CYC-Online 128 OCTOBER 2009
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Jack Phelan

Why do Child and Youth Care practitioners find punishment to be so useful? Fritz Redl eloquently described the limitations and difficulties of using punishment effectively to influence behavior, which left almost no room for Child and Youth Care practitioners to justify its use except as a last resort.

Relational practice, our mantra for many years now, relies on safe positive connections between youth and adults. Yet punishment creates suspicion, resentment and avoidance, so why do we still rely on it so heavily? We have relabeled punishment as consequences, even claiming that punishment is mostly logical to our youth, but this is a poor disguise and barely gets past the smell test. Effective, developmentally focused practitioners understand the need to eliminate punishment as a strategy once safe boundaries and predictability have been established with a youth, yet programs continue to allow and encourage punishment approaches in everyday interactions.

So what is going on here? Behaviorists will clearly state that no behavior will persist unless it is reinforced regularly, so who or what is reinforcing the persistent use of punishment as a strategy to work with our youth? Suspicious, poorly attached youth (100% of our population), believe that the Child and Youth Care staff generally enjoy punishing them, which makes it hard for them to see another logic or rationale other than when you can victimize a weaker person, you should. This is hardly the message we want to impart, but there it is.

I believe that Child and Youth Care staff are being reinforced to use punishment, but not in an obvious way. The results of punishing youth are usually not reinforcing, in that punishment rarely creates useful learning or permanent change. The negative energy generated by punishment is tedious, yet Child and Youth Care staff persist in following through with punishments even when the results are minimal. So where is the reinforcement and what is being rewarded here?

Punishment reinforces staff by relieving anxiety.

I would like to see this statement placed on the bulletin board at Child and Youth Care agencies. Child and Youth Care supervisors both create anxiety and encourage its relief through the use of punishment. Child and Youth Care team members support both the build-up of anxiety and the use of punishment as an effective analgesic. The best way to reduce the reinforcing effects of punishment is to increase the confidence and competence of Child and Youth Care staff and Child and Youth Care teams.

Statements from supervisors like, “What did you do about that (behavior)?” directed at an uncertain or tentative Child and Youth Care staff member create anxiety which is quickly relieved by implementing a punishment response. The fact that punishment is not useful for the youth is irrelevant, because it is very useful for the Child and Youth Care staff member. Team members who struggle with questions like “what can we do with this troubling behavior” are soothed by the use of a punishment approach, even when it is clearly not indicated developmentally.

More about this next month.

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