Incentivizing Skill Building in Boston: With FREE “Karate Belt” Reward System Download!

Through my friendship with the Music & Youth Initiative, I learned about an incredible skill-building incentive system developed by Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston staff member Anders Olson. Read on to learn more about how he uses guitar picks to encourage youth and get a FREE download of his plan!

We always start with this ask- tell us about your Club!

Charlestown is one of the oldest Clubs in the US, started right after the original Hartford Club. We are located in the Navy Yard area of Boston, which is a rich historical community with a diverse socioeconomic and cultural community. We are located in the largest government housing project in Boston, where our youth have a wide economic and opportunity gap. About 6 years ago we transformed the dining hall into a music studio, where I’ve worked since 2014.


What kind of music programming do you do?

Our youth are predominately into hip hop, and a lot of Latin music. We also have some pop, like top 40 stuff, and a little bit of rock.

Attendance at the Music Clubhouse is different than for others because for teens coming to the afterschool program, there is a wide range of exposure and experience to music. Some don’t have any, some just from school, and some have had private lessons. It is hard to develop one type of program that will cater to all.

To tackle this, you developed a skill-building incentive, the “Karate belt” reward system. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

My biggest challenge, other than consistency, was creating a track to learning some kind of instrument, but for my teens not to feel pressured to do so in an environment like a classroom. I wanted them to be engaged by gamifying their own progress, taking control of their learning. So I came up with the “Karate Belt” reward system.”

The general message I wanted to get across is that this is about developing your skills and seeing how far you can take something, through simple and attainable goals that were easy for each member to move forward on. For a lot of learners, especially ages 10-13, it really works, because they love having a physical reminder that they’ve accomplished something. Through the charts they also have a visual guide and a map to success. It isn’t time-bound, and they aren’t required to participate, but if it works for them then it is a lot of fun.

I started it as an experiment and the kids were really eager to try it, and they were motivated to come back each day. Before I knew it I had people working their way up the chart, pushing up to performance and original composition, which is the best thing we can offer, truly valuing creativity and originality. Another Club here in Boston tried it and ended up making some variations to cater to his particular Club culture, but it worked there as well.

Click to download a full, editable version for free!

I’d imagine the system was also a help to you.

Yes it was because before, it was hard to keep track of results. You know that everyone always wants evidence of progress, so this was a way to track and for me to make sure I wasn’t forgetting kids who have learned half a song or something. It is a reminder to revisit, and make sure that if we started something that we finish it.

I didn’t anticipate this but it ended up creating a really healthy community of mentorship. Some members caught onto skills quickly and they were able to progress and help orient new participants. It showed them that they were good at something and had skills that they could offer, making them feel valued. Then they could make the connections to help others.


You are a part of the Music Impact Network. How has that been a positive experience?

Having a resource like the Network is a great starting point for music programs. A lot of Clubs are looking at music and it can be scary because it takes money to invest in, but it is truly worthwhile. We don’t value music as much as we should in our society, and America is the best country for music.

The Music Impact Network is a place where Clubs can get ideas for getting started with programming, and then if the kids like it and it sticks then go with it and try for the next level. Those of us in the Network are trying to truly help the greater good and get our youth to learn real, valuable music skills. I’ve found that when tours come through my Club people will say things like “This is amazing, I used to play clarinet.” Schools are so stuck in the classical and band tracks, so we can offer music programming that the kid actually want, and teach other valuable skills alongside.

Download a full, editable version of the “Karate Belt” Reward System for FREE at the Music Impact Network.


The Music Impact Network is open to any afterschool professional who does (or wants to do!) music programming. Through the Network you can find a library of even more FREE downloadable materials and resources, as well as a Facebook community to share programming ideas and more. Whether you are just starting out with music programming or if you are looking for ideas to take your existing program to the next level, you’ll find valuable insights.

What other incentives has your Club developed to encourage skill-building? How do you incorporate music programming afterschool? Let us know in the comments below, over on the BGCA Facebook page, or email us at to share!


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