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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Working with groups in residential settings

Richard Biolsi and Paul Gitelson

It is important for child care workers to recognize the possibility of a delinquent system developing and to develop strategies for working with it. If they focus only on the individual they disregard the peer social system as both a powerful reality in the lives of these individuals and an effective tool for treatment.

Two typical responses to the peer subculture by adults are as follows:

1. The Storm Trooper Approach: The adult develops an extremely rigid structure which gives youngsters few significant choices and which uses power and intimidation to control behavior. Such an approach is often characterized by a very orderly living unit which is always neat and clean, and a very strong identification by the resident with the leader. In this situation, the staff views problems as trouble and they go to great lengths to deal with them rather than having the youngster deal with them. For instance, if there is stealing taking place, the staff will lock everything up and develop a more rigid structure rather than require the residents themselves to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the end result of the storm trooper approach is that often the youngsters will develop adaptive behavior on the surface while the deviant behavior goes underground. Sadly, we find a quick reversion to former anti-social behavior patterns once the youngster leaves the program.

2. The Surrender Approach: In an attempt to "buy" the cooperation of the residents, the staff provide little structure, have a few confrontations and give much freedom. As indicated in Howard Polsky's Cottage Six, the staff actually become a part of the delinquent subculture pecking order and in many ways, are controlled and intimidated by it. This approach is characterized by a living unit which is often messy and disorganized and which sustains considerable damage. A great deal of individual counselling takes place as staff attempt to indicate that there is work going on.

The authors advocate an alternative approach, called the "Work-Care Approach," which views problems as opportunities for work and which is characterized by:

clearcut behavioral and responsibility expectations from a strong staff; the conscious development of a culture of concern and responsibility for one another. This is where the "work" comes in and although the description of its implementation is beyond the scope of this summary, it is reflected when there is a change in staff approach from, "It's none of your business why he ran away," to "What did any of you do to help him stay here?" Tthe development of opportunities within the environment in which the group can take control of and responsibility for their lives.

Some of the tasks and techniques of the work-care approach include:

deciding which behavioral expectations are necessary and which are arbitrary; examining and recognizing the peer culture, both in terms of its negative elements and as a catalyst for change; staff posturing, which is a general heading for an approach which includes modelling (behavior, concern, reliability, strength, positive values, etc.), avoiding lecturing, active listening, avoiding defensiveness, etc; a push for "work" by the residents, which means not smoothing over or taking responsibility for solving problems, but helping the youngster to struggle through to a reasonable solution; maintaining an awareness for and a willingness to intervene in situations which affect members of the social system (moodiness and depression around the holidays, acting out behavior at termination time, sexual acting out behavior on the part of one or more members of the group, new staff members, etc.). Providing opportunities for the group members to identify themselves as a positive force.

Biolsi, R., & Gitelson, P. (1989), Working with groups in residential settings. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4(3) pp.18-19

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