Should children’s homes offer good behaviour rewards to looked-after children?

Some children's homes use rewards to encourage good behaviour, but the idea is controversial, finds Daniel Lombard

Some children’s homes use rewards to encourage good behaviour, but the idea is controversial, finds Daniel Lombard

(picture: Anderida Care has set up a website for its points-based reward system)

Parents have long used rewards to encourage good behaviour among children. Extra pocket money for tidying the bedroom, a trip to McDonald’s for finishing homework incentives have become a universal behaviour-management method among families, and unsurprisingly, they have found their way into children’s homes.

One provider has gone a step further and established a points-based reward system, complete with its own website. Anderida Adolescent Care, which runs four units in East Sussex for teenagers with acute behavioural problems, many of whom have spent time in secure homes, is the pioneer of A-Points.

Bearing similarities to a retail loyalty card, young people can accrue points for good behaviour and use them to choose activities from Anderida’s website. The list includes tickets to a Premier League football match (500 points), a helicopter ride over London (1,000 points), a holiday in the Mediterranean (2,500 points) or snowboarding in the Alps (5,000 points). Other activities can be added, based on participants’ suggestions. The scheme costs about £500 a year for each young person.

One of Anderida’s unit managers, Kerry Shoesmith, says a points-based reward scheme has been in place within the provider’s homes for about eight years, but it has evolved during that time.

“We wanted to reinforce young people’s goals on a day-by-day basis,” she says. “Because we’re working on the more challenging end of the behavioural spectrum, so even if it’s something as small as a young person making a cup of tea we felt it was important to recognise that and give them a sense of achievement.”

Exciting activities

She adds that the incentives were ­originally money-based but the rewards were being used to top up existing allowances for everyday purchases. Instead, staff decided to offer more exciting activities, such as bungee jumping or having a make-over, and the website was created alongside this.

“A-Points is a very progressive tool which helps young people to improve in all areas, tailored to each individual and their care plan,” Shoesmith says.

“We look at the coping mechanisms they use and create a chart with different areas of behaviour they could improve on. Some young people could gain points for avoiding self-harming behaviour or for having a shower in the morning if it’s something they don’t always do.

“At the end of each day staff sit down with each young person and discuss how they did and award points on the chart. If they go the extra mile, each day they can earn a letter, and if they do this for the whole week it spells out ‘AWESOME’ on the chart which gives them bonus points.”

Shoesmith says that, although there have been no formal evaluations of the scheme, its cost-effectiveness has been consistently proven.

“We’re not having to deal with constant absconding or things being broken, or staff having to sit up for three hours because the young person won’t go to bed, or the police having to fill out a missing person form or the hospital dealing with another case of self-harm. All of these things have a cost in a wider sense.”

Yet the approach has proved controversial. Critics say points-based behaviour systems are a poor substitute for strong relationships in children’s homes and the ability of staff to address the underlying causes of negative behaviour.

‘Too simplistic’

Mark Smith, a social work lecturer at Edinburgh University who worked in residential child care settings for 20 years, believes the models are “too simplistic to achieve any lasting effect on children’s behaviours and, moreover, can be and are manipulated by workers and kids”.

Another expert, US academic Karen VanderVen, who wrote an article called “The case against point systems and grading in behaviour programs”, says they do not encourage responsibility among young people and are “not related to ­normality”.

“Does anyone in the community live this way?” asks VanderVen.

Meanwhile consultant clinical psychologist Angela Hobday warns that the “delayed gratification” of the model may not be suited to survivors of abuse and young people with attention deficit disorder.

“Although good in-house reward systems may work well for some adolescents, they are no substitute for the intense individual therapy needed by many young people in the care system,” she says.

Consistency the key

However, the approach is backed by social work consultant Jayne Mumford, who used to manage a remand unit in the juvenile secure estate, where reward systems are commonplace.

“Behaviour management systems such as rewards and incentives can work,” she says, providing that they are implemented in a consistent manner by staff and targets are agreed by everyone in advance.

Anderida bosses are confident that their method is working but emphasise it is not a quick fix.

“The points are a tool to address all the issues of negative behaviour and to build stronger relationships within the home,” says Shoesmith, who has worked at the organisation for 10 years. “It won’t work on its own; it goes alongside other therapies and ways of building independence and emotional resilience.”

Tips for practitioners

Kerry Shoesmith offers tips for other providers on how to make behaviour grading systems work.

● Ensure project workers are on board. “Staff might feel it’s not a meaningful discussion if the young person hasn’t been behaving well or they might say it’s not the right time. But it’s the consistency that makes it work.”

● Involve young people in designing schemes. “It’s important that young people are given the chance to have some input into the areas in which they score points because they need to take ownership of behaviour issues.”

● Avoid offering money as an incentive. “We used to have cash rewards but it lost its meaning – the system is designed to reward positive behaviour with original life experiences.”

‘A-points provides a real boost to their self-esteem’

When one teenager was struggling to carry out basic day-to-day chores and hygiene such as laundry and cleaning his teeth, staff at Anderida worked hard to encourage him to engage with A-Points.

Senior project worker Andrew Chalk recalls: “I sat down with him and said ‘let’s do the routine daily points’, such as getting up on time, going to bed on time, washing clothes, brushing teeth, cutting down on junk food and snacks. These things might seem like they’re routine for others but kids in our homes need the consistency.

“He built up enough points to go jet-skiing on a lake in East Sussex. It wasn’t on the website so we asked my colleague whether he could put it on there and he did, pricing it up to 500 points.”

The teenager knuckled down and signs of improvement soon emerged in his behaviour, spurred on by the goal of his ultimate day out.

“The difference was amazing,” Chalk says. “There was less resistance to putting his care plan into practice; it felt like there was a purpose to what we were saying.”

Chalk says staff and young people have embraced the scheme: “Some of the young people feel like they’re always going to fail and this is proof that that’s not true. It’s a real boost to their self-esteem.”

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