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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Verbal management of contagious behavior

Gary Adams

Extract from an article in which the author illustrates the different approaches indicated for different groups. He deals with calm groups and play groups, and then, after this extract, with out-of-control groups.

Tense Groups
A tense group is characterized by a series of simmering minor problems among group members. In general, they are semi-resistant to fulfilling unit responsibilities and/or cooperating in group activities. Limit testing (complaints and derogatory remarks) and formation of negative sub-groups (two or more members of the main group who band together for a counterproductive purpose) may be occurring. In these situations, experienced workers can usually sense or feel the tension as it begins to develop.

Following is an example of a fairly common tense group situation. Steve, a member of a potentially negative sub-group, enters the living unit requesting to see his worker. The worker, however, is busy trying to calm another youth. Steve, refusing to speak with another worker, agrees to wait, but he is obviously in a defensive mood.

The worker is detained by the other youth until dinner begins at 5:20. At supper, Steve sits with Ronnie, Bill and Greg, members of this sub-group. Steve and Bill, who is also having a difficult day, begin to complain about the worker. Soon Ronnie and Greg add to the unpleasant interchange. By the time everyone returns to the living unit, Steve’s anger towards the worker has completely clouded over the original problem. When the worker seeks Steve out, he refuses to talk and instead decides to continue to complain and incite his peers.

Meanwhile, Greg begins to involve additional group members by spreading the word about the worker’s unfairness to Steve. Soon the entire group is tense and problem bound, all because the worker did not have time to deal with Steve’s original problem.

Understandably, workers can’t always do everything at once. However, steps can be taken to stop situations such as this from reaching the point where tension is needlessly spread throughout the group. The natural solution, of course, is prevention. That is, workers can be aware of how each youth deals with delayed gratification and use strategies to help. For example, the worker might have taken a moment to at least acknowledge that he was aware of Steve’s desire to speak with him and that he would try to meet with him as soon as possible. When prevention fails, the following techniques may be helpful.

Individual Rapport. Once a tense group has developed, individual rapport can be used with as many members as possible. Rubbing one youth’s head, commenting on another’s special hobby, and just listening to another are only a few examples of what might be done. The objective, once again, is to use individual rapport as soon and as often as possible.

Small Group Discussion. Small group discussion with the negative sub-group can also curb escalation of the tense group. Once the sub-group is identified, the worker may attempt to discuss the problem with the group in a quiet, removed area. Again, as in problem solving, the worker helps the group find alternative outlets. For example, several youths who are concerned over one youth’s stolen jacket might be presented with the option of settling down so that the worker can investigate and perhaps conduct a discussion with all the group members. The objective is to calm the sub-group enough to allow for more productive alternatives to be explored and implemented.

Belligerent Groups
In a belligerent group, non-compliance is commonplace. In this context, the belligerent group, in contrast to the tense group, is potentially more volatile and behavior is more blatant. In other words, the group members are, in general, refusing to cooperate (i.e., refusing to do their jobs, clean their rooms, shower, or attend activities).

Large group discussion is the main strategy for de-escalating the belligerent group. Strategies described previously are usually inadequate, because the contagion has reached the point where outer order must be restored before the worker can proceed with inner controls.

The first goal is to get the group in a contained area, and not necessarily be concerned with minor disturbances such as swearing. Presentation of related consequences (presentation of reality) may take place as the group leader calmly attempts to assemble the group. For example, the group maybe reminded that the dance planned for that evening will have to be cancelled if everyone can’t work harder at cooperating.

Getting the group together is not an easy task, but it is more manageable if extra help is available, and if the workers insist that other issues will not be dealt with until everyone is standing or sitting, in reasonable order, in the designated area. Once the group is together in a relatively contained, out-of-the-way area, the worker(s) must be extremely sensitive to the tolerance levels of various group members and be able to anticipate further outbursts. This is not an easy task, but workers do get better with experience.

When the group is reasonably settled, the worker(s) can proceed with a discussion of the problem as he or she sees it and encourage the group to work together toward mediating the situation. If the group can’t participate in discussion, then the worker must at least set some parameters for further interactions. The objective is to restore outer order and try to get members to begin to cooperate rather than resist the worker’s authority. This process is, of course, enhanced if the children are reminded of the benefits that can be achieved through cooperation.

The group should be dispersed as soon as possible. Lengthy discussions are not appropriate for belligerent groups; quick reminders and limit setting are.

Adams, G. (1985) Verbal management of contagious behavior. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, Vol.1 No.2, pp.57-61

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