CYC-Online 20 SEPTEMBER 2000
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juvenile detention

Ten common interactional problems and suggested solutions

David Roush

1. Lack of structure. Failing to provide adequate structure for the group often comes from a lack of understanding of or training in detention and corrections practice, adolescent development, human behavior, principles of behavior modification, program goals, program rules, problem solving, and interactional skills.

Solutions. Possible solutions to this problem include training and education in the above mentioned areas, formulation of workable program goals and procedures if they are missing, formulation of a personal philosophy that outlines an understanding of the above mentioned areas, and discussions about the structure (rules and procedures) with all residents to ensure that they understand acceptable behavior in the unit. Structure also takes daily effort. Unit reports, case notes, admission material, medical data, and personal relationships must be reviewed on a daily basis.

2. Lack of planning. Behavior management cannot be accomplished without a set of pre-planned schedules, routines, and activities.

Solutions. At a foundational level, this means a planned routine for each shift for each day of the week. From a more individual perspective, planning means for each person to know exactly what he or she is responsible for today, tomorrow, this week, and next week. Activity schedules usually have some flexibility built into them, and staff schedules often vary. Therefore, it is important to have a daily list of planned activities that is reviewed at the beginning of the shift. A second meeting should be held at the end of each shift to preview the next day’s activities and staff assignments. A weekly team meeting should also be provided to discuss long-term plans and organizational changes. Finally, all plans should be established in written schedules and memos; an unwritten plan is not a plan.

3. Lack of respect. Lack of respect is shown by not assigning responsibility to others and by not demonstrating courtesy and concern for residents and other staff members.

Solutions. It is important for juvenile care workers to examine their caring behavior and their personal philosophy about the abilities and capabilities of other persons. Most human beings have the same needs and capabilities. We need safety, love, fun, power or recognition, and freedom. We also have the capabilities to learn and to achieve. Even in appropriate behavior has been learned through behavior modification principles and can be unlearned. Likewise, new behaviors can be learned as replacements. Courtesy and respect will reap a return of courtesy and respect.

4. Lack of anticipation and preparation. Most day-to-day hassles occur because attention is not paid to small details.

Solutions. Take planning to its next logical step. If the plan calls for a checkers tournament, make sure that there are enough sets of checkers and game boards. If a quiet activity is planned, check the room before a group is allowed to enter and put away the active equipment (loose boxing gloves, basketballs, or field hockey equipment). Unsecured equipment will always be put into play by some group member. Clean up and have ready an activity area for the next group. Anticipate the next group leader’s problems and help prevent them. Activities requiring transportation are a special concern. Check to see that the needed vehicles, fuel, and keys are avail able before picking up the group. Put staff members at both ends of the group while walking and keep potential runaway youth close at hand.

5. Lack of adequate directions. Poor resident performance is often a result of not understanding a rule or not knowing how to perform a particular behavior properly.

Solutions. Offer instructions instead of orders. Explain rules and procedures in small steps. Ask residents for questions. Set all rules and standards in written formats with small, easy steps. Hold classes and group sessions on how to perform particular behaviors and jobs. Most important, model appropriate behavior at all times “which is the best type of direction.

6. Lack of resident involvement. Many group problems occur because only special children are included in some activities (for example, only good basketball players) or because juveniles with serious behavior deficits are excluded. Sometimes youth are excluded so that staff members can play in the activities. Lack of involvement in appropriate activities leads to participation in undesirable activities.

Solutions. Exercise great care to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to be included in the activities they would like to try. Many times, this care will necessitate using check lists or special training and coaching sessions or using classroom volunteers and tutors to help youth with special needs or insufficient skills.

7. Lack of staff involvement. Often, this lack of involvement is exemplified by staff members who remain at desks or in chairs and control rooms. Regardless of how it appears, it means that these staff members have started to exclude themselves from contact and activities with the residents.

Solutions. The best solution is self-examination. Sometimes, staff members begin to feel stress caused by work or external situations and slowly start to withdraw from daily activities. Sometimes, lack of involvement takes the form of doing legitimate work at illegitimate times, such as doing unit notes, reports, planning sheets, or schedules (all legitimate tasks) when the group needs super vision or attention. Another form of this behavior is to schedule meetings during unit activity times. Sometimes, workers are on the unit but withdraw from the group, making themselves unavailable. After a period of self examination, if workers feel that they are with drawing, they will need to self-apply the problem-solving techniques described in this section.

8. Lack of personal relationships with residents. Lack of personal relationships is usually a result of not knowing the group members and not using trust-building interactions, or it may be the product of an underly social behavior pattern on the part of a staff member.

Solutions. Behavior management is based on individual knowledge of each child. Each child should be known by his or her full name. From time to time, the use of title and surname adds to a feeling of maturity and respect ("That was a very good job, Mr. Smith"). Staff should always introduce themselves to new residents and should always introduce new residents to the group. The group is always changing. New people enter every day, and older group members leave. Each group member also changes. One resident may have a successful day, while another resident may learn of a family problem. The group is never the same, even if it is composed of the same people who were present yesterday.

Quiet times should be spent in getting acquainted, and all records on each resident should be read. Group discussions and activities help to build acquaintances and to reveal important facts about each other. Residents need to be listened to and to feel that the staff are concerned for their safety and welfare. They also need to feel that the rules are fair and that staff will enforce them fairly. Good personal relationships emerge from true concern, honesty, prudence, and listening.

9. Lack of recognition for positive performance. Lack of recognition usually is a result of weak observational skills, lack of training in behavior modification principles, or a lack of genuine concern for the residents.

Solutions. Read and apply the principles discussed in the next section. Increase personal recognition of small improvements in behavior or skill on the part of an individual resident or the group. Success reproduces success. Staff members should apply most of their efforts to rewarding good behavior and positive effort. This type of activity will result in a positive unit atmosphere and optimal positive activity by each resident. The term behavior management often carries negative connotations because staff are looking for negative behavior. The easiest and most fulfilling type of behavior management is the recognition of good behavior.

10. Lack of flexibility. Lack of flexible behavior patterns and/or tolerance is usually the result of rigid thinking patterns or lack of training.

Solutions. The need for flexibility may be difficult to grasp because of the important and appropriate emphasis placed on planning and structure. However, work in a human environment is always changing, and this change requires human flexibility. Special events are planned and then postponed; staff members and volunteers call in sick; and the group is always changing. Flexibility is an attitude. The happiest people in residential settings are persons who enjoy the ever-changing nature of the group. They are also people who are happy with the challenging work. Flexibility is also a behavior, and it is easier for staff members to be flexible if they have done some anticipatory planning for the next unusual day they might encounter. Planning also means setting aside some “rainy day" ideas and activities for the next small group, large group, or tour group that was not expected.

Tolerance is also an important issue. Delinquent youth do not know how to behave appropriately and often do not value appropriate behavior. Changing delinquent behavior patterns and value systems takes time. Consequently, tolerance of minor nuisance manner isms and recognition of slow progress while youth are learning new behaviors is an important skill that must be acquired by each detention staff member.

Roush, D. (1996) Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Detention Practice. National Juvenile Detention Association

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