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group care

Using spontaneous rewards to establish routines

John Stein

I spent many years in residential treatment programs struggling with behaviors that had little to do with treatment, morality, or being a better person – behaviors such as making beds, doing chores, responding to fire drills, taking showers when scheduled. Some of my favorite people go to work without making their beds. I personally have not responded to a fire drill in years and haven’t been told when to bathe since I was eight years old.

Nevertheless, these behaviors may be important in group living situations. A neat and clean facility is important for visitors, licensing and other regulatory agencies, and funding sources, not to mention executive directors! A prompt and organized response to a fire may be critical in saving both lives and property. And some form of cooperation or scheduling may be helpful when youth with busy schedules have to share bathrooms.

And so we struggled with these behaviors, explaining their importance to children, giving directions, and arranging consequences for children who did not cooperate in meeting our needs. One such behavior had been a problem for all of us for months – getting our twelve oppositional teenagers to wear their seatbelts in the agency van. At any given time, about half of the boys would secure their belts properly, but others would refuse, or buckle them loosely, practically around their knees.

One morning, the driver for the morning school run to drop the boys off at their various schools stopped the van at the end of the driveway and went through the van making notes. But instead of writing down the names of the boys who did not have their seatbelts properly secured, he was writing down the names of the boys who did. That afternoon as the boys got on the van after school, the driver handed a crisp, new one dollar bill to each of the six boys who’d had his belt properly fastened. He didn’t offer any explanations. The boys quickly figured out the deal.

The next day, the driver who made the school run reported that he heard twelve clicks as the boys took their seats – and all of the belts were pulled tight. A few days later, we repeated the drill, so that all twelve boys received a dollar. We were prepared to repeat the procedure again in the future when problems with seatbelts resumed. We never had to. Years later, after all of the original boys had left the program, wearing seatbelts was still a well-established routine, a norm.

We used a similar approach with fire drills with similar results. No matter when we held fire drills, there were always one or two stragglers. One hot summer day, we held several drills until we had a satisfactory response from everyone. Then we called a house meeting, thanked the boys for their cooperation, and sent them on unscheduled outing for a special ice cream treat. Responses to fire drills were practically instantaneous from that point on.

I think that what makes this technique so effective is that the rewards are spontaneous – a surprise. They are not offered in advance as a bribe to try to motivate children. When a reward is offered in advance, children have to decide whether or not to work for it. When children work for a reward, they feel that they have earned it, and indeed, they have. They may also feel that they are being bribed and manipulated, and indeed they are. Bribes are demeaning. And when the reward is no longer available, children stop working for it.

On the other hand, when children decide not to do what is required to earn a reward, they are not disappointed when they do not receive it. They have made a conscious decision to forgo the reward, perhaps to avoid being bribed or manipulated.

When a reward is given spontaneously, as a surprise, children do not feel that they have earned it, that it is their due. It feels more special. It makes children feel special, that their behavior has been noticed, that they themselves have been noticed. Such rewards serve as powerful reinforcements for behavior because they do not occur on a predictable schedule. Intermittent (unpredictable) schedules of reinforcements are among the most effective.

Children who miss out on a spontaneous reward have not made a conscious decision to forgo the reward. They had no idea it was available. Consequently, they feel the loss, which often serves as a very effective punishment for the behavior that led to their missing out on the reward. On the other hand, although they are disappointed, they do not tend to feel punished. Staff did nothing to them. Nothing was taken away from them. But they are envious of their peers. They feel left out. They change their behavior, not to earn reward that has been offered, but rather in the hope that the reward might again be available in the future and that they might receive it. They do not want to take the chance of missing out again. They are not responding to a bribe, nor in opposition to a bribe. There is no bribe. It’s more like a game. It’s fun for the children and it’s fun for the staff. It is, however, important to arrange things to insure that all children do eventually receive the “spontaneous” reward at some point.

Treating children with multiple problems involves hard work, both for staff and for the children. Establishing simple routines that have little to do with treatment, but that are nevertheless important, should not take too much time, energy, effort, or resources away from treatment. Using unannounced rewards spontaneously can be an effective and fun way of establishing simple routines as norms within a group setting. I often wonder how effective this technique would have been in previous programs where we all struggled daily with unmade beds and untidy bedrooms.