The original director of this federally funded pilot program for adolescent youth on probation shares insights in building relationships of trust and respect with hard-to-reach youth. The criticisms this newly formed program has drawn from advocates of punishment have challenged the author to refine and clearly articulate the efficacy of Project Breakaway’s strength-based approaches.
In March of 1996, I began the overwhelming, heartwrenching, and life-changing task of reclaiming youth at risk. As the newly appointed director of a federally funded after-school program for 40 adolescent juveniles on probation, I expected to spend the next six months giving my time and skills to serve this group of young people, trying to keep them in line and help them change their behavior.
What happened instead was that I and my staff of nine were deeply touched by 40 children labeled as “unlovable.” We began to value and respect these “valueless” children. Although many of our kids were throw-aways and had been kicked out of most of the systems put in place for them (schools, shelters, treatment facilities, detention centers), they had more to offer me, the staff, the program, and themselves than I could have ever imagined.
My greatest challenge was not finding the good in these young people but convincing professionals in other youth-serving agencies to do the same.
Lessons from Project Breakaway
Project Breakaway is designed to provide 12- to 14-year-olds on juvenile probation with a series of interventions, such as recreation, individual/group counseling, mentoring, tutoring, and educational skill building, in an effort to reduce the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. A summer job and camp component as well as out-of-state hiking and rock climbing trips are also among the components of the program.
Although it has been only six months since our first pilot group of participants graduated from our program, our data, collected by Indiana University through a series of pre- and post-tests, indicates that in just six months, marijuana usage decreased significantly among our participants. Scores on both a decision-making scale and a scale measuring knowledge of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs improved. School as well as program attendance increased, and some students showed a significant increase in grade point average. More important, the graduates coming back to the program are reporting their successes. They are reporting better grades (one child was voted student of the week for increased grades and attendance), better attitudes, and prosocial involvement in school.
Through our work with these young people, we learned, or perhaps re-learned, some valuable lessons. While these truths are acknowledged, valued, even deemed essential to practice among “healing” adults, they are often discarded as impractical, “too soft,” even a waste of time by those who serve the kids who most need them.
Respect begets respect
Project Breakaway was designed to first build relationships with kids and understand the realities they came with when entering our program before expecting them to happily participate in our interventions. In principle, this idea is not new. We would all attest to how a caring relationship with a “tough kid” can turn her around, or to how a student will work harder for a teacher he thinks is “cool.”
What this means in practice, however, is that we cannot expect respect from the children and youth we serve without respecting them first, regardless of their behavior. While these kids got to know us, began to build trust, break down walls, and build relationships with our staff, they regularly tested us by acting belligerently, ignoring us, walking away from us, and swearing at us. But one of our most effective “weapons” in the battle to reclaim them was unwavering respect for them that went beyond their behavior.
We realized that for most of our kids, based on their experiences with the adults in their lives, disrespect was a reasonable, rational, even healthy reaction to adults who were unknown to them. Until we had given them a reason to respect us, a reason strong enough to counteract a lifetime of negative experiences with adults, we did not expect theirs in return. We certainly did not encourage or condone disrespectful behavior – quite the contrary – but if, for example, some foul language found its way into our interaction, we would not let that divert us from the crucial work of building a relationship. Unfortunately, we were roundly criticized for this by those agencies who had referred kids to us in the first place to “fix” those very behaviors.
Despite this criticism, our staff continued to believe that if our youth built trust in them, it would lead to empowering behavior that reduced the incidence of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use. Without relationships that involved two-way respect, I knew that our battle to help our kids end their negative and unhealthy behavior would be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible. Rules alone are rules and will continue to be broken by those kids in desperate need of attention. If, however, our children are in relationships with people they respect, who model how the benefits of healthy behaviors outweigh the benefits of the unhealthy ones, we may begin to make a difference.
One example of how we tried to respect our young people, even in the face of their initial disrespect, was by asking their opinion honestly, as often as possible. In the first week of the program, for example, things were a bit chaotic, to put it mildly: Students were cussing the staff up and down, punching walls, walking away, refusing to participate in anything. But rather than lecture, punish, or expel (which is what these kids had become accustomed to), I gathered them in a circle and asked: “You guys, what is up? I’m really frustrated. Tell me why you keep walking away. Do you think that the things we’re asking you to do are stupid?” Their answers surprised and enlightened me: “They’re not stupid, but we don’t know you yet.” “We don’t know each other yet.” “We don’t like being on probation.” “My boyfriend just broke up with me,” “I’ve been sober two months, but I messed up last night.” We listened carefully. I am not saying that everything was fine after that! The kids still complained. But we frequently asked our kids what they needed, and whenever appropriate, we changed our program to better suit their stated needs.
Fixating on the symptoms is no cure
I remember on one occasion, several months after our program first opened, I was called by a school administrator who informed me that he had received several complaints from teachers that Project Breakaway participants were smoking after school before our session began. Although I well understood that this administrator’s phone call was a reproach, meant to encourage me to be better about enforcing rules with kids, I felt secretly proud. Deep down, I was thrilled that in an afterschool program with 40 juveniles on probation, with many multiple offenses, smoking was the worst there was to report!
I was also amazed that students' referral to our program was expected to be an instant cure for their antisocial behaviors. After only a few short months of working with these youth, we were already being blamed for “having no control over kids in the program and not enforcing rules” (those same rules that had never worked for our kids, which was why they were on probation and in Project Breakaway in the first place). What was, and remains, difficult for both school and other agency officials to understand, is that punishing our participants for smoking was not a priority in our program.
