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Caring for Troubled Children

James Whittaker

The group living environment should constitute an arena for learning rather than a haven for intensive care. The children we seek to help are not so fragile, “sick,” or traumatized that they need to be isolated from the effects of their behavior on those around them. In fact, the group life environment should be so designed that it actively engages noisy, troublesome, acting-out behavior – as opposed to either simply suppressing it through punitive sanction or suffering through it in the belief that it is a requisite for therapeutic change. Our message in the milieu should be loud and clear: “We accept you as a person with rights, feelings, and individuality; we reject, totally, those things you do which make trouble for yourself or for others and which keep you from growing as a competent, autonomous individual.” We seek to create an environment where all the participants – children and staff – are interdependent; care about one another; and are willing to challenge, support, and aid each other in the process of growth and change.A group life environment should provide the incentive to grow – and the freedom to fail. The children and young people we serve in group care settings are experts in failing. They have done poorly in school, at home, and in other residential settings. Their self-image reflects a lack of competence and confidence, and their outlook on the future is often pessimistic if not fatalistic. Scores of caring adults have already “given up” on them, and they have something of an investment in maintaining their record of failure. After repeated such failures, some children really come to believe that they are uncontrollable, and a peculiar process is reinforced; that is, the agencies set up to serve the most troubled children are engaged in a constant process of “creaming off” only those who are most manageable – leaving the others to filter down to settings where admission cannot be refused and where all that can be reasonably provided is containment. Admittedly, there will always be some children who – despite our best efforts – have to leave the program prematurely. We should not, however, construct our helping environment in such a way that a young person knows that running away, or physical assault, or refusal to participate in school is a sure ticket to early departure. Misbehavior should be followed by clear consequences but also by equally clear pathways through which the child can regain his or her place in the program.

The group life environment should provide numerous opportunities for modeling the kinds of behaviors we would like the children to adopt. We should actively exploit all the opportunities available in the course of the day to provide real or simulated examples of behavioral alternatives. Models include staff, children, and various resources from videotapes, teaching materials, and other media. In addition to exposure to a variety of role models, the child needs ample opportunity to practice the behaviors being taught, to learn from self-correction and peer criticism, and to gradually gain confidence in his or her new behavioral skills. Modeling, particularly when coupled with role playing, provides a powerful tool for altering troubled and troublesome behavior. For example, Sarason and Sarason (1973) and Sarason and Ganzer (1971) have extended the use of modeling and role playing to institutionalized delinquents and low classroom achievers – and with impressive results. This focus on modeling and role playing reflects the basic purpose of the milieu: to teach practical skills for living.

The group life environment should be capable of providing a graduated set of experiences which, over time, will approximate the community environment to which the child will return. The group’s life space should not be considered a static environment. It should be continually responsive to the changing needs of individual children for challenges in learning, meaningful rewards, and effective controls. If, for example, the new child requires heavy structure, clearly specified consequences for misbehavior, and limited degrees of freedom, the older, more competent child needs increasing amounts of responsibility, less frequent monitoring, and more independence. The balance between autonomy and control – with an individual child or with the group – is a delicate and ever changing one. Because the time spent in residence is limited, we need to constantly reassess whether we are expecting from individual children all they are capable of. Similarly, we need to ensure that, over time, the child’s experiences will increasingly resemble those in the postplacement community. Precisely because they often are total institutions, children’s residential centers sometimes err on the side of providing for too many of the child’s needs in a manner totally foreign to the environment to which the child will return. Actually, the longer the child is in residence, the less attractive the group living environment should become. When a child is almost ready to leave the residence, things like program boredom and frustration with limits and routines should not be automatically answered by program change in the direction of more flexibility. Rather, at least part of our response should be: “You are right. This program has become too restrictive for you. You’re ready to handle more on your own – and move on.”

The group life environment should be sensitive to subtle differences in social and cultural values and be clearly linked to the child’s family, peer group, and neighborhood experiences. Cultural relativity is perhaps the single most persuasive reason that an effective group life program cannot be simply “bought off the shelf” but must be molded, adapted, and modified to meet the particular characteristics of the population to be served. In short, both staff and children need to feel that they truly “own” the program – that it is not simply an artifact lifted from a book, research program, or demonstration project but a viable, changeable culture of which they are the creators and the stewards. If community-based programming is to work at all, it must take into account the peculiarities of the community it seeks to serve and also make use of whatever natural helping networks already exist in that community, in order to further the goals of treatment for an individual child. One indicator of the degree to which the milieu is culturally related is the extent to which children, parents, and other community agencies can describe with ease what the program is all about: whom it serves, how it works, and who “owns” it.
Finally, the milieu as a special helping environment should provide ways for graduates of the program and their families to visit and interact with the children in care. One striking impression I have from visiting scores of child caring facilities – including those newly constructed – is the absolute lack of pride of ownership or cultural tradition. There is often a sterility of atmosphere reminiscent of airport waiting rooms, an absence of art and artifacts, and a peculiar “unlived-in” feeling to many residential centers. Part of the enormous task of removing the stigma of placement means building a culture and a program that a child can be proud of – even after graduation. If the present array of facilities can in any sense be considered an experimental sample, bricks and mortar alone will not do the job.

Whittaker, J., K. (1979) Caring for Troubled Children. San Fransisco. Jossey-Bass, Inc., pp. 84 – 88.

Sarason, I. G., and Sarason, B., R. (1973) Modeling and Role-Playing in the Schools. Los Angeles, Human Interaction Research Institute.
Sarason, I., G., and Ganzer, V., J. (1971) Modeling: An Approach to the Rehabilitation of Juvenile Offenders. Washington, D.C.: Social and Rehabilitation Service, Department of Health, Education and Welfare. 


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