CYC-Online 114 AUGUST 2008

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“Just Because” interventions: Engaging hard-to-reach students

Travis Winter and James Haines-Burnham

The following is a description of a relationship-intensive intervention strategy for students with emotional and behavioral problems. This strategy has been used as a supplement to the point and level system to insure that all kids have positive experiences with staff and gain a sense of belonging. Students are selected by staff based on the belief that a particular individual will benefit from the experience, not because they have earned it. The term “Just Because Trips” has been adopted to identify this strategy. These trips have been successful and have built groundwork for increased belonging and strengthened relationships.

Program description
The Turning Point Program in Ithaca, New York, is designed to provide educational programming for students, ages 5-21, who present significant emotional difficulties and whose behaviors have become too difficult to be managed in their home schools. Students are referred by the Committee for Special Education (CSE). Educational needs are met in small classrooms with about eight students allowing for significant individualization. Counselors work with the individual students and groups to help them learn more acceptable and productive behaviors. The general goal is to see students progress to a level acceptable for re-entry into their home schools. Length of stay is dependent upon the student’s ability to change from negative to positive behavior.

A full range of clinical supports exists to assist with integrating therapeutic and educational efforts. Clinical services include individual, family, and group counseling; psychiatric and psychological evaluations; medication services; and crisis intervention. A separate crisis intervention staff exists for the purpose of responding to students in acute distress.

Evolution of an idea
This intervention is designed to reach youth who are frequently excluded from activities because they do not thrive on point and level systems. The high school part of the Turning Point Program employs a point and level system to encourage and promote positive behavior within students. Incentives in the form of increased privileges, trips, and special activities are built in to this system.

Students often come to our program after years of poor relationships with schools, family, law enforcement, and/or mental health systems. There is a period of assessment on the students' part about whether they want to invest in and/or trust both the process at our school as well as staff and students. The process of developing this trust and investment is often cyclical rather than linear. However, as time passes and a student and his or her parents have the opportunities to test issues such as genuineness and trustworthiness of staff and program, they begin to engage more thoughtfully. When students “buy into” the level system, we see a positive progression. However, it typically takes a long period of time for a student to feel comfortable, understand the system, and, most importantly, build relationships in which they begin to feel like they belong.

What became evident to staff was that certain students, despite buying into the program and being motivated, seemed unable to consistently maintain their level status and, therefore, did not receive many of the privileges. Over time a slow disenfranchisement and resentment of staff and students who were earning privileges became apparent. An alternate form of belonging of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy began to emerge.

Also around this time a spirited debate among staff occurred regarding the purpose of the level system and incentives. Some staff felt strongly that a firm line should be held and that students should have to earn any extra privileges. Other staff felt with equal passion that at times an unconditional investment in a student was not undermining or counter productive to the same cause: promotion of pro-social skills. “Does everything in life have to be earned?” “Are we ever granted privileges or special dispensation solely as a result of who we are?” “What message does a student receive when an investment is made in who they are, rather than what they have done?” These questions and many others helped guide the conversation. As Brendtro, Ness, and Mitchell stated: “Punishment often backfires and further alienates adolescents from adults. Youth who are locked in opposing contests with adults cannot use them as mentors” (2005, p. 34). In the end the staff decided that we should “walk the talk.” If we say kids are the most important thing, then we should create opportunities and experiences for them to feel this importance.

Ultimately, a decision was made to include an intervention strategy that would be exclusive, by staff invitation only. Students would be told it was an investment in who they are and the belief that they would personally get something out of such an experience. It is impossible to “earn” a Just Because Trip (JBT). We consider it a gift and investment in the individual and, by extension, the community of our school. The students selected often have not previously been able to earn trips but have had frequent suspensions, and their status in our program is questionable. Our program is the least restrictive setting before a residential placement.

