Every Day is a New Day

A short explanation of the Boys Town point card motivational system

Sarah and I are settling into the routine of our life at Boys Town. We currently have three teenage girls living as a part of our family. This is something that I could not have predicted would be my reality even six months ago. But it is, and it’s quite the adventure.

Of course, even though we run a very structured home with a detailed schedule and very specific expectations we still experience lots of unpredictable moods, behaviors, and drama. But even on the hard days, there’s a deep-seated satisfaction that comes from seeing these girls working on their social skills, changing their behaviors, and maturing as individuals.

Our daily schedule during the week. 

At Boys Town we never punish the youth. So what do we do when the girls are not behaving according to our expectations or using appropriate social skills? Well, we make a big deal about getting to enjoy various privileges. And we make sure that their behaviors at home and at school determine whether or not they get to enjoy those privileges. That’s where our use of a point card system as motivation comes into play.

I’ve mentioned the point card system as a motivator before, but I thought I’d describe it a bit more in detail. If people know anything about the residential home program here at Boys Town, they usually know that we use point cards as a motivator for good behavior.

It’s a very thorough and well-developed system that has been refined since the 70s, but the point card is used write down the behaviors and social skills we are teaching to these girls. So if we give an instruction to a girl to go unload the dishwasher and she looks at me and says, “Ok” with a pleasant voice tone and then goes right away over to the dishwasher, unloads it, and afterwards checks back with me, then she has followed the steps of the social skill of “Following Instructions.”

One of the first social skills we teach in the home, and one of the most frequently used.

For using the skill of following instructions I’m going to then tell her something along the lines of the following:

“Hey! Great job following instructions! A couple minutes ago I gave you the instruction to unload the dishwasher. You looked at me, said “ok,” you did the task right away, and then you checked back with me. That was awesome. You’ve earned a positive 1500 points for following instruction, and we’re going to highlight the specific behavior of just saying “ok” with a pleasant voice tone. So you can write down 1500 positive points, for the skill of following instructions, and used pleasant voice tone. When you do that it shows that you are being respectful towards the person giving you the instruction. Does that make sense? Ok! Well great job following instructions.”

That’s an example of a effective praise of a girl’s behavior and having her earn those 1500 points. (We as family teachers never give points. The girls always earn both positive and negative points.)

Ok. So let’s say that the same girl when I told her to go unload the dishwasher said something like, “Ughhh! Why do I always have to unload the dishwasher?!”

This is how my interaction with the youth would go:

“Ok, could you go get your point card? I know it’s not fun unloading the dishwasher, but just a moment ago I gave you the instruction to go unload the dishwasher and you said something like ‘Ugh, why do I have to always unload the dishwasher?’ So you’ve earned a negative 3000 points. When someone gives you an instruction you need to just look at the person, say ok, do the task right away, and then check back. When you just say ‘ok’ it makes it so the task gets done a lot faster and you can get back to what you were doing. Does that make sense? Ok, great. So I’m going to need you to write a negative 3000 points for following instructions, and the specific behavior is ‘didn’t say ok.’ Great job accepting this consequence.'”

You might have noticed that when the girl followed the instruction, she got 1500 points. But when she didn’t, she got a negative 3000 points. 3000 is the standard for negative behaviors. But we don’t stop there. We give them the opportunity to practice doing a positive behavior. We call this a “positive correction.” So after earning the negative 3000 points, I would probably tell her something like this:

“Ok, so I’m going to give you an opportunity to earn some of those points back. We’re going to practice the skill of following instructions. When you’re given an instruction you need to look at the person, say ok, do the task right away, and then check back. Ok? Great. So right now I’m giving you the instruction to go wipe down the counter.”

When she checks back after following that instruction, she’ll earn a positive 1500. We always give an opportunity for a positive correction after every negative consequence earned.

Every day they also check back from school, telling us a couple social skills they think they did really well. They have a school card which their teachers mark down positive and negative behaviors that help guide us in this discussion.

After checking back from school we count up all their points. When girls start out at Boys Town they need to earn a positive 10,000 in a day to “make privs.” So when we count their points on their card and if they hit 10,000 or more points it means that they have made privs. That means that during their free time they get a sweet or salty snack (a cookie or a snack size bag of chips). They get some time to watch TV. They can go to the field house to play basketball, go swimming, or play volleyball. Some girls like to work on crafts, or draw, or read, or listen to music. Those are all privileges.

However, if they don’t make privs, then they don’t get to enjoy those things. And in replacement of those things they are given skill work to work on. That means writing out social skills, thinking through rationales of how the behaviors will help them be successful. It can mean extra chores. The tasks and skill work we give them are not punishments, but ways of making a strong distinction between privileges and non-privileges.

Do you think these girls are motivated to make privs?
You bet.

We all have bad days. We all have certain social skills which we aren’t very good at. This is true for these girls, too. If a girl has a particularly hard day where she’s earned lots of negative points, it may mean she doesn’t make privs. And that’s a bummer. That means not getting to enjoy going to the field house, watching TV, and doing the fun activities they enjoy. But it doesn’t last forever because every day is a new day. As soon as their previous day’s card is totaled up, they start on a new one. So they can then start earning positive points immediately to make privs the next day.

Every day is a new day. That helps them know that it’s ok to have a bad day every once and a while. We don’t get mad. It doesn’t mean they’ve failed as a person. And they can have confidence and move forward knowing that they have a chance to do better the next day.

Obviously the point card doesn’t exist in the “real world” and we make sure to remind them of this. So as we teach them these skills we are also intentional about making sure to generalize our rationales about their behaviors beyond that of Boys Town. “When you follow instructions by simply saying ok and doing the task, that will be a skill your future bosses will appreciate and notice.”

Like I said, the point card motivation system is very well thought out and goes far beyond what I’ve just explained here. For example, girls don’t stay at 10,000 points a day. After a while they make it to a system where they need to earn 40,000 points a week to make privs, which means we are teaching to them less because hopefully over time we don’t have to keep teaching the same skills over and over. Then it drops to 20,000 a week, and then eventually they get off the card and work on certain goals. This helps prepare them for when they leave Boys Town.

Progression on the point card system helps with motivation. It helps them learn. It helps prepare them to be successful outside of Boys Town, too. And it works.


Outside Father Peter’s parsonage (one of the priests who reside on campus) is a bird church. 

Every day we’re getting better at teaching. Every day there’s new situations to teach to and to learn from.

Every day is a new day.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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