Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Children are Running the Program

"Help us Pat!" the call comes in.
"We need you. Ever since we moved away from points and levels, the children don’t care what they do. They are getting worse and worse, rude, defiant, acting out. Since they don’t lose points they have no deterrents to bad behavior. A two-minute apology letter means nothing to them. We need to put back some more consequences."

What are the assumptions behind this plea for help? That the main reason that the kids ever acted politely was because they would lose points if they didn’t. And that the only response we have to address problem behavior is consequences.

Do we really believe this? I don’t.

What about the relationships?I think what happens is that when the behavior management system of a program is changed, if we are not careful a staff paralysis sets in. If I cannot take away points or drop levels, what can I do? So I do nothing, and sit by helplessly, another sort of neglect.

In fact, points, levels and consequences are a small part of our arsenal of tools to impact the kids’ behaviors.

Here are some other tools:
· Talk about it. Say you don’t like it. Describe how the behavior affects you and the other community members. Express hopes that change will happen.
· Work hard and constantly to form caring relationships with the kids so they care what you think.
· Validate the feelings behind the behavior.
· Express an understanding that this is the best the kid knows at the time- and the hope and confidence they will learn better.
· Develop in the child the basic feelings management skills of maintaining an inner connection to others, feeling worthy of life, and feelings management.
· Teach specific feelings management skills to do things differently.
· Use feelings management skills your self and label out loud that you are doing so.
· Have group meetings about what kind of place we want here.
· Have group meetings about bad things that happened and how everyone felt and how we can support each other to do better.
· As a team, discuss how we understand this behavior. What is our formulation about what is going on here? What problem is this behavior solving for this child? How can we teach her to solve that problem a better way?
· With the kid, develop a treatment theme- what is the basic thing this kid is working on? Examples would be: feeling emotion without acting to make the situation worse. Learning to trust. Growing up. Then relate all behavior to that theme.
· As a team support each other in the long, difficult process of doing this work.
· Work on developing self worth.
· Address shame.
· Use (possibly as restorative tasks) exercises that help the child understand and manage his behavior, such as mood charts, emotion thermometers, collages of how they are feeling and/or things they can do differently, interviewing others about how they handle emotions, etc.
· In treatment team develop restorative ideas for each child that are significant, require thought, and are related to their treatment.
· Don’t take the kid on trips when they have just hurt you- and explain why you don’t want to.
· Make sure you have enough fun and interesting things going on so that kids who can’t participate because they are working or restorative tasks will be missing something they want to do.
· Make sure your structure and planning supports success.
· And- TALK ABOUT IT. Address every problem. Take the kids on. Tell them what kind of behavior you expect. Tell them how different actions make you feel.
· And tell them, and show them, over and over again, all the good things you see in them and how delighted you are by everything positive (and even neutral) that happens.

Points and levels are so insignificant when compared with these (and other) more powerful tools. Changing to a trauma focused approach does NOT mean paralysis in the face of destructive behavior. It means active, complete and relationship based engagement. And then both the staff and the kids will be co-running a programs that supports growth and change in all.


Anonymous said...

I agree. In doing these things, we can show kids that we are human as well. That's the catch- doing these things make our staff feel vulnerable, not "in control" and the idea of "co-running" the program is terrifying to them. It's a hard concept/emotion to combat.

Nicki Mann said...

Good ideas here! The point system can be a great thing, but it seems like a lot of places are starting to depend on it too much! Instead of teaching kids the reasons behind using certain behaviors and avoiding others, they just expect kids to come to conclusions themselves after earning or losing points! Might as well say, "Will you do it for a Scooby snack?"