home Chef
The points and level system is a very interesting in my perspective.

Any system that is in place is only as useful as the understanding of the individuals utilising it. Is it used as punitive rationalism, where do power dynamics meet with learning and empowerment, what is the advantage in such a system with young people who are already disempowered and disconnected due to their individual life experiences? Is the system more beneficial to professional individuals as to the individuals being supported? In my experience it tends to be the easier option to promote the deficits of any system rather that the potential aspects. How many organisations in reality promote behavioural modification programmes that focus on the potential and personalisation of the individual whilst addressing the morale/motivation and esteem of the worker? Both can actually be promoted integrally in which learning is ongoing and paramount where relational depth and empathy continue to build as a result.
I currently work in a school-based mental health system with children between 6-12 years old.
I need help proving that indeed point systems and level systems are not effective. I have read several articles, books such as The Acting Out Child by Hill Walker, School Based Assessment and treatment of ADHD by James Swanson, and of course Russell Barkley's Manual on ADHD and the Defiant Child to name only a few. A summer treatment program developed by a William Pelham has received several model program awards and again students receive points that later translate into rewards. What I like about his program is that it incorporates an intense mix of focused academic work with sports. Since many kids who we have contact with have difficulties with gross and fine motor skills, the sports, attempts to provide an O.T therapy through sports play.
In addition, most kids I would say 70% or more are diagnosed ADHD so this intense physical activity mixed with academic work seems ideal. Point systems in addition when coupled with response cost (fines) have been quoted to be as successful as medication for children with ADHD (parents and counsellors alike love this fact) Now Pelham has resented this quote and indicates that his program will reduce the amount of medication the children need. I use response cost in my program, as it seems less intrusive then implementing a time-out, resulting in the child to lose academic time.
Here's a list of some of the benefits of token or point systems:
Advantages of the Chip/Point System
1) Token systems permit teachers to draw on more powerful rewards for children in managing child behaviour than mere social praise and attention will permit. Hence, greater and more rapid improvements in compliance can often be achieved beyond what social attention could accomplish.
2) Token systems are highly convenient reward systems. Chips or tokens can be taken anywhere, dispensed at anytime, and used to earn virtually any form of privilege or tangible incentive.
3) Token rewards are likely to retain their value or effectiveness throughout the day and across numerous situations. In contrast, children often become satiated quickly with food rewards, stickers, or other tangible reinforcers, resulting in a loss of motivating power as a behaviour-change tool once the child is satiated. Because tokens can be exchanged for an almost limitless variety of rewards, their effectiveness as reinforcers is less likely to fluctuate with the children's level of satiation to a particular reward.
4) Token systems permit a more organized, systematic, and fair approach to managing children's behaviour. The system makes it very clear what children earn for particular behaviours and what amount of tokens or chips is required for access to each privilege or reward. It also makes it equally clear to all staff. This precludes the arbitrariness often seen in typical child management by direct staff where a child may be granted a reward or privilege on the spur of the moment because the adult is in a good mood rather than because the child has earned it. Similarly, it prevents staff from denying rewards that have been legitimately earned simply because the child misbehaved once during that day.
5) Token systems result in increased teacher and child worker attention to appropriate child behaviour and compliance. Because the staff must dispense the tokens, they must attend and respond more often to child behaviours they might otherwise have overlooked. The children also make teachers more aware of their successes or accomplishments so as to earn the tokens.
6) Token systems teach a fundamental concept of society, and that is that privileges and rewards, as well as most of the things we desire in life, must be earned by the way we behave. This is the work ethic that teachers naturally wish to instil in their students: The harder they work, and the more they apply themselves to handling responsibilities and academics, the greater will be the rewards the children receive.
7) Use of group or individual contingency programs have been found to be one of the most effective means of reducing inappropriate classroom behaviours A token economy is based on the premise that Children with early on-set conduct problems come from homes, which they are not exposed, to consistent and contingent environments.
If the points system for treatment of ADHD or any externalizing disorder is damaging then I want nothing to do with it, and I will give it up tomorrow. Can someone direct me to any evidence that it is ineffective (not opinions, rather research). The mental Health facility in which I work prides itself on proving one's methods then having at least 3 others implementing the program with similar results. The only way I could drop my program is if I can prove that another program is more beneficial or that it is damaging to the children whom I serve. Of course, we don't just use points, we use Functional behavioural assessments that evolve into treatment plans, relationships, unconditional caring and concern for the students, and social skill training via Goldstein or M Shure.
Hi Folks,
Gordan raises an interesting point about the work that you do in addition to administering the levels system. I remember reading about an early attempt at a residential program based on a token economy and a levels system. The program was called Achievement Place. It was highly successful. So successful that soon Achievement Place II was launched. You can imagine the looks of consternation when the second program did not seem to be working at all. It had the same programming, the same reward system, the same token economy, the same everything. Well, almost the same everything. Further analysis revealed the missing element. In the first program when a child earned tokens it was used by staff as an opportunity to both reinforce effort and to create relationship. each time tokens were awarded they were accompanied by positive social interaction with caregivers. In the second program staff were dutiful in awarding the tokens, but functioned more as accountants than caregivers. They did not engage in the positive social interactions that were part of the first program.
When points, tokens, levels or whatever are a tangible recognition of the individuals efforts and reflect a caring relationship they can be very powerful. In and of themselves they don't amount to much.

Relationship is primary.

A further thought on levels systems. I once took over administration of a residential program that used a levels system. I noticed that residents worked hard to get to the top level, but once there quickly dropped back. My sense was that being at the top created a great deal of anxiety. Now the only way to move was down. Kids seemed to choose to lessen the anxiety by choosing to "fail". The solution was relatively simple. An additional level was added above the former top level. This meant that kids who were operating at the previous top level were able to remain comfortably at that level.
Doug Estergaard
Vancouver, Canada
Points and levels do not replace human love, caring and nurturing. We have taught rats to navigate through mazes in order to receive a reward and it works time and time again. Human are much more complex than rats and it will take a lot more than points and levels (artificial rewards) to change behaviours that result from things such as abuse, neglect, trauma etc.
Culture, can we speak to how the system neglects to consider how cultural differences impacts the outcome of assessment, intervention, and treatment.

I work in marginalized communities, disorganized communities where cultural norms differ from social majority, however we use the same assessment tool, the same formulas to determine intervention and treatment approaches which are used in mainstream white society. In organized communities/functional families (to have a son or daughter involved in criminal activity is embarrassing and shameful to the family and community) the youth often feels shamed and embarrassed and the consequence of the reaction to the behaviour is enough to have the youth positively adjust their behaviour. In disorganized communities under dysfunctional family conditions criminal behaviour might be the social norm and instead of being shameful and embarrassing may be seen as social status. I will argue that if we do not include the social cultural factors of such situation into our assessments, interventions and treatment plans than they are all but guaranteed to fail.

I would really like to hear from others concerning their views on cultural differences and how it impacts the work we do.

Thank you,
James Hartley

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