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123 MAY 2009
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The importance of facility maintenance

John Stein

I see very little about facility maintenance in the literature. In fact I donít recall seeing anything. I hope this means that there are no problems with maintenance in facilities where child care professionals work with children.

But I fear that this is not the case. I have seen too many facilities over the years where maintenance was indeed an issue. There are so many priorities, so few resources. It seems the kids donít appreciate things anyway. They beat up on the equipment, donít put things away, donít use things for their intended purpose, slam things around and bust things up when they are angry. Itís a never ending battle.

To the contrary, from my experience, the kids take their cue from the adults. When programs stay on top of maintenance, the kids are much more likely to be respectful of property, using things the right way, putting things away when they are finished with them, not destroying things. Itís when facilities let maintenance get away from them that the children seem less respectful of property and equipment.

My first experience with maintenance came when I was a young worker doing community outreach in an urban renewal project. A reclusive old man complained about the kids constantly breaking windows in his garage. I went to look. The garage was located on an alley at the rear of his property. It had windows on both sides and in the garage door with the small panes of glass that are referred to as multi-lights. Many of these panes were indeed broken. The garage was badly in need of paint and other repairs. It looked uncared for, as if no one cared about it.

There were at least ten other garages in the alley, all in good repair. There was not one broken window among them. Clearly, the neighborhood kids were not indiscriminately roaming the neighborhood smashing out windows. Was it that they really had it in for this old man? Or was it that, since no one seemed to care, here was a place where kids could indulge the desire of every young boy, and perhaps a few young girls, to experience what happens when they throw a stone at a window? These were not bad, malicious children. These were normal kids. It had become acceptable, a norm, for kids to smash windows in this garage.

The lesson: When you let property fall into disrepair, when it looks as if you do not care, do not expect others to care. You show that you care by fixing things promptly, not by yelling at or punishing the children.

Another experience with maintenance came a few years later when I accepted a position managing a program of three units for 40 adolescent boys in a large institution. The program was located on the second floor of a building that housed another program on the first floor. My program seemed fairly typical to me at the time. Staff were fairly competent. Turnover was minimal. Things were fairly well-ordered and calm. Nevertheless, there were the usual few incidents of one type or another every week.

The rec room was used by all the boys, but staff had to unlock it. It contained two pool tables and a ping pong table. Staff would sometimes open it after the boys returned from school. But they were reluctant to do so. It seemed the boys just didnít appreciate it. They tended to get pretty rowdy. There were lots of problems with horseplay. One day, boys went out on the balcony that opened off the rec room and began tossing pool balls down into the yard below. It was unclear whether they were playing catch or dodge ball with the boys who were in the yard. The staff retrieved the balls and locked the rec room.

The problem was that the rec room was in disrepair. The cloth covering the pool tables was threadbare, torn, and tattered. None of the pool sticks had tips ďjust the bare wooden ends. These ends dropped splinters every time they struck the cue ball. There were splinters all over the tables, stuck in the felt covering. Two of the bumpers had fallen off, so balls did not rebound. A few balls were missing. Some of the pockets were broken so that balls fell onto the floor and rolled under the table whenever someone made a shot. Meanwhile, the ping pong table was collapsing, lower on one end than the other. The net was torn, the paddles no longer had their rubber coverings, they were just bare wood. And the two ping pong balls no longer bounced. How did that happen? How old were they?

The equipment didnít just look unattractive, it was unusable. And it didnít come from abuse by the children ďit was worn out from normal wear and tear and years of neglect.

What does it say about what people thought of the children to give them equipment like that? Not even worth a new ping pong ball?

I was able to get the funds to purchase new ping pong paddles, a net and a supply of balls, to get the pool tables repaired and recovered, and to buy new pool sticks, enough so that I could keep several in my office to immediately replace any that lost their tips (they do fall off in normal use). The maintenance department repaired the ping pong table. When we reopened the rec room, the kids played pool and ping pong. When pool sticks lost their tips, we replaced them immediately and repaired them promptly (it isnít difficult or expensive) so they were ready to replace other sticks that lost their tips.

Suddenly, the kids seemed to appreciate the rec room. They respected the equipment and used it appropriately. Staff had minimal problems with horseplay and other inappropriate behavior. It seems that, with proper equipment, pool and ping pong are much more fun than catch and dodge ball.

The lesson: When intelligent and resourceful children are in a rec room and the equipment is such that they cannot play pool or ping pong, they are going to find something else to do (Sword fights with the pool sticks? Catch or dodge ball with the balls? Bowling perhaps? And with a ping pong table and paddles??) If you want kids to use equipment for the intended purpose, you have to be sure that the equipment is up to that purpose.

Yet another experience came a few years later when I worked for a large psychiatric facility. It served several hundred patients on fifteen units for children, adolescents, and adults. It had a large maintenance department, including an electronics department. I worked in one of the adolescent programs with three units for adolescents with severe behavior disorders and developmental disabilities.

There was a history of patients on all units smashing the television when they became angry. The electronics department strapped the TVís to the tables on which they sat, and bolted the tables to the wall. Nevertheless, patients were on occasion still able to pull a TV loose from itís moorings and smash it to the floor. A sister program at another hospital was proud of how they solved the problem. They built a plexiglass cage for the TV so that patients could not reach it; it could only be operated by the remote control.

One Monday morning, I learned that a girl on the female unit had become angry and dashed the TV to the floor. The staff called the electronics department to remove the broken TV. The electronics department kept TVís in inventory for just such emergencies. After all, it wasnít fair that other patients be deprived of television just because someone destroyed the television in a fit of psychotic rage. So the electronics department brought over and installed the new TV when they picked up the smashed set.