The idea was largely largely supported and the strategy was affectionately termed Just Because Trips. The only considerations for participation were: That the parents agree (especially if special transportation needs were necessary); that a student was not currently suspended (however, latitude was left to include a JBT as a form of suspension when a situation warranted); and that a student was not presently unsafe to go on such a trip.

The experience
The first planned JBT occurred in the fall of 2003. It was a planned hike in the southern Adirondacks. Two male students were selected: one, a self-proclaimed “redneck” and openly racist kid from the country; the other an African-American youth from an urban environment. They were accompanied by two counselors. By any account, it was risky to include these two students together for such an activity, but we believed that the outcome would far outweigh the potential problems. The day went off without a hitch. The two students slept most of the way to the climb site, and then vigorously engaged the climb and experience. They interacted exceptionally well together. Race and racism were openly discussed. Societal issues and personal feelings on many topics were discussed by both students and counselors. The level of engagement was exceptional. Safety was always maintained with the students looking out for each other and staff. They stayed on the trail and observed any requests made by staff. Upon reaching the summit of the climb, one of the students repeatedly proclaimed “this is just beautiful” as he peered over the vista below.

Another important component of this intervention strategy was sharing a meal, so on the way home the group stopped at a restaurant. This has become one of the most special parts of the JBT. It is a communal time, a time to share, to recognize efforts of the day, and to acknowledge appreciation for each other’s presence. Spontaneous conversations occur on levels never able to be reached during school hours. Students talk about their lives in very personal ways and appear comfortable in sharing deeper parts of themselves. Similarly, counselors have shared an activity that they truly enjoy. It also happens that the two counselors involved in these trips are good friends and model their friendship, negotiations, and problem solving whenever the opportunity presents itself. Both have noted after the trips how acutely attuned and responsive the students had been. This was a secondary benefit that is now purposefully utilized whenever possible.

To date, there have been four Just Because Trips: three hiking trips and one snow shoeing trip in the middle of the winter. They have been outdoor adventure type activities because that is what the two counselors currently in charge enjoy. In addition, it appears that natural settings have a healing effect. All trips have included the same expectations and components: the activity, a meal, and return for pick-up. Very low staff to student ratios are utilized, often one-on-one, in order to maximize the relationship-building aspects and personal nature of the interaction between both staff and students.

What has been consistently observed is that the students respond very positively to being asked to join these trips. Even if some of the activities are a bit out of their comfort zone, they agree to try. During the day of the experience, there has been the perception that a deepening of relationships occurs. Sometimes these shifts or changes are more dramatic than others but it happens to some degree. One significant pay off is evident when a participating student becomes more open to support when he finds himself in a crisis. It is also heartening to hear anecdotes as the participants relate events of the day to other peers and staff. It is clear that the message of their personal importance in the world is received. For two staff to take off time from their typical work duties and spend it just on them has had a strong impact on the students involved.

We have found this to be one creative way to reach kids that are often difficult to reach in other ways. It can serve as a benefit for students new to the program, or as a specific intervention for students who are having problems with each other or surrounding particular issues. The possibilities are endless. The goal is to have a number of experiences occur on a fairly regular basis so that each student is eligible at some point. We also believe that, in as much as is possible, the activities should be something that the staff truly has an interest in. This lends a level of genuine enjoyment for all participants and allows the staff to share an interest with a student. The learning involved in any activity, whether it be map reading skills or learning how to use snow shoes, has been very positive.

We believe the benefits of this idea have been worth the efforts. As a result of these activities, we have seen a deepening of relationships and an increase in the belonging phase of our program. It also has become one powerful way for us to operationalize the values of the Circle of Courage philosophy. Kids experience their worth and value in our program in a way that they may have never previously experienced. Sometimes we do things just because, and that has made a significant difference.


Brendtro, L.K., Ness, A., and Mitchell, M. (2005). No disposable kids. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

This feature: Winter, T. and Haines-Burnham, J. (2005). “Just Because” interventions: Engaging hard-to-reach students. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 14, 4. pp. 37-39.

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