Youth who present anti-social behavior need powerful interventions that strengthen empathy, counter negative peer influence, and challenge thinking errors.
At a juvenile correctional facility in Columbus,
Ohio, a group of eight residents and a staff group leader were having a “mutual help” meeting. The focus of the meeting was a problem reported
by 15-year-old Mac, one of the group members. Mac had resisted and
yelled profanities at a staff member who, in accordance with
institutional policy, had begun to inspect his carrying bag. The group
and Mac agreed that Mac’s defiance and profanity represented, in the
language of Positive Peer Culture (PPC), an “Authority Problem,” but the
group wanted to know the meaning of that problem. What was the
underlying thinking error or cognitive distortion? Angry as he thought
about the incident and his subsequent disciplinary write-up, Mac
explained that the bag contained something very special and
irreplaceable “photos of his grandmother “and that he was not going to
let anyone take the photos from him. Mac’s peers understood his point of
view but saw it as one-sided: Mac thought only of safeguarding his
photos. He did not for a moment consider the staff member’s perspective “she was only carrying out institutional policy concerning inspection
for possible contraband. Nor did Mac consider that she was not abusive
and that he thus had no reason to assume that the photos would be
confiscated. In the language of the program, Mac had Self-Centered and
Assuming the Worst thinking errors; this distorted thinking had
generated the surface behavior identified as an “authority problem.” Furthermore,
Mac’s anger at staff for his write-up was identified as an Easily Angered problem and was attributed to a Blaming Others thinking error (after all, Mac had only himself to blame for the write-up).
As they helped Mac deal with his one-sided viewpoint and develop his positive potential, the group used certain tools, acquired elsewhere in the program. These tools included the reasons for an institution's rules against contraband, how Mac could have corrected his thinking errors and used other skills to manage his anger, and how he could have expressed his concern to the staff member in a balanced and constructive fashion.
As the meeting progressed (it lasted more than an hour), Mac cooled down considerably. He began to regret his verbal assault on the staff member. He started to take into account the staff member’s perspective. In other words, he began to see “really see “the other person (and the way the facility she served had to work). He could see the unfairness of his behavior toward her, empathize with her, and correct his Self-Centered, Assuming the Worst, and Blaming Others thinking errors. Over the course of subsequent sessions, sometimes as he helped others in the group, Mac continued to work on taking the perspectives of others. With encouragement, accountability, and practice, constructive social perspective-taking became more natural for Mac. Accordingly, his behavior became more responsible.
The EQUIP program
Mac’s mutual help meeting illustrated part of EQUIP (Gibbs, Potter and Goldstein, 1995), a PPC-based cognitive behavioral intervention program for behaviorally at-risk youth like Mac. Readers may already be familiar with EQUIP from previous articles about it in Reclaiming Children and Youth and other journals. This brief article recaps some key points about EQUIP and notes how the program has evolved.
Mac’s “one-sided” viewpoint meant that he often did not take into account other person's legitimate feelings and expectations. Everyone is egocentric to some extent, and Mac’s life had not been easy. Yet Mac’s self-centered approach to problems in his life “evident in three main ways “only made those problems worse. First, as is typical of youth who show anti-social behavior around the world (see Gibbs, Basinger, Grime and Snarey, 2007), Mac’s morality was immature (that is, pragmatic or instrumental and focused on not getting caught). Second, he tended to make exceptions for himself (check others” bags, but not his), and to blame others and assume the worst about their intentions. Finally, his skills for balancing his needs or desires with others” legitimate perspectives were practically non-existent. Aaron T. Beck (1999) was right to call self-centered perception “the eye (–I–) of the storm” (p. 25) stirred up largely by the antisocial youth themselves.
These self-centered tendencies and limitations across morality, social perception, and social skills meant that Mac usually did not really see or understand others” perspectives. Typical of his approach to life, Mac did not treat the staff member as a person but instead merely as an interfering object to be resisted and overcome. Consequences such as write-ups or other acts of accountability were an outrage. Is it any wonder that Mac had problems with authorities and others, had committed felonies, and was chronically angry?
