The case against point systems and grading in behavior programs

Karen VanderVen

Using 'Brownie Points' instead of human relationships in our work with children? Karen VanderVen says "No thanks!"

"The agency did have a system. It was something like this: anyone in the facility, for any reason, could restrict any child, from any activity, at any time. That was the system ... "(Cima, 1992)

Creating a sound profession of developmental child and youth care work means simultaneously erasing those practices that are not congruent with the field's values and purposes. What, then, would or should be the first thing to erase? It's quite clear to me: Point systems and grading systems. These terms refer to the practices that seem, like a horrible blight, to be spreading over residential programs throughout North America. Masquerading under the general theory of classic behavior modification, many of these practices are distorted and misapplied. I have studied them and written them up more extensively in another paper (1992). What, actually, are they?

Point systems
In point systems, everything pleasurable “or part of normal comfortable living “is called a "privilege", and gets attached to "points." You have to earn points to play outside. You must have enough points to use games and toys. You have to have points to go to your room “or you have to have them to leave your room. In some settings, sufficient points are required to visit with your family. Even more incredible, you may have to have enough points to spend time alone with an adult or go for a walk with a care worker. And woe to you if you do not have enough points or lose too many points. You are "on restriction!"

Grading and levels
If you have collected enough points, why, then you can advance to another 'grade' or level where you can watch more TV, play more games, spend more time with a variety of adults, or maybe even stay up later. Perhaps you can go shopping. Play on the playground! Maybe you'll get an allowance. Or you may get more attractive snacks. Even get to rest in your room if you are tired.

How they work
How are these point and level systems implemented? Usually through very technically-written manuals which use long tables and complex checklists to indicate so many points for this, so many points for that; this percentage leads to this; this percentage takes away that!

To master the scoring system would challenge a mathematical physicist, and staff have to continually refer to the manual to make sure that they're doing it "right," and that they're being "objective." Often, armed with a clipboard which lists each child's name and a whole "laundry list" of criteria for awarding and taking away points, child care workers labor for hours on end, observing and calculating. All their results are posted publicly “just great for the kids' self-esteem, by the way. It's always useful when everyone knows that you're at the "bottom" or didn't make the next level this time around and won't be allowed to do anything.

Why not points systems?
Here are just ten reasons why these points and grading practices are appalling:

  1. They take behavior out of context, and thus as interventions they are not very helpful. A friendly gesture extended by a shy child might be interpreted as 'teasing", for example; five points off!

  2. They create, rather than reduce, crises: an inappropriate point assignment justifiably angers a child “who then has more points taken away for getting angry, and so on.

  3. They do not encourage the real internal responsibility that is developed by youngsters who experience logical, rather than artificial, consequences.

  4. They are often clinically inappropriate, actually punishing what may be a growth step for a particular child: remember the old example of the autistic child talking for the first time “and being sent alone to the "time out" room for swearing.

  5. They take away treatment opportunities: activities, exercise and nurturing routines, and especially time with adults which is the core of treatment. Point systems as described often in fact deprive children of treatment.

  6. They promote boredom and a lack of program content: child care workers do not have time, nor are they empowered, to engage with the children in activities and interactions, and we know that the more sterile the program, the more the children will "act out", just to make something happen (more points off).

  7. They dehumanize the staff walking around with clipboards and checklists. Working out just who won how many points and who lost how many points during the day hardly brings out the best in the adults, nor does it allow them to share their talents and interests with the kids.

  8. They make quiet, vulnerable kids give up and stop caring whether they earn a "privilege" or not, while they make sophisticated street-wise youth laugh secretly as they easily cook up ways to subvert these systems which they consider a joke.

  9. They are not related to normality. Does anyone in the community live this way? Imagine going into a family's home and telling them that they have not cleaned up their room on time and will lose 10 points and not be able to go to the movies tonight. How quickly you will be shown the door!

  10. The more the points are heaped on or taken away, however a particular system may happen to work, the more the children either give up or evade the system “and the more external control is heaped on. In the long run, these systems actually create more of the very behavior that they were supposed to limit!

Human child care work
Whatever happened to the idea of recognizing why children and youth are in care “abuse, neglect, rejection, family disruption “and then tailoring our programs accordingly? Whatever happened to those programs in which children and youth live with adults who are positive role models and who, using themselves and their child and youth care skills, help the youngsters feel safe, accepted, nurtured, engaged, challenged and supported towards assuming more responsibility and self-control? Why is external control the dominant value in so many programs? Cima (1992) remembers that a staff member "could and would come up with a restriction of some sort in order to make sure a kid 'didn't get away with it.' I was never sure what 'it' was other than 'we are in control here'."

What are we afraid of? Why don't we see what these practices are doing to us, to the children and youth we work with, and to our field “and then stop them?

There are other ways to work with young people. Think about it.


Cima, R. (1992). Michael. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 8. p. 59.

VanderVen, K. (1992). Misapplication of Behavior Modificatiqn principles: Another form of Child Abuse? Unpublished. 

This feature:  Acknowledgements to the Journal of Child and Youth Care.

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