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Points, level systems and teaching responsibility

Martin Henley

To say that a blind custom of obedience should be a surer obligation than duty taught and understood... is to affirm that a blind man may tread surer by a guide than a seeing man by light.
 — Francis Bacon

I gained my first insight into teaching responsible behavior as a permanent substitute teacher in an urban elementary school. Rowdiness was limited to a dozen or so youngsters, but each had a talent for creating chaos. “Group intoxication,” a term coined by Fritz Redl and David Wineman (1951), was an apt description for the contagious misbehavior that often greeted reluctant replacement teachers. The principal, Mr. McEntee, believed a permanent substitute teacher was pandemonium insurance. He told me that my visibility in the building on a daily basis would deter a class from getting out of hand when I took over. Sometimes his theory worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

Compliance and co-operation
In my forays through the school hallways, I rarely passed Mrs. Abbot’s classroom without marveling at the order I observed through the window in her classroom door. Students sat in rows. They raised their hands to speak, and they only moved about the room with the teacher’s permission. She awarded points for good behavior, and she took away points for bad behavior. Students who ignored her system were promptly sent to the principal’s office, and chronic offenders were suspended. The order Mrs. Abbot created was impressive — until the day she called in sick and I replaced her as substitute teacher.

The students, about 27 of them, greeted my entrance with pure glee. (The  refrain, “Oh boy, a sub!" is familiar to anyone who has been a substitute teacher.) From the moment I set foot inside the classroom, I was confronted with one disturbance after another. Ellen wanted to play records. Frank ran over to the window to sail paper plates he found in the supply closet. Jesse picked a fight with Alan. The disruptions were contagious and the students were having a fine time. The chant “you can’t do anything to me” echoed in my ears. They were right. The point system, which Mrs. Abbot used so effectively, had no effect on their behavior when she was not present. I was outwitted and outnumbered. I spent a long week hopelessly battling an epidemic of misbehavior with meager prescriptions of bribes and threats.

After the episode in Mrs. Abbot’s class, I assumed that the disruptive student behavior I encountered in some classes was part of the package that went along with teaching in a school populated by streetwise youngsters. However, I soon got a pleasant surprise. Not all classrooms spun out of control upon my arrival.

In Ms. Torrey’s classroom I encountered few problem behaviors. Students helped me get organized. They showed me where the pass was kept and they pointed out the class schedule. Instruction was organized around “learning center” activities. Several tables were placed around the perimeter of the classroom. Each center was labeled with a sign on the wall: “art,” “science,” “math,” “writing,” and “social studies.” The tables were stacked with gear. The math table had a balance, a scale, rulers, pencils, and many small objects to weigh, classify, and count. A comfortable reading area was secluded behind a colorful partition. Three students at a time were allowed at each area. They talked, laughed, and helped each other. They cooperated. I enjoyed my days substituting in Ms. Torrey’s classroom. There were some behavior problems to be sure, but the chaos and manipulation that I encountered in classrooms like Mrs. Abbot’s were absent.

Keeping the lid on
Teaching students whose tempers are shorter than a candle wick requires both intestinal fortitude and a bag of tricks to keep them in line. Recently, I was talking on the telephone to a special education teacher when I heard an object smash in the background. “I have to get off now,” she said. “One of my students just threw a chair.”

When young people are difficult to manage, disruptive, or violent, the urge to find a way, any way, to get them to behave is intense and immediate. In my work as a student teacher supervisor, I visit many special education programs for aggressive students, and much of what I see in terms of behavior management replicates Mrs. Abbot’s classroom. Points and level systems proliferate in special education classrooms, and they exist in a less systematic fashion in many general education classrooms. In such compliancebased programs, students are awarded points for appropriate behavior. When students accumulate a predetermined number of points, they are elevated to higher “levels” that reward them with treats such as field trips and pizza parties.

Teachers cannot teach, nor can students learn, in classrooms where either their psychological or physical safety is threatened. There must be limits and there must be consequences  — this maxim is indisputable — but there is more. There also must be methods put in place for students to learn the appropriate social skills they need for success in life. It is here where compliance systems fall short of the mark. As I discovered in my substitute teaching days, like the lid on a pressure cooker, points and level systems control boiling emotions and boisterous behavior, but remove the lid and the scalding turbulence boils over. Behavior management practices that solely emphasize compliance are inadequate when it comes to the task of teaching aggressive youngsters the social skills that comprise responsible behavior (Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990).

