Point Systems in Residential Settings


Following a career  –  some of which is chronicled in articles in published this Journal  –   working with children and young people, John lives near New Orleans and spends much of his time travelling. He is the author of ‘Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues,  Principals and Techniques.’ His essays, articles and papers have been published widely and he is a member of the goodenoughcaring Journal’s editorial group.


Point Systems in Residential Settings

John Stein

It’s a tool.  When they can’t do the skill  in spite of knowing all the steps , you begin to get at the underlying problems. e.g. temper.

It should not be staff who are in control of points, it should be kids.  Oooops.  Not kids, their behavior should be in control of points.  That’s what puts points in control of behavior.

Point systems have been receiving a lot of criticism in recent years, especially from those who stress the importance of relationships in dealing with troubled children.  I have seen point systems that merit such criticism.  However, like so many other things that have the potential for good but can do harm when misused, point systems too have both productive uses and the potential for misuse.   Some are merely ineffective, doing little harm but little if any good.  I like to think that describes some of my earlier efforts.  Others can do considerable harm while doing little if any good.

Point systems cannot change or control children’s behavior.  They cannot, by themselves, establish order in a program that is in trouble.   They cannot create a therapeutic milieu.  On the other hand, a creatively designed point system coupled with a comprehensive treatment milieu, including staff who teach and coach the children, can help children develop their prosocial skills and empower them to change their own behavior when they choose to do so.  I have seen one such point system that was embraced by both staff and residents.  Along with the rest of the treatment milieu, it contributed to a successful discharge rate approaching 100%, with 90% remaining in the community and 76% doing well up to five years after discharge. (‘Doing well’ was defined as still in school, completed school, or employed.  Those children who did not complete the program were sometimes younger children who were discharged home, where they continued to improve, or older children who were ‘not a good fit’ and who transferred to another program with their consent and full participation.)

Point systems are tools, and like tools, there are things they do well and things where they can cause harm.  Consider building a house.  It takes a hammer to drive the nails and a screw driver to drive the screws.  Trying to put up a door using a hammer to drive the screws will ruin the screws and damage the wood and the hinges.  Trying to drive nails with a screw driver, well, it’s just plain silly.  It’s similar with point systems.  They can be good at getting people to do specific things.  They are not likely to be effective in getting people to stop doing things and may well cause harm when attempts are made to use them for that purpose.


If memory serves me correctly from my undergraduate studies in the 1960’s, behavioural psychologists introduced token economies in the early 1960’s.  One of the first was in a psychiatric ward in a veteran’s hospital in California.  Long term patients were lounging around doing nothing.  Psychologists set up a system in which the men could earn tokens for things such as getting up in the morning, showering, shaving, dressing, and making their beds.  They could then spend their tokens to purchase privileges they liked, such as sitting in the lounge and watching TV or smoking.  The purpose of the token economy was just to get the men moving, basically to make them better patients.  The psychologists were surprised when a few of these long term patients improved to the extent that they could be discharged.

Another early token economy involved problem students who simply were not doing their work.  They were awarded tokens for completing class work and could spend their tokens at the end of the week for toys and things in a special store.

The purpose of these early token economies was simply to get people doing things they would not otherwise do.  Once they started doing these things, these things received natural reinforcement from other sources.  The patients felt better about themselves, and the students found some pleasure in learning.

Later, behaviourists began to utilize points in place of tokens because points were easier to use, and point systems began to appear in more and more residential programs, sometimes in addition to psychotherapy, other times replacing it as the primary intervention.  Instead of focusing on getting children to do a few specific behaviors, they attempted to manage all behaviors, not only by awarding points for desirable behaviors but by taking points and imposing restrictions for undesirable behaviors.

