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If all else fails, cut down the tree!

2015

Hi folks,

I wanted to share the sad state of behavioral modification that has a-hold of the residential care organization I work for in Minneapolis MN. There is this 11 year old lad who has lets say significant challenges at self regulation. When he becomes upset he has taken numerous times a day to run outside the building and climb a tree. He has climbed the tree several times and then stripped his clothes off and a few times peed and pooped while hanging on to its branches. Pretty clear way of saying he is unhappy.

So after a few weeks of this behavior I come to work and find that someone cut the tree down! Now it’s autumn here in MN and in a few months it is going to be too cold to climb trees and strip one's clothes off.

Are others as startled by this as I am? He never could climb much higher than ten feet up in the tree, which I suppose he could get hurt if he fell. It is grass below. The times I worked on his unit and he would climb the tree I would climb up after him and we would hang out and talk and then he would come down. One time I did see him poop and I waited til he came down and wrapped him in a towel and we went in and he took a shower and he was okay. My education and training tells me to let kids define the boundaries for safety when they are disregulated and help them set up tools to regulate starting from where they are. I also have spent a significant amount of times in trees myself so I am biased towards tree hugging. I also work under the premise to not shame kids who have encopresis issues but to care for them as you would any child who poops themselves, help them wash and take care of their clothes etc.

Am I missing something? Did cutting the tree down serve a purpose others can see beyond making the adults feel safer?

I appreciate the feedback.

Timber!

Peter DeLong
...


Dear Peter,

In my Child & Youth Care practice, I too experienced something of that nature. There was this child, about 12 years old at the time and on numerous accounts, he would, when upset with something or someone, climb this tall tree in the middle of the residential Care Centre and he would threaten to commit suicide. I was about 4 years from University then and I knew from what I had learnt that by the time he reached the apex of the tree, he would have used most of his energy. Since he was in my care, I never left anything to chance in case he actually jumped off the tree. Instead of cutting down that tree, I used those moments as opportunities to teach more appropriate behaviours. With time, these “tree climbing episodes” died away. About 11 years since I left that children’s home, the same tree is still standing firm and unshaken.

In my experience and opinion, I do not think, and I might be wrong, that there was any need in your case Peter to get that tree cut down. That tree was, perhaps, “an object of significance” for that lad. I do understand what seemingly was a strange behaviour of pooping and peeing but this might have been the lad’s most comfortable way of venting out and expressing his emotions, no matter how inappropriate his copying and behaviour strategies were. The question I have is: How could this experience have been used to change the young person’s behaviour? After cutting down the tree, did the behaviour change or the lad resorted to something else? I learnt at this year’s Child & Youth Care Conference in Cape Town that every moment is an opportunity for Child & Youth Care Workers for teaching & influencing positive behaviours. Again, I might be wrong, but in many cases in CYCW when what we think is an obstacle, isn’t really the issue. I have learnt to see beyond a child’s behaviour, for every behaviour is “meaningful” . Some children need a particular object through which to express themselves and this particular lad chose a tree. It could have been anything else. The bottom line, in my opinion is that the tree is not the problem but a medium through which behaviour is expressed. These are just my reflections.

Vincent Hlabangana
South Africa
...

Peter,

This is possibly one of the most shocking and saddening things I have read in a long time. I actually gasped after reading that someone cut down the boy's tree. (Yes, I would consider it his tree.) In fact, I am so upset by your post that I have to respond immediately, without even thinking much about what I want to say. My first thought was "Why didn't they build him a tree house?" With a ladder for safety or a knotted rope to climb. Have him collaborate on the design of his safe place in the sky. What message has this sent to him? I'm sure it's not "We care about your safety." even if that was the misguided intent behind the act. How about "See how powerless you really are. There is no safe place here for you to hide." It actually makes me want to cry.

Kim Nicolaou
...

Peter,

Thanks for sharing this story — and for sharing your outrage! Cutting down the tree is indeed like swatting flies with a hammer!

Your story did remind me of a similar one when I was the Director of a school for kids on probation. We had a lovely facility, just the right size and configuration for our 60+ students, and outside the front door was a beautiful, big oak tree.

As in your situation, one impulsive young man ran out of class and climbed that tree. Then he laughed down at the concerned, but frustrated, staff members who surrounded the tree. Like you, I reasoned that this was what is often called “attention seeking behavior,” and boy, was he getting a lot of attention. Some of our staff were anxious for his safety, and some were angry at his crazy behavior.