In effect, there were few consequences for smashing television sets. Sure, the person who smashed the TV got put in restraints and received a serious restriction. But what angry people ever care about punishment when they are in a rage? There were no consequences for the other patients, except they got a better show than was often on TV and a new TV in the bargain. No wonder they seemed to think that smashing televisions was pretty cool.

In the real world, few homes can immediately replace a broken TV. At best, even when a television breaks on its own, it takes a few of days to get it repaired or to shop for a new one,

I explained to the girls that the TV that they had just gotten was one that was reserved for the boysĒ unit. There was some truth in this. The boysĒ TV had lost itís color and only showed black and white. It wasnít fair that the girls should have their new TV when someone had smashed one that was perfectly fine while the boys had to continue watching black and white through no fault of their own, so I was going to have the TV moved over to the boysĒ unit. The girls couldnít argue the point. Like most adolescents, they believed in fairness. The electronics department moved the TV that afternoon.

For the next few days, the girls did not have television, only the empty table where it once stood. Iím not sure who was more upset ďthe girls or the staff.

On Thursday, the girl who smashed the TV came to my office to plead for a new TV. (Staff had been there the day before.) She argued that it wasnít fair for the other girls to have to suffer without TV because of her actions. I had to agree. That, of course, was what I was looking for, for her to accept some level of responsibility for the consequences of her behavior. We got their new television installed in time for the weekend. We never had another problem with smashed TVĖs, even on the other two units. We simply needed for the girls to realize that they appreciated their television, to understand that TV sets are not disposable supplies, and to stop condoning or even encouraging such behavior from their peers.

Smashing televisions was no longer cool, no longer acceptable, no longer the norm for expressing rage. It had become unacceptable to both residents and to staff.

The lesson: Angry children usually do not care about punishment. In fact, sometimes they seem almost to invite punishment. But that does not mean that they are not cognizant of other consequences of their behavior. Natural consequences, such as everyone doing without TV for a time, can be much more powerful than punishment.

One last lesson. In another program, with 5 cabins on a large wooded property, we were having a problem with supplies. The kids took the batteries out of the smoke detectors to use in their toys and radios. (It was so long ago, there were no other electronic devices at the time. Imagine.) Bath towels disappeared. Soap and dish detergent and toilet paper and paper towels were being consumed at an amazing rate. They shot off the fire extinguishers for fun. They took their bed sheets into the woods to make tents. When we recovered the sheets, they were not fit to be used as bedding. We could not allow the children to experience life without these things. Most were necessities for reasons of safety and hygiene. We had to replace them.

Each week on a Thursday, the staff from each cabin would complete an inventory and take it to the supply room to replenish their supplies. (Fire extinguishers and smoke detector batteries were replaced promptly.)

We tried everything, from talking to the kids to grounding cabins who had been excessively wasteful. Nothing helped.

Meanwhile, each cabin also got $20 per week for activities.

We asked the bookkeeper to give us an estimate of what we were spending for supplies each month. It came to more than $100 per cabin, or about $25 a week. (As I said, it was a long time ago. Money bought a lot more then than it does now.) The supply expenses and the activity budget together came to almost $50 per week.

We asked the administration to allow us to give each cabin $40 per week for supplies and activities together. Since this was a little less than we were already spending, administration approved our request. Then we asked the bookkeeper to put prices on each supply item on the inventory list. We rounded off the numbers to make the math easier. Then, on Thursdays, the staff and the kids completed the inventory list together and calculated the cost. Whatever was left from the $40 budget for the week after all the supplies were replenished the cabin could use for activities. Within two weeks, the consumption of supplies went way down, averaging about $7 per week. The kids had more for activities, over $30 instead of $20. The agency saved almost $10 a week per cabin, over $2,000 for the year. The kids learned a lesson about budgets and responsibility. And we didnít have to resort to unsuccessful attempts at ďdiscipline.Ē

The lesson: Once again, natural consequences are the best teachers. Sometimes, children learn best when they share in the real consequences of their behavior. The kids did not see having to pay for their supplies as punitive, since they actually had the opportunity to come out ahead in the deal were able to take advantage of it.

In a facility that houses six or more children or adolescents, we can and should expect more wear and tear on the facility and its furnishings and equipment than we would in the average home. We should be prepared to deal with this wear and tear by providing prompt maintenance, not by lecturing or punishing the children or criticizing the staff for not doing a better job of preventing damage.

Few homes have so many active children all at the same age. And in normal homes, children are likely to spend more time away from the home than do children in residential settings who seldom have the opportunity to visit in the community. When we do not keep current with maintenance, we can expect wear and tear and eventually damages to accelerate to the point where the challenges of bringing things back up to snuff are most daunting.

Providing a well-maintained facility says something both about how (and how much) we care for the children and about how (and how much) we care for the staff. Children are likely to behave better when their facility and their recreational equipment are in good repair, using things appropriately, thus making things easier for staff and allowing them to concentrate on other things, such as treating troubled children (and writing good reports?).

On the other hand, when children damage things deliberately, or deliberately misuse things such as supplies, and they sometimes do, rather than protecting them from the consequences of such behavior and then devising ďappropriateĒ punishments, we should allow them to experience those consequences and provide them with reasonable opportunities to accept some level of responsibility and reap the benefits when they do.

Good maintenance is not a secondary priority, it is a necessity.

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