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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
Listen to this


Building a house without using any nails

Jack Phelan

This month’s metaphor is useful to me because it removes a supposedly essential ingredient from the process, yet with a little ingenuity you can still get the job done.

I have been thinking about the way we design programs to help youth, and some of the presumed essential ingredients that are built into programming. External control to motivate behaviour change is one of these essentials. We build both reward and punishment into our programs to teach, motivate, control and manage youths' behaviours. These responses are delivered by the CYC staff, but are actually managed at a higher level, set into place by the program developers, usually supervisors and administrators. The external control system actually programs the behaviour of not only the youths, but the CYC staff as well. I would like you to think about this carefully, but I won’t explain it further right now.

We have become so comfortable with the use of external control that it almost sounds absurd to challenge its necessity. I can hear the protests and accusations that I do not understand the types of youth that these programs serve. Personal safety and social order would be compromised and overall chaos and general anxiety would exist if there were no rules and enforcement methods.

Here is my question though – if our goal is treatment, not management of behaviour, then we should focus on creating self-control, competence, beliefs and hope for a better future with these youth. The use of motivation strategies that focus the youth on what he or she has inside him/herself (beliefs, hopes, skills, needs) are fundamentally different than motivation strategies that focus on pleasing the CYC staff or program goals. This does not mean that the resulting behaviour would be different much of the time, just that the motivation for doing it would be different.

Typical reward and praise from CYC staff include comments like, “You did really well there, I am happy with your efforts,” or “You are really succeeding in the program, good job”. Punishment is delivered with explanations like “You are not meeting program expectations” or “I am not satisfied with this behaviour”. The understanding of good and bad behaviour is intimately connected to meeting an external standard. Both types of responses are externally controlled and even when they mesh with the internal needs of the youth, that factor is less important.

Simple but critical shifts in our approach would change this interaction. When a youth demonstrates competence, rather than praise or reward him/her, creating a focus on the external judgement, we could note the success and ask the youth “How were you able to do that? “. Just this small change helps the youth to look inside not outside for the motivator and a different focus is created.

So I pose this challenge to you: can you imagine creating a program where the CYC staff would not use either rewards or punishments? How would the interactions between the adults and youths change? An even bigger question is how would the interactions between the management and the staff change? Can you picture yourself in a staff meeting where there was no discussion about using external control? Most of us agree that we learn less when we are not in control of what we need to do, and that external control is a poor personal motivator. Treatment programs based on relational competence, professional judgement, and belief in change always sound more helpful than behavioural control, “one size fits all” programs, yet we are comfortable with them. Could you really work in a program that had no punishments or rewards? The focus on relational strategies, and the need for creativity, trust and personal competence from all the staff at every level would be paramount.

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