Here’s what I did, in a moment of inspiration. I opened the front door a bit and quietly asked all the staff to come back inside. They didn’t want to comply, but they did. I suggested to them that we could watch him just as well by hiding behind the drapes and looking out the window — all so we could appear to ignore him. I reasoned that if he were to fall, we could be there just as quickly, and having one of us trying to climb that giant tree might just make him climb higher and, as a result, actually be more dangerous.

As you’ve probably guessed, climbing a tree to “seek attention” isn’t effective if no one is giving you attention! And sure enough, in 30 minutes or so he climbed down. At that point staff were quickly with him and soon returned him to class.

In reflecting on it, I think that young man, and yours, like so many others, are desperate for adults to notice them — to give them attention. And they know, based on their own experience, that doing “bad” and outrageous things, like climbing trees or taunting policemen, will get them plenty of attention. Negative attention is better than no attention at all!

We worked hard, after the tree incident, to make sure that our boy got lots of attention and affection - we wanted him to know that he deserved it, not that he had to earn it. Affection should be unconditional.

Staff talked about the “tree incident" for months following, and we learned how to apply that lesson learned to other situations where kids try to draw a crowd. And, best of all, that boy never climbed that tree again.

Charlie L. Baker
...

Hi Peter,

I work in adolescent mental in BC as a CYC practitioner and I would like to respond to your email and request for feedback. I share in your frustration and concern with how this situation has been dealt with. I am fortunate that the agency in which I work does make an effort to remain current and aligned with new research and evidence based approaches. In saying that, I think you have exemplified the values and practice of CYC in your approach with this child. It saddens me to hear that, despite all of the new research and recognition of the CYC practice and approach as well as trauma informed care (as I would assume from this behaviour described that this could be a related issue in this case), there are professionals who are still making decisions from an uninformed place without practicing self-awareness or exploring their own internal reactions to behaviour. I would like to remain objective and assume there is perhaps another reason for cutting down the tree, however on the surface I do not see a purpose this serves other than, as you say, making the adults feel safer/better.

Good luck. Keep doing what you do!

Sue Hunt
...

Hi Peter,

Sadly I wasn't surprised to read the tree cutting story — it's all too common here in the UK where children are often restricted from taking any kind of risks because of health and safety — even if this young man was climbing the tree to play, it would be considered dangerous behaviour no doubt!

I believe this boy will share your perspective on this — he will no doubt feel it is another example of adults controlling him, trying to make him unhappy and take away his coping mechanism. It's likely he will find another way to distance himself and gain attention — putting himself at even more risk climbing a roof for example. It's sad that even today when we know so much about children's behaviour that we still see adults, who are meant to be helping traumatised young people, making decisions without considering how this will be understood in the eyes of the child. Has anyone considered that that taking the tree away could actually be more damaging to this young person — reinforcing his belief that adults don't understand or care about his needs and risking the chances of him taking alternative measures to distance himself and express this pain (climbing roofs, throwing himself in front of cars or self harm) the issues that need to be addressed is what pain he feels to want to climb the tree and pooing may also be a way of keeping adults away. Personally, I would have built him a tree house with a ladder... This would have either resulted in him not going near the tree because he knows adults approve. Or if he did choose to climb he could do so safer — ticking the health and safety boxes about risk management.

Tracey
...

We had our state licensing department advise us to cut down a tree on a residential campus once. We didn't.

Actions like this tend to be attempts at reducing liability for the organization — which probably increased potential liability because he now will now find another outlet for expression.

Enjoyed hearing your story of hanging out in the tree together.

I wonder what his response would have been if the next time he headed for the tree he found a climbing rope or a wooden ladder hanging there for him.

Seems like kids (all of us, I suppose) tend to seek out the sensory input their bodies need.

James Freeman
...

I think the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach is a better option than Behavior Mod for helping kids with challenging behaviours learn to self regulate.

In the absence of this tree, it might be a good time to try something new. Thinkkids.org is a good place to start for more info on this approach.

Nicole Obeng
...

Hi Peter,

So sad and speaks volumes for the current mind set of Anglo-American child care.

Moss and Petrie in

https://www.questia.com/library/108067960/from-children-s-services-to-children-s-spaces-public

recount their visit to a primary school in Denmark which had no boundary and the children could play in the woods at break time. They asked about tree climbing and the teachers stated that they are encouraged to climb and sometimes they fall and this is necessary to their development.

As long as people see children as ‘becoming adults’ to be schooled, regulated and constrained we will perpetuate the state sponsored abuse that increasingly invades every aspect of their lives. Many can only escape through becoming consumers of often very negative digital media. Effectively trapped and denied a childhood.

Peace.

 Jeremy Millar
...