These observations prompt some questions. How is one to remedy these tendencies and limitations so that these kids can reach their positive potential? How does one motivate and help kids to see others” perspectives, to engage in responsible thought and behavior so spontaneously and pervasively that it redefines their whole approach to life?
Those questions are addressed in EQUIP. To answer
them, EQUIP uses a combined approach. The group comes first “that is,
the first aim is the cultivation of a positive peer culture through the
mutual help meetings. Mac’s group members genuinely sought to help one
another. That prosocial motivation owes much to the use of techniques
innovated by Harry Vorrath and Larry Brendtro (1985), and to EQUIP’s strengthening of those techniques with the thinking errors
Self-Centered, Blaming Others, Minimizing/Mislabeling, and Assuming the Worst. These thinking errors are measured with the How I Think (HIT) questionnaire (Gibbs, Potter and Barriga, 2001; see also Barriga, Gibbs, Potter, Konopisos and Barriga, 2007). Correcting the thinking errors is so important “not only for the youth culture but for the staff “culture” “that introducing them in a special preliminary session is recommended, preferably through use of the EQUIPPED for Life game (Horn, Shively and Gibbs, 2007) designed expressly for that purpose.
In EQUIP’s combined approach, the mutual help sessions do not stand alone. If the kids are not to become frustrated, they need cognitive behavioral skills or tools for helping one another and themselves toward responsible thought and behavior. After a few weeks, EQUIP groups begin “equipment” meetings so that they become not only motivated but also equipped for helping and changing; that is where they cultivate moral judgment maturity, anger management, and social interaction skills. Mac’s group applied moral and social tools they had learned to help him more effectively.
Mutual help meetings and equipment meetings need each other: To adapt Einstein's famous observation about religion and science, one might say that motivation without equipment is blind, equipment without motivation is lame! The best implementations of the EQUIP program achieve a synergy as youth in equipment meetings are motivated and those same youth in mutual help meetings are equipped. And in the positive spiral, the EQUIP-based institution is all the time becoming safer and more humane.
Since its introduction in the early 1990s, the EQUIP Program has been adapted and implemented at various facilities and institutions in North America, Europe, and Australia. The institutions include juvenile correctional facilities, community-based adult correctional facilities, halfway houses, re-entry programs, and middle schools. The young persons served have ranged in age from preadolescence through adulthood.
One example is the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Red Wing, which provides treatment, education, and transition services for chronic male juvenile offenders. After implementing and adapting EQUIP, Red Wing saw its recidivism rate drop by better than half (from 53% to 21%; see Gibbs, Potter, DiBiase and Devlin, in press).
Some adaptations have dropped or modified the EQUIP name. Although Colorado’s Youthful Offender System (YOS) does not even identify EQUIP by name, much of the material, in consultation with Potter, has been assimilated into the YOS core program interventions (the Colorado consultation resulted in the EQUIP Implementation Guide; Potter, Gibbs and Goldstein, 2001). EQUIP has been adapted and its name modified in work with adults and children. Potter has adapted EQUIP for use at Ohio’s Franklin County Community-Based Correctional Facility, where it is called Responsible Adult Culture (RAC); RAC’s effectiveness was recently documented in a study by Renee Devlin (Devlin, 2008). Ann-Marie DiBiase, Gibbs, and Potter innovated a prevention version of EQUIP for behaviorally at-risk middle school children, a version called EQUIP for Educators (DiBiase, Gibbs and Potter, 2005).
EQUIP is a multi-purpose program. To be effective among concentrated groups of seriously violent offenders, however, EQUIP perspective-taking may need to be supplemented. EQUIP can be strengthened through integration with programs emphasizing even more intensive and extensive modes of social perspective taking. Quite compatible with EQUIP, for example, are 12-step and victim awareness programs. These programs aim to induce perspective taking and empathy for victims through video or film presentations, newspaper or magazine articles, guest speakers (especially recovering victims or family survivors of murder victims), role-plays, personal journals, homework, and reminder posters.
