CYC-Online 86 MARCH 2006
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Controlling or managing behavior: A crucial decision

Jack Phelan

Every Child and Youth Care agency, every Child and Youth Care supervisor and indeed every Child and Youth Care practitioner has to constantly decide which of these two approaches they choose to believe in as an effective way to deal with children and youth. Unfortunately, people on the same team working with youth can have different beliefs and approaches based on those beliefs, and this creates some typically frustrating discussions at meetings.

Youth in our programs experience the demonstration of these differing beliefs and can accurately describe who is on each side of this metaphorical fence. I like to describe it as the choice between having a treatment program or a justice program.

When our goal is to control behavior, then supervision, structure, punishment and reward systems, and an emphasis on routines and schedules are prevalent. The use of external control and an emphasis on order and limited choices for youth are built into the environment. The basic belief is that change will occur as good behavioral habits are created involuntarily and through external control. As youth do the right thing because it is too painful to resist, they will see the usefulness of these behaviors.

Programs based on controlling behavior typically are problem-focused and describe the goals for youth as eliminating the specific behaviors which are problematic. Treatment plans are quite linear, detailing problems and describing how the youth will be ready to leave when the problematic behavior has ceased to occur.

These programs tend to adopt a mantra of “consistency” and try to treat all similar behaviors with the same response. Even when a youth doesn’t require a controlling response, for example when some behavior is created by anxiety or impulsivity rather than deliberate choice, the behavior is punished because justice must be seen to be served by the other youth and staff.

Programs and staff who choose to manage behavior also use external control to a certain extent, mainly to create safety and good boundaries. The key difference is the belief that self-control is the overall aim of the program, not good behavior. This allows youth and staff to absorb both useful and not-so-useful behaviors because self-control is created by learning from both types of behaviors and the ensuing results. Typically, the focus is more strength-based and relationally focused. When you let go of external control to influence choices, relationships become much more important as teaching tools. Individuality and responses determined by unique situational factors become the norm, rather than a “Manual of Responses” which pre-decides how each practitioner will act. This approach requires the Child and Youth Care practitioner to be very interactive and present, willing to participate in the program, not just run it from a distance. Each youth is viewed as being on a unique treatment path that requires a constantly shifting emphasis and response from all the staff.

A metaphor that may be useful: Child and Youth Care staff can picture themselves as being the lifeguard at a pool, sitting on a high seat and blowing a whistle when they observe inappropriate or unsafe behavior, or they can picture themselves in the pool with the youth, creating safety and useful behaviors by being with the youth.

I believe that both types of beliefs are constantly vying for prominence on most teams and in many agencies. It is important to bring these differences forward in a clear way so that the issue can be openly discussed. My hope is that more people will opt for managing behavior and treatment programs, but either way, at least everyone can be clear about the program goals.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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