Point and level systems are another (misguided) tool in the behaviorist toolkit, and part of the problem of behaviorism. The point and level system approach seems to have evolved from the idea of token economies based on B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning principles. A point and level system is a behavioral management approach often used by educators in programs for students who exhibit behaviors of concern. Point and level systems are designed to be a framework for managing student behavior. The idea is that students need to earn privileges (points and levels) by meeting predefined behavioral expectations. Of course, students also lose privileges when they are unable to meet the expectations placed upon them for any reason. Students are expected to learn appropriate behavior through rewards, privileges, and consequences linked to those expectations. Of course, as our readers know, adult-driven consequences don’t work, and there is a dark side to rewards.
In a 2009 article published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, the authors argue that the assumptions upon which point and level systems are based do not hold up to close scrutiny and that point and level systems are actually counterproductive with some children. The study notes that the use of a point and level system can precipitate dangerous situations and even lead to the use of seclusion and restraint. Research indicates that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the efficacy of point and level systems or support that their use results in long-term behavioral changes. Additionally, valid concerns have been raised that point and level systems may violate the basic principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when implemented in a uniform way for all students.
We are not proponents of point and level systems. Today, we are looking at an example of an actual point and level system (below) submitted by a community member from a public elementary school.
Download the PDF of the point and level system we are reviewing.
Let’s See What the Experts Think
We have asked five experts from various fields to review the point and level system and to offer their thoughts and feedback.
Nicole Tuchinda, J.D., MD, LLM
Special education attorney, Assistant Professor, and Director of the Health Law
Loyola University College of Law
I don’t like this point-and-level system. It’s very behaviorist-oriented, not relational. It could be used to put a child in the most, not least-restricted setting. An IEP is supposed to determine how much exposure a child gets to gen-ed kids, not a point system. There shouldn’t be variation in the restrictiveness of a child’s placement based on their day-to-day behavior. That seems to be a violation of IDEA.
Further, I worry that this point system violates prohibitions against discriminating against children with disabilities, especially because it can be a negative behavioral intervention rather than positive behavioral interventions and services (PBIS), which is what IDEA requires. Further, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, children with disabilities should get reasonable accommodations, which I would argue should allow them to avoid the application of this point system upon them.
I would imagine that most children with disabilities would not succeed with this point-level system and that it would backfire because it would be seen as coercive, shaming, overly controlling, and negative. Ginger Healy at the Attachment and Trauma Network states in her book Regulation and Co-Regulation that point and level systems like these are not trauma-informed and are shaming because they erroneously assume that all behaviors are intentional. Systems like these simply set students up for failure and further adversity. Point-and-level systems can increase a student’s fears and lack of felt safety, which diminishes the top-down self-control required to succeed in these systems. Only after children are regulated should they be asked to utilize top-down self-control approaches.
Claire Cronin, PhD LPC NCC RPT-S
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
TGTHR (formerly Attention Homes)
Here is what behaviorism gets wrong: focusing on the “problem” makes you lose sight of the child. We have to take the approach of being in a relationship with children, which takes curiosity, non-judgment, and acceptance of the child. Adults like to focus on problems, what’s lacking, and what’s missing, which causes us to lose sight of the inherent good, the strengths, and the wonderful characteristics of a child. When children feel fully seen, heard, and valued by adults in supportive relationships, that is when the magic of growth and healing happens. So remember- “Focus on the donut, not the hole.”
Cheryl Poe, M.A. Urb. Ed. & Counseling
Founder and Director
Advocating 4 Kids, Inc.
These kinds of behavioral plans harm students more than help them. My immediate concerns related to point and level systems are that they fail to cater to the “individual and unique” needs of students, lack personalized data documentation, and fail to teach replacement behaviors and emotional regulation skills.