One technique used with violent offenders has a youth reenact his crime, first as perpetrator and then as the victim. Talk about social perspective-taking! The Texas Youth Commission Capital and Serious Offender Group program (Alvarez-Saunders and Reyes, 1994) is designed “to break a participant’s psychological defenses to force him to see his victim’s suffering, to help him discover his conscience and feel remorse” (Woodbury, 1993, p. 58). The program has accomplished substantial recidivism reductions (Texas Youth Commission, 2007.); basing the program in EQUIP might make it even more effective.
Vicki Agee and Bruce McWilliams (1984) used vivid crime reenactment role-play to achieve therapeutic breakthroughs with violent juvenile offenders in the context of a mutual help program. Following one such role play of a horrific crime, an adolescent sex offender named Larry faced a stunned group and group leader and found himself “stunned by the enormity of what he had done.” At court months later, instead of displaying his previous unrepentant and even cocky demeanor, Larry seemed genuinely contrite. Although Larry continued to need therapy, a perspective-taking breakthrough was evident.
Whether their histories are more or less severe, youths who present anti-social behavior need PPC-like and cognitive behavioral programs for social perspective-taking. Such opportunities and practice in a group “at least one that is serious about change and equipped with the skills and maturity to accomplish it “can induce responsible thought and behavior among its members. With opportunities, encouragement, and practice in EQUIP and like programs, erstwhile antisocial youths like Mac spontaneously see “really see “the other person.
Agee, V. L.and McWilliams, B. (1984). The role of group therapy and the therapeutic community in treating the violent juvenile offender. In R. Mathais (Ed.), Violent juvenile offenders (pp. 283-296). San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Alvarez-Sanders, C.and Reyes, L. S. (1994). Capital offender group program. Giddings, TX: Giddings State Home and School of the Texas Youth Commission.
Barriga, A. Q., Gibbs, J. C., Potter, G. B., Konopisos, M.and Barriga, K. T. (2007). The how I think about drugs and alcohol (HIT-D & A) questionnaire. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Beck, A. T. (1999). Prisoners o f hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. New York: Harper Collins.
Devlin, R. (2008). Responsible Adult Culture (RAC): Cognitive and behavioral changes at a community-based correctional facility. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus.
DiBiase, A. M., Gibbs, J. C. and Potter, G. B. (2005). EQUIP for educators: Teaching youth (grades 5-8) to think and act responsibly. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Gibbs, J. C. (in press). Moral development and reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Gibbs, J. C., Basinger, K. S., Grime, R. L. and Snarey, J. R. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review, 27. pp. 443-500.
Gibbs, J. C., Potter, G. B. and Barriga, A. Q. (2001). The how I think questionnaire. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Gibbs, J. C., Potter, G. B., DiBiase, A.M. and Devlin, R. (in press). The EQUIP program: Social perspective-taking for responsible thought and behavior. In B. Glick (Ed.), Cognitive behavioral interventions for at-risk youth (2nd ed.). Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.
Gibbs, J. C., Potter, G. B. and Goldstein, A. P. (1995). The EQUIP program: Teaching youth to think and act responsibly through a peer-helping approach. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Horn, M., Shively, R. and Gibbs, J. C. (2007). EQUIPPED for life (3rd Ed.). Westport, CT: Franklin Learning Systems.
Potter, G. B., Gibbs, J. C., and Goldstein, A. P. (2001). EQUIP program implementation guide. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Texas Youth Commission. (2007). Capital and Serious Violent Offender Treatment Program. Austin, TX: Texas Youth Commission.
Vorrath, H. H. and Brendtro, L.K. (1985). Positive Peer Culture (2nd ed.). New York: Aldine.
Woodbury, R. (1993, October 11). Taming the killers. Time. pp. 58-59.
This feature: Gibbs, J. C.; Potter, G.B., DiBiase, A. and Devlin, R. (2008). The EQUIP program: Helping youth to see – really see – the other person. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17, 2. pp. 35-38.