(Point systems are not new.  The United States Military Academy at West Point utilized a point system beginning in the early 1800’s.  Cadets received demerits for transgressions and could be discharged if they received more than 200 demerits in one year.   In the late 1890’s, the Junior Republic in rural New York introduced a type of token economy using money instead of tokens.  Children were free to work or play but got paid for working or going to school and needed money at day’s end to pay for their food and shelter.  There are yet other point systems.  Points dominate competitive sports and games.  In baseball, points are called runs; in ‘real’ football and hockey, points are called goals, but in tennis, basketball, and American football, points are indeed points.)

Token economies and point systems have been shown to have some success with getting people to do things they would not otherwise do.  When new behaviors receive reinforcement from other sources, those behaviors continue.  When new behaviors fail to receive reinforcement from other sources, those behaviors tend to undergo extinction when points are no longer available.


A Little Behavioral Psychology

I believe that psychologists have demonstrate convincingly that behavior is controlled by its consequences.  However, I know from experience that the behavior of children is not easily controlled by the consequences arranged by adults.  Other consequences tend to be more important than the rewards and punishments arranged by adults.  Adults rarely control those  consequences of behavior.  Rather, they merely throw their rewards and punishments into the mix of reinforcements that occur naturally, often from social interactions.

Behavior that receives reinforcement is likely to be repeated.  Behavior that does not receive reinforcement is likely to undergo extinction, which means that it may be repeated only randomly.  When a randomly occurring behaviour  receives reinforcement, the behaviour will resume.  Punishment does not cause extinction.  Rather, punishment suppresses behavior temporarily.  Behavior cannot undergo extinction while it is suppressed.  Behavior can only undergo extinction when it occurs in the absence of reinforcement.  When punishment is no longer available, the behavior resumes.  More, the subjects of psychological experiments are able to learn to discriminate from various cues when reinforcement or punishment are available and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Finally, the best way to change behavior is to provide reinforcement for a competing behavior.  For example, students cannot sit calmly and quietly at their desks while they are running around the classroom or disturbing other students.  These behaviors are incompatible with sitting quietly.

When the behaviour of sitting quietly at one’s desk receives reinforcement, it repalces the behaviour of running around the room.


Rewards and Reinforcements

Rewards and reinforcements are not always the same thing.  In psychology, a reinforcement is something that strengthens a behavior when it follows that behavior.  Reinforcements affect behavior.  When they don not affect behavior, they are not reinforcements for that behavior.  It is the behaviour that is reinforced.  Rewards, on the other hand, affect the recipient.  It is still a reward even if it has no effect on behavior.  While the purpose of providing a reward may be to change behavior, it is the recipient who is rewarded rather than the behavior.  Rewards tend to be manipulative.  Some people resent attempts to manipulate them and rebel.

My son taught me this when he was in the eighth grade.  Tired of the constant struggle over his room, with clothes and stuff on the floor and an unmade bed, I put a chart on his door on which his mother would grade his room each day.  At the end of the week, enough positive marks would earn him double the allowance he had been getting.  It worked like a charm.  The first week.  He earned no allowance for the next six weeks.  If anything, his room was worse than ever.  We gave up.  He said he thought his room was his own business and he resented being placed on a system like I used at work.


Punishment and Punishment

Psychologists did not give us two terms for the two concepts of punishment as they did for rewards and reinforcement.  Punishment in psychology is something that reduces the strength of a behavior when it follows that behavior.  Punishment in psychology affects behavior.  If something doesn’t reduce the behavior, it is not a punishment for that behavior.  In common use, punishment is something unpleasant that people impose on someone as a penalty.  It is designed to make the person pay in someway, usually through suffering, in the hope of changing behavior.  Punishment affects the recipient, regardless of its effect on behaviour.  However, traditional punishment is always perceived as punishment, even when it has little or no affect on behaviour.  Moreover, there are times when punishment may actually reinforce a behaviour, as when it serves as a cue that reinforcement has been received.  Example: a child angry with his mother continues to escalate his verbal abuse knowing he will be punished.  He won’t stop until he has provoked his mother into imposing the harshest of punishments.  Now he knows she’s mad.