The benefits of points and level systems
While the temptation to recommend a complete overhaul of points and level systems is strong, reality dictates a more balanced approach. Recruitment, training, and retention of capable teachers for disruptive students is enormously difficult. Many teachers in residential programs for students with emotional or behavioral problems work 11 months a year, without union benefits, and at wages below public school scale. Meanwhile, special education teachers in public schools often are isolated from general education classes in self-contained classrooms or alternative schools. Teachers who are willing to spend five hours a day in a classroom with eight to twelve aggressive students are hard to find. On-site training in such essential teaching skills as life space crisis intervention, peer mediation, behavior management, group dynamics, and activity-centered learning is both costly and time-consuming. Moreover, gains in teacher inservice can be lost within three to four years, which is the average amount of time of employment before the onset of teacher burnout (Smith-Davis, Burke, & Noel, 1983). Given the difficulties in hiring, training, and retaining teachers of aggressive youth, it is easy to understand the appeal of points and level systems:

From the point of view of many administrators who must cope with chronic teacher shortages, the organizational advantages of points and level systems often outweigh the disadvantages. Points and level systems are entrenched and are likely to remain so for some time.

Figure 1


Control impulses
Manage situational lure
Demonstrate patience
Verbalize feelings
Resist tempting objects

Follow school routines
Follow rules
Organize school materials
Accept evaluative comments
Make classroom transitions

Manage group situations
Maintain composure
Appraise peer pressure
Participate in group activities
Describe effect of behavior on others

Manage stress
Adapt to new situations
Cope with competition
Tolerate frustration
Select tension-reducing activities

Solve social problems
Focus on present
Learn from past experience
Anticipate consequences
Resolve conflicts


Teaching responsibility
However, methods for teaching responsible behavior can be merged with points and level systems. This is accomplished by separating the behavior management system from the educational program. Points and level systems can establish guidelines for appropriate behavior while social skill instruction is merged with the daily curriculum. Teaching the social skills that comprise responsible behavior presents the same educational challenge as teaching algebra, geology, or literature (Grossman et al., 1997). The key is targeting specific social skills for instruction (see Figure 1) and involving students at a personal level (Henley, 1994). Lessons that students find relevant open the door to personal change by inviting participation.

An educational program that teaches responsibility emphasizes the following four instructional qualities: interaction, personal experience, empowerment, and service to others.

Student interaction. A 1994 U.S. Census Bureau survey asked 3,000 small-business employers to rank the qualities they look for when hiring a nonsupervisory or production worker. Attitude and communication skills received the highest priority. Grades, reputation of school, and teacher’s recommendation were ranked at the bottom of the list (“Qualities that count,” 1995). For young people to succeed in work, they need to learn to be able to get along with their peers and supervisors. Guided opportunities to present ideas, voice differences, and work in groups help students to learn the value of such specific social skills as verbalizing feelings, accepting evaluative feedback, appraising peer pressure, and resolving conflicts.

One approach to guided student participation in groups is cooperative learning. Cooperative learning can be used to teach any segment of the curriculum. Documented benefits of cooperative learning include increased student motivation, higher test scores, and enhanced social skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1990; Putnam et al., 1989; Smith, 1987). Other instructional methods such as brainstorming, class discussions, and peer mediation of conflicts teach compassion, empathy, and the value of communication. Additionally, each method is an instructional tool that can be used for teaching any subject matter. Cooperative learning, brainstorming, and class discussions are equally effective at every age level from early childhood to college.

Focus on student experience. Rap music moves to the hard-edged beat of inner-city streets. The lyrics provide prose and poetry for reading and discussion. Television, movies, and sports provide ersatz heroes who can be used to contemplate qualities of leadership and risk-taking. Video and computer games create imaginary worlds and mythic quests, which can spark imaginative writing. Youngsters seek out experiences that will help them define themselves and their world. This search for meaning is a powerful tool for learning.