Understanding the Need for Individualization. One of the primary concerns with point and level systems is their lack of individualization. Every student has different strengths, weaknesses, and behavioral challenges. By implementing a one-size-fits-all approach, we risk overlooking the specific needs of each student. Data-Driven
Decision Making. To ensure the success of behavior support systems, it is essential to gather and analyze relevant data. These systems are based on expectations, not concerns about students’ behaviors. Without documented data that identifies specific target behaviors, it becomes challenging to determine which areas students need to work on. Collecting data provides valuable insights into the triggers, patterns, and underlying causes of certain behaviors.
Teaching Replacement Behaviors. Behavior support systems should not only focus on addressing negative behaviors but also on teaching students alternative, more appropriate behaviors. By providing explicit instruction and guidance, students can develop the necessary skills to regulate their emotions effectively.
Recognizing Triggers and Reducing Them. A comprehensive behavior support system should aim to identify and understand the triggers that contribute to undesirable behaviors. By pinpointing specific triggers, educators and support staff can work collaboratively with students to develop strategies that reduce the occurrence of such triggers or mitigate their impact. This proactive approach helps students gain insight into the relationship between their actions and the environmental factors that influence them.
The Least Restrictive Environment Principle. For students with an IEP, it is crucial to adhere to the principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This principle emphasizes providing students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in the general education setting to the maximum extent appropriate. A rigid, one-size-fits-all behavior support system may inadvertently violate this principle by failing to consider the individualized needs and accommodations outlined in the student’s IEP.
In conclusion, don’t use these plans because they do not work!
McAlister Greiner Huynh, M.Ed., NBCT
Educator, Consultant, Speaker, Advocate
The Neurodivergent Teacher
My first concern is that students’ points dictate that students “earn” time in different educational settings. The educational setting is something determined by an IEP team and should not fluctuate day to day based on whether or not a student “earns” time with their non-disabled peers. A student should only be removed from peers for the amount of time that is determined absolutely necessary, as decided by an IEP team within a formal IEP meeting. Having a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) be entirely dependent on how successfully they can meet compliance-based expectations is very concerning to me.
I also notice that many of the “automatic level drop” guidelines target behaviors that are often direct manifestations of multiple disabilities, including autism, ADHD, emotional disabilities, anxiety disorders, sensory processing disorders, etc. This leads me to believe that many students are being punished because of the presentation of their disability rather than being provided with the adequate support, accommodations, and modifications needed to be successful.
Ginger Healy MSW, LCSW
Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc.
This point-and-level system shames the students and sets them up for failure because it asks students to reason and use the part of their brain that is inaccessible during dysregulating behaviors. Until students feel safe and emotionally regulated, they are unable to discuss and repair their actions. Sheets like these assume that the student purposefully and intentionally chose to misbehave when they likely were trying to manage and survive a stress response. The repair and accountability that educators are seeking through sheets like these can and should be created in a collaborative and co-regulatory way. Rather than placing all the weight on the student and further straining the relationship between educator and student, true change in behaviors actually comes from emotional safety in that educator and student relationship where positive doses of connection soothe the student’s nervous system.
Connie Persike M.S., CCC-SLP
This point-level system, as described, raises several serious concerns when considering its approach to behavior support, especially for students with special education needs. Here are some of the primary reasons why this system is actually quite problematic:
Where’s the Teaching? Effective intervention should involve teaching and learning, not merely reactions and punishments. Instead of proactively helping students learn and succeed, the system as outlined is reactive in nature, failing to prioritize skill development that can lead to sustainable change.
Looking Beyond the Surface. By only addressing the observable behaviors and not examining the root causes, the system’s approach is similar to putting a band-aid on a deep wound. It might slow the bleeding, but it won’t solve the problem. All behavior stems from underlying causes. Simply focusing on the top-level surface behaviors without digging deeper into the root causes will not lead to long-term behavioral change.
Oops, Was That My Brain? Many behaviors, especially in children, can often be involuntary responses to stress – we call these “bottom-up” behaviors. They are subconscious responses that do not include cognitive thought; therefore, it can be counterproductive to punish students for these involuntary responses. In fact, doing so can actually amplify their levels of distress, exacerbating the very behaviors we’re seeking to rectify.