The problem with the traditional concept of punishment is that it has to be imposed by someone.  Psychologists take great pains in their studies to make sure that the punishment is associated with the behavior, not with the psychologist or any other person.  Such punishments can be dramatically effective in suppressing behavior.  When they lead to subjects learning competing replacement behaviours, their effects can be long lasting.  Consider an accidental burn.  Most people learn quickly after one or two burns to change their behaviour, grabbing hot pads bedfore picking up pots on the stove or carefully testing water before getting under a strange shower.  They learn very quickly that hot things burn.  When punishment is imposed by someone, the punishment tends to become associated with the person imposing the punishment.  No matter how much they attempt to convey that they are imposing the punishment because of the behaviour, they cannot disguise the fact that they are imposing the punishment.  Such punishments may lead to changes in behavior, but they are not always desirable changes, as when children learn to sneak and lie to avoid punishment, or to lawyer their way out of a punishment by minimizing their responsibility.  When people get burned, they pretty much have to take responsibility for their careless behavior.  ????????


Human Behavior

People have needs, both physical and social.  Once their physical needs have been satisfied, their social needs are likely to have a significant impact on their behavior.  Consequently, it is social things, whether real or imagined, that will serve as the most significant reinforcements for their behavior.  Behavior that they perceive as meeting some social need is thereby reinforced.  Behavior that they do not perceive is getting their social needs met is not reinforced and is likely to undergo extinction.  Behavior which is interfering with meeting their social needs is likely to be suppressed, at least in those environments where it is inappropriate.


What point systems cannot do.  

Point systems cannot change or control children’s behavior.  They cannot create a therapeutic milieu all by themselves.


What point systems can do.  

A carefully designed point system can

  • provide support for a treatment program that is designed to help children develop their prosocial skills.  Prosocial skills empower children to change their own behaviour whenever they choose to do so.  More, certain prosocial skills are competing behaviors that make most misbehavior impossible. Remember–the best way to change behavior is to provide reinforcement for competing replacement behaviors that make the undesirable behavior more difficult or impossible.
  • provide support to children who are learning and practicing new social skills.
  • utilize the social milieu and social reinforcements.
  • enhance relationships between children and staff by removing staff from the role of providing consequences, instead putting staff in the role of teaching and coaching children to learn and master new social skills.  (Ok, staff still have to mark the point sheets–it’s how they mark them that is important.  When the point sheets are used like a score card it’s a little different than when point sheets are used like a cudgel or weapon.)



