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karen vanderven — from the soapbox

Token economies or point and level systems — whatever we call them — let's rethink them! 

".... And you’ll never be allowed to do anything, ever again !"

Some of you know that nearly ten years ago, I began a "campaign" to show how point and level systems as they seemed to be used in group and residential programs could be damaging — certainly to children and youth but to staff as well, as all seemed to be diminished and dehumanized by the process. I published a number of articles and did numerous workshops that expanded and explained the reasons for my claims.

Certainly this was a topic that got me leaping on to my Soapbox . While not quite as nimble now, I’m going to jump up again and bellow ! Under a new guise of "Token Economies", the same kinds of practices seem to be re-surfacing, or simply surfacing, whatever the case may be. So, it’s time again to re-examine some of the reasons why the practices of ‘token economies’ and ‘point and level systems’ need to be re-thought and certainly questioned:

1. My first question is, as it always has been, " Why ? Why do we glom onto practices that are supposedly based on behavior theory and the notion of "behavior modification" ? I know token economies were popular in residential and psychiatric facilities, especially for adults, in the 60s. But why now ?

And why now when the emergent paradigm in child and youth work is "Relationship"?

2. The second question is, "Where do these come from ? What information contributes to a decision to employ them besides, "That’s the way we’ve always done it ?", and "It was this way when I came here", and, "That’s what we did in the last place I worked".

3. The third question is, "Even if a ‘token economy’ model has been taken from a legitimate source ( research-based professional journal, for example ), to what degree are the premises set forth actually implemented accurately in a complex setting ? (This is a theory-to-practice issue, and I’m often amazed at the practices I see that are justified by some theory, even a well developed and empirically supported one.). There’s many a slip between cup (theory) and the lip (practice) !

4. The fourth question is, "Why do we select a model based on notions such as children and youth must "behave" so that they can "earn" such "privileges" as an activity, time with an adult (!), and a reasonable bedtime ? Why are we putting youth into a situation where the prevalent value is "buying" and "earning" human caring ? With respect to the bedtime, just as one example, I’m amazed at how many settings use "earlier bedtime" as a "consequence". Gives a formerly abused and neglected youth plenty of reflection time to call up past traumatic memories.

5. The fifth question is, "If we are trying to teach youth how to better get along and understand themselves through our relationships, then why are we doing something that so patently destroys relationships ?" Relationships are the crux of treatment and should be offered unconditionally, rather than earned or bought through "good" or conforming behavior ! Certainly the relationship can and should be used to address difficult behavior situations.

Painful process this may be , it can lead to real growth and new understanding. However, when the adult is seen as someone who continues to "assess" or "chart" whether some criterion for behavior is met, who is seen as "taking away" (usually more than giving"), and who is recognized for trying to "control" rather than enable, then the stage is set for adversarial, not dynamic, relationships between youth and staff.

6. The sixth question is, " Why do we think that using these artificial approaches is "objective" and "consistent" ? Workers themselves admit that a great deal of subjectivity creeps into the determination of how many points or tokens are given or taken away due to such factors as personal inclinations and the difficulty of interpreting how a complex system is supposed to work . And, why is "consistency" is always best when we are dealing with a range of individuals ? Let’s rethink this one too.

7. The seventh (and last question for now) is, "Why would we use an approach that is so dissonant with the way life is actually lived ?" The discrepancy between the climate set up in settings using these overly prescriptive approaches and the reality of the world outside is great. Youth used to living this way sometimes have a rude awakening upon discharge when they must use their own inner resources. The over-compliance that is sometimes taught is even dangerous. Youth can be lured by an adult promising a ‘reward’ into an unhealthy situation.

There are actually productive ways we can help children and youth learn about "earning" and " buying", and I’ll discuss them in future "Soapboxes". In the meantime, following the post-modern trend of asking questions, let’s question these practices and see if we can, following the old Trieschman Conference purpose, "Find Some Better Ways" ?