Many years ago when I was an assistant supervisor in a children's mental health residence. I wanted to bring in a dog.....roots of empathy and all. This was vetoed. I then wrote a grant for summer employment for staff. I called it "Instead of a Dog" . I was able to hire three staff with the grant. It became the standing joke( in fun) that the three staff were equivalent to one dog.
 
Now ....40 years later pet therapy is all the age of all age groups. Can we go 'back to the future'?

Rick Kelly
...

Dear Peter,

I am with you on this matter. Children grow and learn better when they are sensitively protected yet freed to discover things for themselves rather than being controlled by threat, deprivation and coercion. I liked John Aikenhead’s founding motto for life and learning at Kilquhanity School in Scotland, “ Liberty, Equality and Inefficiency.”  See

 http://www.braehead.info/html/john_aitkenhead.html
 
Best wishes,
Charles Sharpe
...

Thank you all for your remarks and perspective. It is affirming to hear from voices akin to my own. My role in this organization at this time is as a part-time on-call entry level youth counselor. My ability to influence decision making is minimal to nonexistent. I hope I can advance higher in the pecking order so I may be able to influence program practice towards a youth work direction where we are more trauma informed and evidence based.
 
Are there other CYCs on this list here in Minnesota or the USA and do folks know of conferences or trainings I can access to attempt to expand administrations perspectives?
 
Peter DeLong

Dear all,

What an extraordinary story — and like many of the best stories it is simultaneously almost unbelievable but also totally believable. It reminds me of the stories we would hear of kids' shoes being taken away if they were 'runners' — as if that would stop them absconding, if they really needed to go! My concern would be that in this case, the boy will find some much more dramatic way of taking risks and alarming his carers.

Now. We can all think of what other strategies might have been tried with this boy instead of cutting the tree down, and how else we can look at risk-taking among young people.

But you know what, stuff happens (to put it politely). So my question would be: how can an incident such as this be converted into a 'teachable moment' for the staff team? Who was involved in the discussions that led up that decision, and how might they be encouraged to reflect on its implications? Was anyone else shocked by what happened, and is it too late for Peter to try to use this episode as a learning point for the organisation as a whole, to get people talking about attitudes and values, for instance? (Clue: it's never too late).

This all starts to sound even more challenging than working out the best way to care for this particular boy — but, as others have suggested, it's not just Peter's challenge, it's everyone's. It is an emblematic challenge, and one that is well worth taking on wherever it arises, since it seems to represent the whole issue of how to re-sensitise a system that has become rigid and reactive rather than flexible and responsive, controlling rather than liberating. My own feeling is that all organisations have an inbuilt tendency to drift in that direction, unless we all constantly strive to redress the balance, and incidents like the tree-felling provide the opportunity to do so.

I don't have answers, I just ask the questions! But I'm certainly not suggesting Peter should opt for heavy-handed confrontation, which might just lead to further reactivity — in fact, I like that sense of bemusement and humility implied in Peter's tone, and the humour of his sign-off, 'Timber!' (It made me think of that old book by Paul Watzlawick, The Situation's Hopeless, But Not Serious!) Maybe some of these qualities might be brought to bear on the situation. But taking on a big defensive organisation is of course going to be a lot harder than taking on one small scared boy!

Good luck, Peter and everyone.

Adrian Ward
...

Hi Peter,

I’m not sure that cutting down the tree would make me feel “safer” as an adult… that kid is going to climb SOMETHING and poop from it – either literally or figuratively.

Of course it is no joking matter. I think this is a good example of an external control approach. Cutting down the tree is perhaps an attempt to control his environment by limiting his choices of behaviour, but we know that children have an inifinite range of behaviours to choose from in order to respond to their environment. They can get pretty creative. And removing this one option for him only means he has to be creative in finding something else.

I can understand why people got nervous. I had to take quite a few children to hospital for falling off things they shouldn’t have been on in the first place… trees, roofs, etc. Once a child died because he climbed inside the ceiling of a school building and feel through the ceiling onto the starway. It was a terrible tragedy. As the manager at the time, no matter what people said, I felt responsible, at least in part. And it certainly would have affected how I would respond to the behaviour of children in the future, perhaps being overly cautious and rather erring on the side of caution. Fortunately we learn and we move – we cannot “protect” children from their desperate need to express themselves, however inappropriate or scary at the time.

A while ago at an institution where I worked a decision was made to cut down the trees – without consulting me – and it just leaves such a barren environment for children. I think it’s a form a deprivation actually. Fortunately most trees grow back over time.