Direct experience provides a concrete palette with which to paint abstract ideas. Student values, interests, and experiences need recognition and affirmation. Classroom activities that center on student experience provide relevance that is often missing from textbooks, workbooks, and dittos. Dull, lifeless lessons invite student misbehavior. Student-centered learning helps youngsters to manage the frustration that often accompanies their learning, and it provides myriad opportunities to bolster such social skills as anticipating consequences, learning from past experience, and focusing on the present.

Empower students. There are many paths to developing respectful teacher-student relationships and to motivating students, but I have found none more effective than empowerment. Empowerment helps students take responsibility for their behavior. Students who are given a choice in selecting a book to read will approach the task with more verve than youngsters who are handed a textbook and told to “read pages 35-45 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” Students who are asked what the rules for classroom behavior should be will accept and follow those rules with more enthusiasm than students who are told how and when to act. Students who are consulted about changes in a classroom routine will adapt to those changes more readily than students who have changes dictated to them.

For example, one day I was substituting in a fourth-grade classroom. Michael, a 10-year-old whose reputation for classroom antics was well known throughout the school, sauntered up to my desk and demanded the pass so he could go to the bathroom. I looked all through the teacher’s desk, but I could not find it. Students urged me to look in all the desk drawers and in the supply closet. A handful of students searched other students’ desks. As the noise and confusion rose, I sensed trouble. I glanced at the clock. It was 9:15 Am and Michael was growing impatient. Then I got a shot of inspiration. I took Michael’s hand, picked up a magic marker, and wrote “pass” on his palm. “There,” I said. “Michael, you are the official pass for the day:” First surprise, then pride flashed across his face. “Your job,” I said, “is to take anybody who needs a pass outside of the classroom and bring them back. Can you do that?” I asked. “No problem,” he replied, “I’ll be right back.” Within five minutes Michael was back in the room, proudly showing off his badge of responsibility. I had no problem with Michael that day. Our relationship blossomed from a small seed of respect I planted with the stroke of a magic marker.

Service to others. Annie Rosa, age 17, helped organize several community-service learning projects. “I’ve always had somebody helping me,” she remarked. “Now that I am at an age where I’m independent, I want to be able to help other people.” Melba Rivera, age 17, helped turn a vacant lot into a playground. “I’m learning that I can do something for the community,” she said. “This community is really messed up and it needs people to change things:” Bobbie-Joe Murray, age 18, volunteered at a local food pantry. “It gives me a chance to do good,” she commented. “It’s worth it because you see how much of a difference one person can really make” (Johnson, 1997). These simple statements, spoken by three Springfield, Massachusetts, teenagers, speak eloquently to the benefits of service.

Helping others builds compassion, empathy, and self-respect — virtues noticeably deficient in the words and actions of aggressive and delinquent youth. Encouraging students to help each other is an affirmative teaching method for building responsible behavior. Service moves students beyond the egocentric thinking that underlies many problem behaviors. Such social skills as verbalizing feelings, demonstrating patience, managing frustration, and describing the effect of behavior on others are strengthened when young people work together.

Within the classroom, peer and cross-age tutoring offers a splendid opportunity for youth to learn the benefits of helping one another. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Tutoring puts the responsibility for learning where it belongs — on the student. This is a dramatic change for students who are used to being reluctant learners. Students who are accustomed to sitting alone at their seats, waiting for the teacher, become more directly involved in their learning by helping each other. Tutoring provides individual instruction. It is fun and peer tutoring is nonthreatening. Students feel free to admit a lack of knowledge without fear of adult evaluation. When conducted in a thoughtful and systematic manner, peer tutoring increases both achievement and motivation to learn (Jenkins & Jenkins, 1981).

Striking a balance between point systems and teaching responsible behavior
Joseph Enright teaches English in the Instructional Support Services (ISS) Program at Westfield Vocational, an alternative special education high school program for students with behavior problems in Massachusetts. All the teachers in the program are required to reinforce appropriate behaviors by awarding from one to five points during each class. Students earn one point for each of the following behaviors: getting to class on time, starting their work without causing a distraction, staying on task, refraining from using profanity, and treating adults and other students respectfully.

