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Posted: Dec 13, 2005 11:15


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By: Lon Woodbury

Managers of Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic residential schools or programs use incentives as tools to motivate the students and staff to do what they are supposed to. For students the goal is to use these incentives to help them grow up and become capable of making positive and constructive decisions by changing their thinking away from negative and self-destructive patterns. The goal for the staff is to put the growth and needs of the students first. Any high quality and well structured school or program will have its incentives lined up in a way that makes sense and produces these desired results. However, this is easier said than done. Incentives have a nasty habit of producing unintended results. This is because humans, and especially adolescents, are very creative at reacting to incentives in unique, self-serving and unintended ways. It is very important for a school or program to constantly monitor the real motives of the students and staff, and make adjustments when the incentives are not producing the desired results.

When parents or child care professionals want to really understand a program, it can be a great help to evaluate what the incentives are at all levels of any given school or program. The key is to look past the stated mission and the stated incentives, and focus on the students, staff and management's understanding of what they need to do to improve their personal situation. Sometimes the investigator will find that the incentives lead to behaviors that are directly opposite to those stated in the school or program's mission statement. When this difference continues for a period of time, it usually means that there is a difference that is unnoticed by management, or the management is not serious about accomplishing their stated goals.

An example is the concept of boot camps, which is very popular with the media and thus in the public mind. Based on an incentive of promised punishment for breaking the rules, the goal is to teach proper behavior that helps students mature. The emotionally, age-appropriate student and the typical successful adult in this situation will quickly learn how to avoid punishment, and they might benefit from this experience. But among students such as those in the Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic residential network who have a tendency toward the excitement of risk taking and manipulation, they will often take that as an "incentive" to "get away with it and not get caught." That might include "sucking up" to those staff members who are dispensing the punishment or becoming more adapt at avoiding detection, etc. With the incentives being based on punishment, these students might learn all the wrong lessons. For this reason, boot camps are almost universally rejected by the top professionals in the Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic network who work with this population.

Every staff member has the natural motive to better him or herself. How they do this is based to a large extent on the incentives developed by the management. If staff is rewarded simply for ensuring the students conform to the rules and agreements of the school or program, all kinds of unintended staff behaviors can happen. If the staff is not well trained, the incentive to produce conformity can lead to intimidation, threats and even abusive actions. If the staff is well trained, then helping the students grow in a positive manner might at times conflict with the command to make them conform, which is a very frustrating experience for a conscientious staff member. To avoid a conflict between stated goals and actual staff behaviors, it is vital for management to continually evaluate how their incentives are being acted on by staff and be ready to make adjustments to these incentives when needed.

Incentives in admissions, marketing and working with referral resources are very important to the healthy functioning of a school. The ability to reject applicants that the school feels are not appropriate is one of the most important factors in maintaining the integrity and health of a school or program. When a school enrolls students whose needs are beyond the capabilities of the school or program, that school is courting disaster through the development of an unhealthy underground, angry parents, lawsuits and minimal success.

The consensus among conscientious professionals is that the best incentive for people making admissions decisions is to pay them a good salary and take seriously their recommendations not to enroll specific applicants, even when student numbers are down. That helps establish an incentive for admissions people to make enrollment decisions based on what is good for both the applicant and the school or program. Every scheme I have seen that utilizes pay incentives based on enrollment numbers or retention changes the incentive to financial gain for the individual admissions person. Incentive pay for enrollment numbers is an incentive to admit inappropriate students to increase the admissions person's income. Incentive pay for retention has caused admissions people to leave their real job and run after students who have run away toward the end of the month to keep their retention bonus. Paying a Finder's Fee to referring agencies is an incentive for the referral source to push problematic enrollments, perhaps by hiding a history that would indicate the student was not appropriate or may even be dangerous. The potential of damaging and corrupting a school through pay for placement is the reason this practice is prohibited by both the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP).

When a parent or a professional can gain a good handle on exactly how incentives are operating in a school or program, they will know the program very well. Parents and child care professionals should be very concerned when they find a program where students are just conforming to the rules, or the staff is rewarded primarily for student conformity, or the admissions people are rewarded for the number of enrollments they produce. They should keep looking until they find one of the many schools and programs that do keep their incentives in line with their idealistic goals.

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