It’s a difficult thing that much of our learning comes from our mistakes and from hindsight, but the important thing is that we do learn from it, and sometimes it means working very hard to find that learning. I hope that the team can find a learning in this experience too – cutting down the tree. In fact, I think that it is a beautiful metaphor for how we often respond to the behaviour of children – cutting down their trees. It is certainly a story that I will use when I talk to people about children. For this boy it may mean that there are some things to deal with now, having lost the tree. But perhaps at least for the rest of us it may mean finding a new and fresh metaphor to remind us not to cut down the trees of children when they need some place to poop on the world….

I hope this makes sense. From this shitty experience I think there is a learning in the form of a metaphor that is just so beautiful that it is really a gift to the rest of us.

Thank you for sharing that – I love the story (how do you forget a story like that?)

Werner van der Westhuizen
South Africa
...

Hello all:

It is a shame they didn’t just build a tree house and made it his responsibility to care for it. With proper climbing stairs and railings it could have been safe and giving his own space to care for may have been great for him!

Lizette d'Entremont
...

Hello All,

Just wanted to say that it sounds like we are all on the same page, in different spaces and different places. And Rick....I love your style. (especially since I am currently training a wonderful little retriever pup to one day act as a visiting therapy dog). I wrote a blurb a bit ago about how all of the mainstream and somewhat trendy therapies should just be things that each of us are doing a bit of every day, or at least every week. Horticultural Therapy, Pet Therapy, Art and Music Therapy.....the list is long and these are all passions and talents that we should be fostering in our children...and making time for regularly, for ourselves...not taking away from curriculum or charging an arm and a leg for...putting on long lists for....etc. etc......

“Instead of a Dog”......I love it!!

Be well all,

Ally
... 

Good day.

As many of you have already stated reactionary responses do not take into consideration the needs of the youth but rather expose cultural (political, liscencing, organizational) issues. As an individual who seeks out nature for spiritual fulfillment and a tree to explain the ecological model, to my students, this incident is sad for all involved but in particular the youth.

The sharing of perspectives by all of you and the potential awareness development these incidents create for CYC-P can not be over looked. How though do you help the youth grasp that his actions were not the cause of the tree being cut down without damaging the image of a system that is in place to help him? I fear that we create obstacles to effective care practices particularly in situations dealing with safety. I loved the idea of a rope/ wooden ladder as a form of harm reduction, accountability, etc.

One of my students loves to climb trees and has done so on just about every outdoor outing we have went on and although I have expereinced some level of concern I have also applauded the adventurous spirit, flexibility, etc. Remembering to focus on the strengths and the need being fulfilled by the behaviour rather than the potential legal implications to organizations needs to become the focus of our culture.

Charlene Pickrem
...

Adrian,

Have you ever seen the movie by the same title? Is this a worthwhile book to read? I am at a loss for how to influence change within organizations. I seem to cause more grief and resentment and defensiveness from agency heads when i question how things are run. I don't seem to fit anywhere and perhaps took too much to heart what Hans Scott-Mhyre once said in class I took from him at the U of Minnesota, "You aren't trying hard enough if you haven't been fired from a few jobs."

Seriously, I want to stick around most places I work, not all mind you. I find questioning authority a sign of respect, or maybe I am still a punk kid. I want to learn how to fit in and get along AND be part of changing things, evolving caring professions.

What trainings, conferences, books or resources would you point me to? I am a 42 year old, father of two, husbanded, Independent Clinical Social Worker who has been through the ringer after working in the Child Welfare system for 6 years who wants not to retreat into private practice but stay in the trenches and help train and educate the workers for a better tomorrow and a better therapeutic relating-to youth and children and families.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

Peter DeLong

"Once upon a time, she decided to follow her heart.
She flung off her pinstriped suit and gave birth to herself.
A new self... her true self."
- Monique Duval
...