Students move from level one to level four by garnering up to 45 points a day. A student who progresses to either level three or four by the end of the week can participate in a special event, such as going on a field trip. Level three requires at least 180 points and level four requires 225 points for the week.

The ISS program is fairly typical of the points and level systems in place in alternative education programs throughout the country. Mr. Enright calls the system a “scaffolding for developing responsible behavior,” but, he adds, “it’s not the focus of my teaching. Field trips are an incentive to work, but the biggest incentive is high involvement in learning.” Once his students settle down in his classroom, the points and level system recede into the background, and Mr. Enright concentrates on his teaching.

Mr. Enright approaches his work with two goals in mind — to teach an appreciation of English, and to find ways within the curriculum to teach his students to behave responsibly. He couples student-centered teaching methods such as brainstorming, peer tutoring, and cooperative learning with literature to teach students such social skills as learning from past experience, anticipating consequences, and managing frustration. (See Figure 2 for a list of social skills matched to essays.)

On a Wednesday afternoon, six students strolled into his class. “What are we doing today, Mr. E.?” The question was proffered by a hefty teenager who appeared to have a genuine fondness for his teacher. There was little talk about points, but the students understood that if all went well, Mr. Enright would take care of the bookkeeping. Mr. Enright distributed copies of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson to each student. The short work told the story of a village that selects one person to sacrifice each year to ensure a good harvest. Most of the story detailed the excitement over the lottery. The fact that the “winner” will be stoned to death is saved for the end. This “prize” is not revealed until the last two pages, which Mr. Enright removed. “I want them to try to figure out what happens in the end before they read about it,” he explained. “It helps to sustain their interest.” The self-control skill he selected to emphasize is learning from past experience.

The students read the story together then discussed the alternatives open to the villagers. As the conversation about the villagers and their steadfast dark tradition wound down, Mr. Enright skillfully steered the conversation around to the lives of the students. “Do you ever find yourself doing things over the same way without thinking about it?” he asked. With this question Mr. Enright shifted his position from group leader to group facilitator. He encouraged his students to think for themselves. The hefty teenager talked briefly about some of the kids he hung out with who are trouble prone. A lanky youngster described how angry he got when his team lost a game. Not everyone offered an account, but the conversation was focused and animated. At the end of the class, Mr. Enright commented, “We didn’t solve the world’s problems today, but it was a good discussion, we’ll follow up on it tomorrow.”

Haim Ginott once described teaching as a series of small victories. Mr. Enright’s judicious balance of a point system with student-centered teaching methods moved his charges one step closer to responsible behavior.

Figure 2 - Selected readings to build responsibility
Social skill Title Author
Following rules That Was Then, This Is Now S.E. Hinton
Learning from past experience "The Lottery" Shirley Jackson
Anticipating consequences I Know What You Did Last Summer Lois Duncan
Adapting to new situations To Build a Fire Jack London
Verbalizing feelings The Most Dangerous Game Richard Connell
Resolving conflicts The Outsiders S.E. Hinton
Tolerating frustration Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  Mildred D. Taylor
Participating in group activities Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? Joyce Carol Oates

Youth who have difficulty controlling their emotions and their behavior need educational programs that foster the development of responsible behavior. However, the day-to-day reality of teaching students who are impulsive, aggressive, and disruptive presents its own set of challenges. Points and level systems are widely used to control student behavior.

It is clear that any advancement in teaching disruptive students must take the organizational needs of the school into consideration, as well as the needs of the students. A synthesis is attainable by using points and level systems to set the tone for appropriate behavior while incorporating educational practices that emphasize student interaction, personal experience, empowerment, and service to others. Educational programs for difficult-to-manage students can be reshaped through compromise. Points for behavior and teaching responsibility can coexist through a careful analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of each within educational settings.


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Henley, M. (1997). Teaching self-control: A curriculum for responsible behavior. Bloomington. National Educational Service.

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Smith-Davis, J.; Burke, P. and Noel, M. (1983). Personnel to educate the handicapped in America: Supply and demand from a progammatic viewpoint. College Park, MD. University of Maryland, Department of Special Education.


This feature: Henley, M. (1997). Points, level systems and teaching responsibility. Reaching Today’s Youth, 1, 4. pp.24-29.