Thursday, April 16, 2009

When Things Aren’t Going Well

Yesterday I did a day-long training on the Restorative Approach. One of the participants asked this question:

What do you do when a certain kid just isn’t getting better, he does the restorative tasks without sincerity, he doesn’t seem to care how his actions affect others, and staff are losing their patience and becoming more punitive?

This is a very good question, and it has two parts:
What do we do to help the child?
What do we do to help the staff?

Regarding the child, this is the time to step back and reconsider our treatment. What has happened to this child? How do we understand his current functioning? What problem are his actions solving for him? What skills would he need to have in order to not need to do these things any more?

For example, Tyrell continuously attacks others, both staff and peers. He will apologize perfunctorily afterwards, but does not actually seem to care about having hurt someone. Tyrell was abused severely by his bio father, and then removed to live with his grand mother. Due to both health and mental health problems she was not able to care for him and he mostly fended for himself. He was removed by DCF at age 8 due to missing school and appearing neglected and uncared for, as well as not receiving medical care. Since then he has been in 7 foster homes and has had several short bits of treatment in hospitals. Most recently before this placement Tyrell was in a shelter.

So we know that Tyrell has no reason to trust adults, he has to take care of himself, he can’t afford to be small or weak or he will die, and the only weapon he has for survival is aggression. He undoubtedly blames himself for everything he has experienced. In order to decrease the aggression, Tyrell will have to feel safe. He will have to develop other ways of achieving mastery and control. He will need skills to manage his emotions, and need to begin to feel that he is worth something. And it would be good if he could gradually learn that some adults can be trusted and will actually help.

This will take a long time.

So let’s stop asking Tyrell to apologize to make amends. Instead, let’s think of what could actually help him feel stronger and more competent, and use the restorative tasks as opportunities to build skills. As it happens, Tyrell is an excellent artist and loves to draw comics. So, how about having him create a comic about a boy who fights others? Then we can show it to everyone, including the agency President, and make a lot of fuss about how good it is. Maybe he could draw a poster about anger. What does anger look like? Maybe he could create an "anger monster". Maybe gradually he could draw the boy in the comic conquering the anger monster. There is one staff, Robert, who is also an artist and likes comics and narrative fiction. Maybe he could be assigned to work with Tyrell on the comic project, and share some of his favorite comics with Tyrell, gradually building a relationship.

However, Tyrell’s behavior will take a long while to change, and it will be frustrating for staff when they are doing this excellent work and Tyrell is still hitting.

Which brings us to the second part of the question: How do we help the staff?

Often what these children need from us more than anything else is perseverance. We need stamina to stay with these children for the long, slow, uneven process of change. So how can we increase staff stamina?

Here are some ideas:

  • Review the child’s history, understanding the meaning of his actions, and having a plan.
  • Create a specific way of noting and sharing any progress anyone experiences with the child (we had a notebook "signs of hope with Stephen" regarding one child, and staff wrote down things like "Stephen said hello to me today.")
  • Create plans to avoid having too much responsibility falling on one person- assigning different staff to alternate primary responsibility for this child each night, for example, or giving him two primary workers rather than the customary one.
  • Talk about and acknowledge the frustration.
  • Celebrate any good work a staff does with this child, no matter the out come.
  • Have a sense of humor, make jokes about what is going on
  • Do other things to have fun and connection with each other, such as pot luck lunches or sports teams.
  • Remind ourselves that children who come back to visit have taught us that we never know when we are making an impact, and that children we thought were not at all involved remember everyone who worked with them and exactly what they said and did.

Do you have any other ideas about increasing staff stamina? Click comments and share them with us.

These kids have been wounded. They have learned to protect themselves in order to survive. We have to make plans that work in small steps and create tiny building blocks for the skills they need. And we need to take care of our selves and each other, because most of all the children someone to stick with them.

No comments: