Friday, November 10, 2006

One of Those Scary Nights

I was expecting eighteen people from the Department of Children and Families Juvenile Justice Division for a presentation on the Restorative ApproachSM. As I was arranging the room, checking on the food and preparing the brochures I began learning about the previous nights’ problems.

It all started with boyfriend issues, and then rapidly escalated from there. One girl pulled the fire alarm, one ended up in the emergency room. The Program Director had to come in to help the girls calm down.

I started to wonder- am I a fraud here? I am teaching all these people about this new approach, and yet we experience a night like this. We have just been enjoying a period of relative peace and calm with the girls- why did this happen? When I do training I teach that staff should not judge their work by whether the kids act up. Judge the night instead by how they, the staff, act, and whether they use the Attitude (courtesy of Daniel Hughes)- playful, accepting, curious and empathetic. Do I actually believe this?

As often happens, I learned from our child care staff. During the presentation the Girls’ Unit Supervisor Karen Pac began to talk about the differences she experiences during a crisis since we began the Restorative Approach. Staff are warmer and more compassionate with the girls. The emphasis is not on the rules, but on helping the girls calm down. If Katie wants to take a shower, although it is not 'shower time'- let her, that is an excellent de-escalation technique. The team of therapists and staff works closely and calmly together. The team concentrates on reaching out to the girls- what is the matter? That approach allows Robin to switch away from anger at her boyfriend and Nicole who has talked to him and the staff that won’t let her beat both of them up. She begins talking about her father, who said he was going to become re-involved in her life and has disappeared. Now she is crying instead of yelling and threatening. Staff are next to her sharing and validating her sadness. The next morning, the conversation centers on what is happening in the girls lives and better ways to help them. Education staff comes to the unit to meet with the girls and gauge their mood, to make plans with them for entering school (where of course the boys are) and becoming students. The girls are calm and able to attend school. Life goes on.

Our Boys Unit presented a skit for our visitors in which they act out 'before' and 'after' we switched to the Restorative Approach. The situation they chose this time was Steve who had not done his homework and was supposed to be in his room completing it. Instead he was sitting in the lounge refusing to move. In the 'before' scenario, staff concentrated on the fact that there was a rule and Steve was not following it. We must be consistent. We must focus on compliance. The therapist stood near by, but she was not relevant when the goal was to get Steve to do as he had been told. This situation rapidly escalated into a restraint. In the 'after' scenario staff asked Steve what was wrong. They noticed that he had been acting differently all afternoon, had been withdrawn and sad. They called in his therapist. They ignored the fact that he was still in the lounge. Soon Steve began talking about what was troubling him, went for a walk with his therapist, and then easily finished his homework.

These kids come to us severely damaged. They have no ability to manage emotions, and every small setback escalates into despair and panic. A problem with a boyfriend evokes all of their many devastating losses. We cannot expect that we will have no crisis’s, no emotionally over-wrought nights. Instead, we can change how we act in those times. We can stay emotionally regulated ourselves so the children have a chance of regaining emotional regulation. We do this by having a plan and through strong teams. We can shift our focus from rules to compassion. We can concentrate on helping kids calm down. And then we will experience crisis that are shorter, less destructive, less frequent, and that provide opportunities for growth for our children.

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