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99 APRIL 2007
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Making the alternative more attractive

"We have to make him get out of bed."

"He can’t just sleep in all day without some kind of consequence."

"He’s just avoiding the program."

"He’s jerking us around."

Common comments heard when a youngster in residential care refuses to get out of bed in the morning. When youth won’t follow the program we start to feel helpless. We become desperate in our struggle to make them conform. To follow the program. To do what they are supposed to do. We begin to feel that we have no power. That we are incompetent. So we devise strategies to make staying in bed unattractive. After all, he must be staying in bed because he likes it. So let’s make it something he doesn’t like.

We nag. We annoy. We threaten consequences. We do whatever we can to make staying in bed unattractive so that he will “want to get up”. We don’t think a lot about “why” he is staying in bed. What it means to him. Rather we focus our efforts on compliance with the rule. Consequences.

Punishments. Something has to make him get up. If only we can find the right trick he will realise that staying in bed is not a good idea.

But here’s a thought: why not make getting up more attractive than staying in bed? What if we were to focus our resources on making “getting up” more satisfying than staying in bed. Attract him into the world, rather than try to push him out of bed?

It’s a simple thought but one which has serious implications: a change in focus for our work. And what if we were to take this approach with other examples of “non-compliance”? Like rather than trying to force a youth to go to school, what if we were to make going to school more attractive than staying away? What if instead of trying to make a young person do the chores, we were to make doing the chores more attractive than not doing the chores.

Now, in some sense we already do this when we try to make non-compliance unattractive. We lessen the value of what the youth is doing by decreasing the value of it (punishment). But what if we were to try to change the balance simply by making the alternative (the one we want the youth to do) more attractive. By finding a way to make the alternative something the youth wants to do?

It’s just a question of where we focus our energies. Do we focus on making things unattractive, or on making things attractive? Is our focus on what we don’t want the youth to do, or on what we do want the youth to do?


The International Child and Youth Care Network

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