IDEA: Lost in Translation or Just Getting Ignored? The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is clear about students’ rights. But this system seems to be playing fast and loose with legal mandates. IDEA assures students with disabilities their right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Restricting access to general education based on a point system could violate this right. In addition, placement decisions must be informed by an Individualized Education Program (IEP). All IEPs must document the frequency, duration, amount, and location of services. Any removal from the general education setting must be clearly documented in the student’s IEP. When teachers require students to “earn back” time in regular education, there could be issues with IEP implementation and appropriately documenting time outside of general education. The reason behind the IDEA requirement to be clear on location is that parents need to know where their child is being educated. It cannot just be up to the teacher to decide when a student should or should not have access to their general education setting.
Shame Game. Punishment can elevate feelings of shame, anxiety, and stress. Rewards might not seem like they are a bad thing, but they are the other side of punishment and come with the same consequences. This can create a vicious cycle and increase stress behaviors over time.
As Pam Lee said, “You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.”
Cookie-Cutter Programs Might Sound Nice On Paper… But They Don’t Work. Individualization is the essence of an IEP. However, this system’s expectations are uniform for all students in this program. This generic approach doesn’t consider individual student needs, strengths, and challenges. Additionally, there may be concerns about how LRE is being determined on an individual basis.
Drop It Like It’s Hot! With the constant threat of “automatic level drops,” students might be more focused on not slipping than actual learning. In addition, the numerous “automatic level drop” situations in the system can be demoralizing. Moreover, the system might not align with some students’ Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This makes success elusive, especially given the automatic drops. Expectations should be within a student’s ZPD, accessible to them when provided with guidance and scaffolds, but not beyond.
Tech Block or Roadblock to Success? By limiting access to technology, especially for those who rely on it most, the system is like a roadblock to success. The denied access to technology ignores the vital role tech plays in helping some students, particularly autistic individuals, to regulate. Many self-advocates in the autistic community have emphasized how technology aids in their self-regulation. Denying access to such essential tools can hinder their ability to cope and participate effectively in their learning environment.
Musical Chairs with Students’ Rights? The way placement seems to change in this system is reminiscent of a game. But of course, students’ rights should never be viewed as a game. There’s also a potential issue where the system might be considered a change to students’ placement due to disciplinary reasons, which, if not done within the appropriate legal framework, can actually be a violation of their rights.
Set in Stone or Stuck in the Mud? The rigidity of this system does not foster a positive learning environment. Educators should have the flexibility to respond in ways beneficial to the student’s growth and well-being. An if/then roadmap to respond to behaviors is not trauma-informed nor equitable and does not consider the individual needs, backgrounds, previous experiences, and unique situation of each student and the behavior incident.
Proactivity? Never Heard of Her. Instead of waiting to react to behaviors after they occur, an effective system should emphasize preventive measures that mitigate potential challenges before they arise. Without a focus on proactive strategies, such as sensory supports, social-emotional learning opportunities, communication supports, or the elimination/decrease of stressors, the system remains a step behind, forever chasing after issues instead of working to prevent them.
Clearly, I’m Not A Fan Of This System! There’s a lot of work still yet to be done in regards to shifting the paradigm away from rewards and punishment in our schools. But, it is my sincere hope that these insights help you begin to reflect upon your current methods when supporting behaviors that interfere with learning. By making even a small shift in approach, we can better serve our students.
The experts agree, and we agree, that this point and level system is misguided, ineffective, discriminatory, harmful, and potentially Illegal. It is not a trauma-informed approach and is more likely to exasperate existing trauma and lead to new systemic traumatic experiences. We can do better for kids. We need to be using trauma-informed, neuroscience-aligned, relationship-driven, and collaborative approaches. The approaches used in schools should be neurodiversity-affirming, not discriminatory. It’s well past time to move beyond behaviors and beyond behaviorism.