  • Behaviour is always a problem when children come into treatment.  If there were no problems with their behaviour, no one would even notice that they had problems.  And sadly, few would care.
  • Behaviour is rarely the  Rather, behaviour is a symptom of underlying problems that contribute to or cause the behavioural problems.
  • When children know what behaviour is expected and understand why it is important, they will do it if they can.  They need to be taught. And they need a safe place in which to practice.
  • When children know what behaviour is expected and understand why it is important but still can’t do it, it provides some clues as to what the underlying problems might be.  Problems are likely to be with beliefs, values, feeling, emotions, attitudes, and relationships.  These problems may require special interventions, possibly even therapies, often requiring the coordinated efforts of a full treatment team.
  • It is social!  It’s not about rewards nor punishments.  They both have their place, but only because it’s social.
  • The point system has to be logical.  If staff don’t buy into it, it will not work.  If the kids don’t buy into it, it will not work.
  • Points should provide status.  Remember–it’s social.
  • There should be a wide range of activities and privileges that are always available to everyone, regardless of points or behaviour.  Only a few special status privileges should be tied to points–those that have to be rationed in some kind of way because of limited resources or those that require some level of responsibility.  Remember–it has to be logical.  Children can understand rationing limited resources (twelve residents, one pool table, two telephones, and only an hour of free time), and they can understand having to demonstrate some responsibility in order to go out without supervision. They can’t understand having to have points to listen to their own radio or have a pencil and paper during their free time.
  • Every child should succeed most of the time, earning privileges most days.
  • Let the system work.  Staff’s job is to teach and coach, to help children learn and practice.  Staff should treat entries on the point sheets as scoring or grading performance, not as a threat or a sanction.  They should show some empathy when children are experiencing problems, making entrees with a sense regret or remorse, not a sense of righteousness or malice.
  • Sanctions are important.  Punishment is rarely beneficial for the individual on the receiving end, but seeing others receiving sanctions can provide a powerful reinforcement for the behavior of other members of the group who make the effort (often considerable effort) to behave appropriately in tempting or challenging situations.  Remember–it’s social.
  • Keep punishments to a minimum to minimize the negative effects on the individual being punished.  Restrictions should only be for the most serious offenses–behaviors that would be criminal any where else–physical aggression, theft, substance abuse, threatening with a weapon.  Restrictions should not exceed one or two days, even for these most serious of offenses. Children should be restricted only from being able to earn those privileges that are controlled by points, not from other activities and privileges.  They should never be placed on room restriction.  (Children may be restricted from privileges or even rights that they’ve abused, not as punishment but as a logical consequence.  E.g., children who have used the telephone to threaten or abuse someone may be restricted from unsupervised use of the phone for a day or two,.  Children who have wielded a pool cue as a weapon may be restricted from the pool table for a day or two.)
  • Do not keep adding to the system whenever something new happens for which it does not provide.  Handle these things separately by teaching, without sanctions unless some logical consequence seems necessary.
  • Provide for bonus points, but, do not use them too frequently and do not use them as bribes.  That devalues not only bonus points but all points.  Save them for something really special, such as showing empathy for another child who is having a really rough day, or controlling one’s temper in the face of serious provocation.  When bonus points are offered spontaneously, it is a symbol of special approval.  When they are offered as bribes (I’ll give you five points if you take out the trash for me), they are just that-bribes. Bribes cheapen everyone involved and the point system as well..
  • The point system is not a treatment program.  It cannot do treatment.  All it can do is to support and facilitate treatment by contributing to an environment in which treatment can occur.  A point system can help the treatment program work, but the treatment program must help the point system work.  They have to work together.
  • Finally, the design of the system may be complex, but using it should be simple and easy.  Point systems that are simple in design (listing desirable behaviors for points, such as making beds and doing chores and going to meals and school and therapy on time to award points, then a long list of undesirable behaviors for point fines, such as cursing, smoking, not being dressed appropriately, unmade bed, hygiene, misusing property, racial slur…etc., often exceeding short term memory) can be challenging to use.  The more discretion staff have, the more children are likely to view them as being arbitrary and punitive.  This undermines relationships.  The less discretion staff have in applying the system, the less children are likely to view staff as arbitrary or punitive.  When staff apply the system uniformly according to accepted policy and with compassion and empathy , it is less likely to interfere with relationships.



  • Decide what behaviors to teach and reinforce.  Remember first, the best way to change negative behavior is to teach competing behaviors–those behaviors that make other behaviors impossible–and then to make sure those new behaviors receive reinforcement.  Second, behaviors that are likely to receive reinforcement from sources other than the point system or agency personnel, e.g., in school, at home, with peers, in the community, on the job, are likely to occur and continue outside the program, even after children leave.  Selected social skills such as those in Table 1 meet both of these criteria.  With these social skills, schedules, rules, and lists of infractions are no longer necessary.
  • Decide what rights, privileges, and activities will be available to everyone, regardless of points or behavior.  A large array of activities should be available regardless of points, including one ‘free’ pass each month and a five or ten minute phone call to a parent or other approved person.  That helps to keep it from being too punitive.
  • Decide what privileges to tie to the point system. It has to be logical.  And remember, it’s social.  First, certain privileges have to be rationed because of limited resources and free time.  Points is one way to ration these privileges.  Other privileges require a certain amount of responsibility, such as unsupervised activities.  Achieving certain point totals is at least some indication of responsible behavior.  Third, tying allowances to point totals seems to appeal to logic.  Fourth, if everyone is supposed to have a chore or household responsibility, points can provide a mechanism for assigning these things, letting the child with the highest points have first choice, etc.  All of these things, the scarce privileges, the privileges that require responsibility, choosing chores, and money, provide the recipients with a certain amount of status.  Remember, it’s social.  Finally, I believe that every child needs a pass at least once a month regardless of behavior or anything else, other conditions permitting.  However, if discharge depends on completing treatment objectives, then it is logical to tie additional passes to progress in treatment.
  • Base the point system on 100 points per day.  That has a logic children and staff can understand and appreciate.  It is consistent with percentages, grades in school, and currency.  Remember–it has to be logical.
  • Decide what privileges will be awarded on a daily basis, and what privileges will be awarded on a weekly basis.  Free time privileges fit well with daily point totals.  Allowances, chores, and home passes fit well with weekly point totals.
  • Award privileges by levels of attainment–something for daily totals of 70 points, more for 80 points, all for 90 to 100 points.  Something for weekly totals of 550 points, more for 600 points, even more for 650 points.  This sets standards.  Avoid trying to make every point mean something by providing something for each point.  That sets no standards. Help children to strive to achieve certain levels of achievement and provide reinforcement for doing so.
  • Decide on guidelines for bonus points.  Staff should have discretion in this, but within limits.  Too many bonus points or using bonus points as bribes undermines the system.  It’s a great topic for staffings to perhaps help a child who is having a rough period.
  • Consider levels.  There are several reasons that I like levels.  First, different levels can allow for different expectations.  Second, different levels can allow for different levels of privileges based on progress and demonstrated responsibility.  Third, different levels provide status and a sense of accomplishment and progress.   Finally, different levels can facilitate the transition to discharge.  For example, new children should not be expected to perform at the same level as children who have been in treatment for longer periods. An adjustment level designed to last three or four weeks for new children with expectations relating to adjusting to the program–learning routines, starting a new school, developing relationships with staff, etc., can be helpful.  A second level, designed to last two to three months, in which children are learning social skills and beginning to apply them, may allow for lower expectations.  Children who are learning the social skills and learning to use them need prompts and counseling.  The expectation is that they will utilize the prompts and counseling.  When they do, they can earn their points.  Also during the first few months, staff are getting to know the children.  It may be too soon for staff to assess whether or not children are responsible enough to handle unsupervised activities, so unsupervised activities might not be available on this level.  A third level, designed to last until treatment objectives have been achieved, can have higher expectations and privileges.  Children on this level might not earn their points for a specific skill if they need prompting or counseling about the skill.  On they other hand, they may be able to earn special unsupervised privileges.  The fourth and fifth levels are transitional levels in preparation for termination and discharge.  On the fourth level, designed to last two or three months, children are expected to perform without the support of daily point totals, beginning their transition off the point system.  Points are totaled only at the end of the week rather than on a daily basis.  All daily privileges are available to them regardless of entries on their weekly point sheets, and they are eligible to earn home passes every week.  On the fifth level, designed to last two to three months, children are expected to maintain their behavior without points.  They go off the point system and have no point sheets.  .  They receive two-night passes during the week to begin their transition home.  If they do well during those passes, they may also have a weekend home pass.  Any problem behaviors are handled through counseling and, if necessary, logical consequences imposed by the director.
  • Decide how to handle major infractions, such as aggression, weapons, theft, and substance abuse.  One way is to impose a point fine, so that children have to earn points to pay off the fine instead of earning points towards privileges.  On a system of 100 points per day, fines of 50 to 100 points will mean that a resident cannot earn privileges for one or two days until the fine is paid.  Another strategy is for a supervisor to hold a conference or a hearing to discuss the behavior and determine the consequences to be imposed.  With this model, staff can take the role of advocating for the resident.  The third alternative is based on the restorative justice model, in which a community meeting is held where those affected by the behavior can discuss with the perpetrator the harm that was done and come to an agreement on how the perpetrator will repair the harm.
  • Design the point sheets and the system.  I prefer simple point sheets in the form of a grid with the desirable behavior listed down the left side and the days of the week–Friday through Thursday listed across the top.  Since school is the most important part of the day, I like totaling point sheets after school to determine privileges for the evening.  With weekly privileges being most important for the weekend, I like totaling weekly points on Thursdays.  This allows staff and residents time to prepare for the weekend.
  • Plan the implementation.