Why not? Although smoking was one of the negative behaviors our grant set out to reduce, we understood that it was a highly addictive behavior and an extremely difficult addiction to overcome. This was especially so for some of our kids whose parents not only smoked, but purchased cigarettes for their children and their children's friends. What was more important in our program was the reason why children chose this behavior over more healthy activities, and how we could design interventions that empowered our kids to want to stop smoking. Most of our children were living in the midst of very chaotic lives filled with incest, drug abuse, abandonment, learning disabilities, sexually transmitted diseases, physical abuse, and more. To have negatively reinforced, focused, and fixated on this smoking behavior first would have been a grave mistake in my opinion “one that would have strengthened our students' self-fulfilling images of themselves as “bad kids.” Addressing the “why” rather that the “what” of the behavior creates the strongest opportunities for changing it.
By summer, our children were participating in rock climbing and hiking trips out of state. All participants in these trips were to remain smoke-free in an effort to respect the environment on which we were intruding. After several of these trips, participants began handing over their cigarettes to staff people during regular summer camp sessions as well as trips. Several participants noted that by handing over their cigarettes at the beginning of sessions, they would be less likely to want to smoke. Other participants noted that the rock climbing and hiking trips seemed easier if they were not smoking. Although we did not make a difference to every kid in the program who smoked, we were certainly beginning to empower many.
An ounce of fun is worth a pound of
On another occasion, while 20 of our kids were in a school gym participating in team-building and ice-breaker activities, I was approached by a school employee who asked if these were the Project Breakaway kids. I responded with a resounding “Yes!” beaming with pride about what was being accomplished in this session and sure that he had noticed and wanted to recognize our work. Instead, with a stern glare, he asked me why we were choosing to reward these juvenile offenders for being on probation. When I questioned him further regarding what he meant, he replied, “They sure seem to be having fun.”
I believe that, as adults responsible for the future productivity of the children we serve, we must begin to allow our children to have second, third, fourth, and even more chances to succeed. My work has shown me that children from at-risk environments are good at rule breaking and defiance. What they are not good at is feeling successful. But when I can help a child who has repeatedly been truant, participated in multiple thefts, or been involved in incidents of battery to let down his guard long enough to enjoy being a child and have fun participating in an activity, I may be well on my way to finding a door into that child's psyche.
Sure, I could have asked each and every one of these children to do sit-ups and push-ups and clean up trash as further punishment for the act committed that landed them on probation. Would that teach those children to respect me, themselves, or their surroundings? How would those punishments change the negative behaviors that caused them to be on probation in the first place? In my experience, further degradation of children for the acts they likely regret anyway does not change behavior. Having the opportunity to learn healthy, alternative behaviors does.
Unfortunately, the punitive approach to motivating behavior change is deeply embedded in our society and many of the services that we have designed to serve challenging youth. I am sure the following example will be familiar.
I was called in for a meeting at a local youth shelter, where a kid – I'll call him Joe – from Project Breakaway was “causing trouble.” He was being belligerent, aggressive, had punched a wall and damaged some furniture. This did not surprise me. Joe had been removed from an abusive home by the local juvenile judge several months before when his mother, a chronic alcoholic, had shown up in court reeking of alcohol. He had been kicked out of middle school within the first three days for intimidating and possibly assaulting a seventh-grade girl. Of all the kids in our program, Joe had the thickest file.
But in Project Breakaway, he was doing great. He was following the behavior contract that he had set up with our staff, attending regularly, taking leadership, and overall, showing great improvement. The other kids looked up to him, so when I was having problems with other kids, I asked for his help to steer them the right way. He would round up kids for activities, encouraging them to participate, protecting the smaller and younger ones. As a result of this behavior, Joe was earning a considerable number of merit points toward a summer trip to Colorado. This was one of the fun incentives that we offered kids who met the expectations of our program.
How do you think this youth shelter felt about Joe’s success in Project Breakaway? Quite contrary to my expectations, the youth shelter staff had not called the meeting with me to discuss how they might achieve the same results with Joe at the shelter that we were achieving at Project Breakaway. They wanted me to punish Joe in our program for the problems that he was having in theirs. They felt it was “not appropriate” that Joe was earning points for a fun summer trip while he was “causing problems” for them. I refused to cooperate.
In Project Breakaway, children are allowed to have fun. They are allowed to take a break from those tough images they so often feel they must uphold with friends and family. If the staff can begin to model alternative activities that participants discover are actually fun, then the relearning and empowerment process truly begins.
Although our children at Project Breakaway still come from homes that are drug-infested, abusive, and poverty-stricken, at least one thing is different. At the year-end celebration, a suggestion box was placed near the door in order to obtain feedback on how to make our next program year more successful. By the end of the evening, one slip of paper that appeared in the box read, “Please make us come back to Project Breakaway!” They now had a place where they belonged.
The challenge for youth-serving agencies must be “change through empowerment” rather than the more traditional “change through punishment.” Enforcing strict rules without offering respect, understanding, and worthwhile life options creates a power struggle dynamic, not a healthy learning environment conducive to positive change.
I learned many lessons from being the director of Project Breakaway. Most of all, I learned that there is good in all children. The key to their success is to find ways for those children, and the agencies that serve them, to believe it!
This feature: Skooglund, L. (1997). Respect begets respect and other lessons from Project Breakaway. Reaching Today’s Youth, 1, 2. pp. 15-17.