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Towards a common denominator in effective group care programming

Jerome Beker and Reuven Feuerstein

The observation that many institutions belied these evolving models led Goffman (1961) to paint a less optimistic picture of residential care realities in his description of what he characterized as “total” institutional environments. He identified and elaborated a variety of demoralizing and depersonalizing processes in such settings that appeared to be linked to their “underlying structural design” (p. 124) and that must be addressed if residential programs are to play a significant positive role in delivering developmentally appropriate services to those whose lives in their home environments are untenable.

“Powerful” Institutional Environments

Wolins (1974), on the other hand, reported research results from several countries supporting the efficacy of well conceived and implemented residential care programs, which have the benefit of being able to utilize what he termed the “powerful environment” that is characteristic of the residential setting – powerful because of its very pervasiveness or, in Goffman’s (1961) terms, totality. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the “flip side” of that totality – the isolation from “normal” life outside the community and its requisite skills and behaviors – that has often been adduced to explain the apparently low success rates of many residential programs.

Based on his research, Wolins (1974) proposed the following six criteria for successful programs, criteria that have been broadly accepted as crucial variables in the field, although there has been disagreement in some cases as to the desirable direction along the continuum.

1. Positive expectations on the part of the staff with regard to children and youth in group care, including belief in the modifiability of human personality and behavior in later childhood and adolescence. Although this has traditionally required an act of faith for many in the helping professions (particularly in the United States, where the idea that the effects of early experience are largely immutable has often seemed to be sacrosanct), evidence that has been accumulating in the past two decades suggests that the nature of human development does permit later modification than has often been assumed to be reasonably possible. Feuerstein, Hoffman, Rand, Jensen, Tzuriel, and Hoffman (1986), for example, cite a variety of studies that counter the “critical age” hypothesis and suggest that cognitive modifiability persists throughout the life cycle. Drawing on extensive research of their own as well as the work of others, Kagan & Klein (1973) conclude that

If the first environment does not permit the full actualization of psychological competencies, the child will function below his ability as long as he remains in that context. But if he is transferred to an environment that provides greater variety and requires more accommodations, he seems more capable of exploiting that experience and repairing the damage wrought by the first environment than some theorists have implied. (p. 961)

2. Permanency of commitment, referring to the acceptance of responsibility for the young people involved until they reach maturity. This concept is allied with, although not identical to, the more recent notion of permanency planning, as detailed by Maluccio, Fein, and Olmstead (1986). Although Wolins (1974) viewed this in the context of long-term group care, it could be defined more broadly as linked to a continuum of care as long as continuity in key personnel and social atmosphere or environment can be maintained.

3. Social integration within the Larger Social Milieu, including both the community that is the residential center itself and the “outside” community of which it is a part. This suggests that young people in group care must be treated within and relate to each of these entities as "citizens" rather than merely in a client or “inmate” role (e.g., Arieli, Beker, & Kashti, 1990; Barnes, in press; Beker, in press;Levy, 1991). This is, of course, a clear break with the “total environment” notion and the idea that was often implicit and sometimes explicit in such concepts as “therapeutic milieu,” namely, that round-the-clock consistency attained through total environmental control is crucial. This criterion of Wolins (1974) is in much closer harmony with more recent approaches, such as normalization (Wolfensberger, 1972), deinstitutionalization (Lerman, 1982), and community-based programming, that transcend residential settings (see also Beker & Feuerstein, 1991). Even within such settings, however, simulations of the larger social milieu that provides such opportunities can often be devised and implemented (e.g., Barnes, in press).

4. Peer impact respected by the staff, who view the peer group as (at least potentially) a legitimate and healthy developmental resource in influencing children and youth in group care toward maturity and work with it accordingly (e.g., Brendtro & Ness, 1983).

5. Socially constructive work to be performed by young people in care is given a major role in the program, to develop both feelings of ownership and a sense (and reality) of competence and being needed. Legal and political obstacles to such programs have arisen in some settings, particularly in the United States, but their importance in helping the young people to see themselves as serving rather than simply being served, as being helpers rather than simply those who are helped, has increasingly begun to be recognized (Barnes, in press; Beker, in press; Beker & Durkin, 1989). Work opportunities can be reflected in the informal system of behavioral options or available roles in group care (e.g., White, 1984) and in the formal programming realm (e.g., Brendtro, 1985).

6. An overarching ideology, viewed as more important than the specifics of what the ideology is, is needed to provide emotionally and socially uprooted young people accustomed to much confusion in their lives with, in Wolins’ words (1974, p. 289), a firm “moral anchorage.”

Beker, J. & Feuerstein, R. (1991). Towards a common denominator in effective group care programming:
The concept of the modifying environment. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work. Vol.7 pp 22-24

Arieli, M.; Beker, J. & Kashti, Y. (1990). Residential group care as a socializing environment: Towards a broader perspective. In J. Anglin; C. Denholm; R. Ferguson & A. Pence (Eds) Perspective in professional child and youth care (pp. 45-54). New York: Haworth.
Barnes, F. H. (in press). From warehouse to greenhouse: Play, work, and the routines of daily living in groups as the core of milieu treatment. In J. Beker & Z. Eisikovits (Eds) Knowledge utilization in residential child and youth care practice. Washington, DC: CWLA
Beker, J. (in press). Back to the future: Effective residential group care and treatment for children and youth and the Fritz Redl legacy. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth.
Goffman, E. (1962). Asylums: Essays on the social situations of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor Doubleday
Beker, J. & Durkin, R. P. (1989). The role of work in residential group care programs for children and youth. St. Paul, MN: Center for Youth Development & research, University of Minnesota.
Beker, J. & Feuerstein, R. (1991). The modifying environment and other environmental perspectives in group care: A conceptual contrast and integration. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth, 8(3), 21-37.
Brendtro, L. K. (1985). Making caring fashionable: Philosophy and procedures of service learning. Child Care Quarterly, 14, 4-13
Brendtro, L. K. & Ness, A. E. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine
Lerman, P. (1982). Deinstitutionization and the welfare state. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
Levy, Z. (1991). Eagerly awaiting a home: A response from abroad. Child and Youth Care Forum, 20 (1), 31-34
Feuerstein, R.; Hoffman, M. B.; Rand, Y.; Jensen, M. R.; Tzuriel, D. & Hoffman, D. B. (1986). Learning to learn: Mediated learning experiences and instrumental enrichment. Special Services in the Schools, 3 (1/2), 49-82
Kagan, J. & Klein, R. E. (1973). Cross-cultural perspectives on early development. American Psychologist, 28, 947-961.
Maluccio, A. N.; Fein, E. & Olmstead, K. A. (1986). Permanency planning for children: Concepts and methods. London: Tavistock
White, K. J. (1984). Living as a family. In T. Philpot (Ed.), Group Care Practice: The challenge of the next decade (pp. 132-143). Sutton, Surrey, UK: Community Care / Business Press International.
Wolfensberger, W. (1972). The principle of normalization in human services. Toronto: National Institute of Mental retardation.
Wolins, M. (1974) Group care: Friend or foe? In M. Wolins (Ed.). Successful group care: Explorations in the powerful environment (pp. 27-290) Chicago: Aldine. (Also in Social Work, 1969, 14, (1), 37-53) 


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