Sunday, July 31, 2011


Someone I was talking with recently stated that even though he wanted to implement trauma informed care, his agency had to have a points and level system, because otherwise what is going to motivate the children to start doing good behaviors?

That is a good question. What does motivate the children to change?

I would suggest that there are a lot of built in motivations. These include wanting to be normal, not wanting to live in residential treatment, and the natural urge for mastery. Relationships are the most powerful source of motivation. Once a child feels that someone likes him, believes in him, and expects good things from him he develops a need to please that person and to live up to their expectations.

This goes back to the statement: children do well if they can. Children want to do well. Almost any child, if you talk with him when he is calm, will say that he wants to change, stop hitting people, stop cutting himself. It is not that he is not motivated. It is that he doesn’t know how. Our job is to teach him how.

But aren’t there some kids who do not care about relationships and do not want to do better? Don’t these kids need rewards and punishments to get them started towards better behavior? If I were to meet such a kid, I would wonder why. What has happened to this child that he has given up on relationships as the source of anything good? I would see my job as luring this child back into connection with humanity. What can I do to give the child an experience associating good things with other people? How can I change his templates of relationships, that is, what he expects from others? I would concentrate on providing him with as many positive experiences as possible and always have these be shared with adults. What fires together wires together, his brain would gradually, after many repetitions, begin to associate adults with fun.

I have to say I have come to see daily points and daily/weekly levels as completely unhelpful. To me now they seem to be the essence of not accepting where the child is and of being judgmental, rather than helpful. They increase shame, and the pressure to earn points may make cooperation harder.

Imagine you are trying to learn to drive a car. Although you have been around people driving cars all your life, you have never driven one yourself. You have an instructor. He tells you what to do (without many details of how to do it). And he sits there with a point sheet and rates your performance minute by minute by giving or not giving you points. You know that these points will determine what you are allowed to do that evening, whether you can watch TV or have to go to bed early. If you get all your points you will get a special treat but you know that is impossible.

Does this point system increase your learning? No, of course not. It impedes learning. It increases tension.

Instead, imagine the instructor is kind and gets to know you by talking a bit before each lesson. He carefully teaches you the steps in advance, and has you practice before heading out. He praises everything you do right. At the end of the lesson he congratulates you for your progress, goes over any issues that arise, gives you homework to practice and says he will look forward to your next lesson.

You find yourself wanting to please your instructor, and you practice diligently throughout the week. You are eager to show off what you have learned. You progress quickly.

Isn’t the second scenario closer to what we want to set up for our kids? There are so many powerful sources of motivation inside the kids and within the relationships we create with them. We do not have to rely on points and level systems which will in fact undermine learning.

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