Hey Peter,

Well as I think you can see there are a lot of folks who are with you on this. I did indeed advise you, some years back, that getting fired was not necessarily a bad thing. But I would have to add that there is also the tactic of being a successful subversive. It is not my style as it takes more social skills and patience than I possess. But there are great youth workers like my colleague Steve Bewsey who has been developing good solid youth work practice without getting fired for a more years than I can count. You have to decide how your style of life and your commitments political and personal fit with the way you resist and rebel. Is it under the radar playing a long game? Or disruption and confrontation--usually a shorter game. Both have their advantages and costs. Either way, if you are conscious and conscientious the work is always political and the world of the political is all about tactics. Marx advises us that you have to match your tactics to the particular material and social conditions you encounter. There are always openings for change but sometimes they are small changes that have the possibility of proliferating over time and sometimes they are large opportunities to shift the structure. The important thing is to know one from the other and to be willing to lose and regroup without resentment or nostalgia. Can you find trainings, conferences, books and resources on a middle road? Perhaps, but very probably attending those conferences that lean in the direction of insurrection such as the University of Victoria's Child and Youth Care conferences and then having conversations in the hallways and over drinks may offer you the best on the ground strategies for surviving while fighting the good fight. You might also consider the new blog launched by UVIc http://ijcyfsreview.com/ as a blogger as well as reader and commentator. For me the book that has the best advice about all of this is Psychiatry Inside Out by Franco Basaglia. In the chapter on Peacetime Crimes he seriously engages the politics of the institution and the tactical necessities of revolt. In the end, living under the brutal regimes of neo-liberal capitalism requires techniques and approaches to manage the dysphoria, discouragement and pain the system now generates as the modes of control and discipline. The most powerful one I know is love. But love as a political act that connects the living force of all living things. In a sense it is not resistance that we need now but the capacity to connect the flows of infinite creative force that comprise life. Perhaps my earlier advice about getting fired needs to be modified now as conditions have changed and tactics need to change with them. Instead of overt resistance and revolt we may need to build networks of similarly inclined friends and lovers of life, both youth and adult. To proliferate such networks may need to operate under the radar until there is an opening for them to surface and rupture the operating system of code that leads to the brutality of neo-liberal rule you have described.

Just a thought.

Hans Skott-Myhre
...

Peter...

Keep doing what you are doing. No positive change has ever, ever come without resistance. Know that what you feel and think is your truth and keep going.

No one likes to be told what to do....but asking questions plants seeds. Do what you can, no matter how small it may seem, to make changes every day.

I used to resent and despise the system. I wanted nothing to do with politics, being part of “the top” or the narrow minded, greed fueled bureaucracy. I have come to realize that in order to change the system, we have to BE the system...and empower our children and youth to know that they have the heart and the skills and the power to be part of a brand new way of running things.

Keep going. Keep asking questions. Keep acting.

The Dalai Lama once said....”If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”

Be that little bugger!

Ally
...

Hi Peter,

I really enjoyed reading this story. It gives a lot of perspective into some of the troubles that children go through and the difficulty as child and youth workers in assisting these children in a way that is within our ability. It seems that this child has gone through a lot of struggles that he may or may not have disclosed to individuals. I think it is important that some of the workers climb the tree to join him when he goes there. When episodes such as these occur, it provides a good opportunity for the workers to perform a Life Space Interview. This allows the child to feel more comfortable, important and cared for. Although he is doing something that may not be ideal, the workers are meeting the child where he is at and assisting him in the de-escalation he needs in that moment.

It is important to not make the child feel badly when he pees or poops in the tree, but supporting him and demonstrating what is appropriate to do afterwards in terms of cleaning himself up. This provides a good teaching moment for workers also.

The act of cutting down the tree may be traumatizing for this child. The place that he comforted himself and was comforted by others, de-escalated and found sanctuary is now gone. The loss of this could surely cause the child to become even more unstable and struggle more with keeping his emotions under control. It could also greatly hinder his healing process and cause more trauma than he has already experienced. I do see why the workers felt the need to cut the tree down, so that he would not physically harm himself; however, this may come with a much greater cost, the inability for him to lead a functional life.

Although the cutting down of the tree may prove to be a success and the child will simply find another place to flee to, he also may find no other place and run away. As you stated, he leaves the building to climb the tree. If the tree is no longer present, the alternative may be that he just leaves the building and keeps running. This would cause a much greater problem and cause him to become lost. In my opinion, there are many more possible negative outcomes than those if the tree was left standing.

Abi B.
...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for sharing this sad but enlightening story.

This story sheds some light on some of the issues we have to deal with as child and youth care workers

I really enjoyed reading about how you would climb the tree with the boy and have good discussions, which demonstrates the life space interview. Another part I liked is how you are focusing on the boys strengths rather than his weaknesses and not making it a big deal that he pees and poops from the tree. Instead you comfort him. You are meeting the child where he is at in that moment of time, which helps getting him to the de-escalation he needs.

I think the fact they cut down the tree is very disappointing for the child, because the tree was a place that was comforting to him and now it's gone. This could result in the kid having an emotional breakdown due simply to the fact that the one place that gave him comfort is now gone or the situation could end in a more positive way. Forcing the boy to find a new place to comfort him ... maybe one that is less dangerous.

Although the act of cutting down the tree may have caused the workers to feel in control, the possible outcomes that come from cutting down the tree could potentially make them in less control. For example, it was mentioned that the boy would run to the tree because he was unhappy. However with the tree gone this could cause the boy to run away in ultimately causing more panic and danger than the tree.

Jordan Turner
_______

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