It is much easier to get the children on board with the system if they understand the logic of the system.  It has to be explained.  This of course depends on relationships.  It is also easier to get them on board if they are able to earn more privileges under the system that they had previously.    This may mean increasing the allowance they are able to earn and adding or expanding other privileges where possible.  Consulting children on what additional activities or privileges they would like can really help, provided there are sufficient resources top consider some things.

Getting staff on board is a different matter.  It helps if they are consulted and given the opportunity for input during the development of the system.  And it is essential that supervisors are on board.  Then, it takes more than writing a procedure and training staff.  It requires constant attention to get a new policy or procedure established as a routine.  It is better to notice what people are getting right than to notice what they are not doing correctly.

Staff should not be in control of points.  Do everything possible to emphasize that behavior is in control of points.  Staff simply record behavior.  Staff must not threaten to take points or offer to give points.  Rather, staff should counsel residents about problems with behavior and teach the appropriate behavior, providing social rationales for every step, personalizing the rationales for individual residents.

Printing point sheets for each level on a different color of paper is helpful.  Screwing “Bull Dog” clips to the wall to hang point sheets is helpful.  The clips make it easy to remove point sheets when residents return from school for recording school behavior and totaling the point for the past 24 hours.  Clips can be labeled for each resident by using a card the size of a business card for the names of each residents.  Cards can be inserted under the clips by loosening the screw and cutting a notch in the card at the bottom in the center.  Then sheets can be mounted in order by levels.  As a resident attains a new level, the name cards and point sheets can be moved.  This gives residents a sense of movement and progress towards completing the program.

If residents destroy their point sheets in anger, no discipline is necessary.  The point sheets belong to the residents.  Unfortunately, residents cannot earn points without point sheets.  When they want a point sheet, they have to request one (It usually doesn’t take more than a day to do so.)   Meanwhile, any points that were earned up to that point were destroyed with the sheet–they are lost.  It’s the same when a resident is on runaway or otherwise away without permission.  Residents cannot earn points when they are awol.  No other sanctions need to be imposed, although counseling and such are in order after they have been welcomed back.


Table 1

Social Skills for Older Children and Adolescents

Note:   These skills can be simplified to just three or four steps for younger children or children with developmental disabilities


Peer Relations

speak respectfully

use appropriate voice tones

use appropriate language

name calling, teasing, horseplay, and inappropriate touching are not appropriate peer relations


Respect for Property

ask permission to use something belonging   to someone else

return things the way you got them

return or put things away when finished

use things only for the purpose intended

replace anything you lost or damaged


Adult Relations

maintain eye contact

speak respectfully

use appropriate language

use appropriate voice tones

answer when spoken to

speak clearly and distinctly

using slang or touching are not appropriate adult relations


Following Instructions

look at the person

listen to the instruction

ask questions if you don’t understand

say “ok”

do the instruction pleasantly

check back


Accepting Criticism

look at the person

listen to the criticism

ask questions if you don’t understand

state any objections calmly one time

listen to the response

say “ok”

making excuses or returning the criticism are not appropriate


Accepting “No”

state objections one time only

say “ok”

use appropriate language

use appropriate voice tone

control your temper

whining, complaining, or making threats are not appropriate


Expressing Anger Appropriately

tell someone calmly why you are angry

listen to what they have to say

express disagreement calmly

raising your voice, cursing, throwing or breaking things, hitting, stomping away, or slamming doors are not appropriate


Expressing Disagreement

look at the person

use a pleasant voice

say “I understand how you feel”

tell why you feel differently

give a reason

listen to the other person

arguing is not appropriate


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