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The Sage Hill program for competency promotion

Rod Durkin, Michael Forster and Thomas Linton

Sage Hill is theoretically grounded in the idea of promoting competency in individual youth and family systems. Like most theoretical constructions, the concept of competency is complex. Here we remark briefly on three key dimensions of the phenomenon of human competency.

Intrinsic motivation
In several essays (1959; 1961; 1963), Robert W. White argued for the existence of an intrinsic biopsychological human motivation for competence. This competence, or "effectance," White conceptualized as effective interaction with the environment. The urge for competence is not reducible to the classical drives based on tissue needs. Drives are not affected by environmental feedback, but competency is; drives seek end-states of tension relief, while competency moves the organism to curious, explorative, and manipulative action in complex interaction with its environment.

There is a competency motivation as well as competence in its more familiar sense of achieved capacity. The behavior that leads to the building up of effective grasping, handling, and letting go of objects, to take one example, is not random behavior produced by general overflow of energy. It is directed, selective, and persistent, and it is continued not because it serves primary drives, which indeed it cannot serve until it is almost perfected, but because it satisfies an intrinsic need to deal with the environment. [White 1959: 318]

Others have made similar points regarding an essential human need for competence. Allport (1961), who discussed an urge for "self-related striving," said:

It would be wrong to say that a need for competence is the simple and sovereign motive of life. It does, however, come as close as any need (closer than sexual) to summing up the whole biologic story of development. We survive through competence, and we become self-actualized through competence.

The task of the helping person, then, is not to instill the desire for competence, but to find ways for clients to realize their intrinsic motivation for competence in personally satisfying, prosocial ways.

Extrinsic learning
Intrinsic motivation is not sufficient for the effective emergence of competence, however; of equal importance is the quality of the environment itself. The individual’s development of a specific range of competencies is the product of an ongoing interaction of person and environment. There are two noteworthy aspects of this interactive process: (1) experiential learning; and (2) social learning.

Organisms learn through a questing, explorative, manipulative engagement with the things (other organisms, objects, and processes) occupying the life-space in which they find themselves. Learning is thus a dialectical process of actively experiencing the world, and, through this process, of changing one’s self. "Dealing with the environment means carrying on a continuing transaction which gradually changes one’s relation to the environment" (White 1959: 322). Maximal learning will occur in environments rich in stimuli provided by persons, objects, and activities.

For human beings, the process of learning for competence has a large social or ecological component. A wide array of social factors, mediated by both individuals and institutions, heavily influence the outcome of the competency-building process: appraisal, comparison, reward and punishment interactions, social roles, and models at the micro level, as well as macro social structures insofar as they shape available forms of opportunity, power, and recognition. Bandura (1969) has discussed the major conditions for effective social learning or relearning: new behavior should not entail serious negative consequences; the benefits of new behavior should be immediately apparent to the learner; moral or value sanctions against the new behavior cannot be feared by the learner; authority figures must not oppose the acquisition of new learning; models of new behavior should be present consistently, as well as other regular means of reinforcement.

A general typology of competencies includes intrapsychic, interpersonal, and environmental competencies. Intrapsychic competencies include understanding our emotions and how they affect us (affective education), such as judging ourselves realistically, controlling our impulses, and making our needs known. Our interpersonal relations require us to be competent in perception, forbearance, flexibility, and appropriate assertiveness; that is, those skills necessary to get along with others. Regarding the environment, we need to be able, for example, to recognize dangers and opportunities, work productively, and use available resources to meet our needs effectively.

Yet competencies necessarily emerge in a developmental context. Especially when dealing with children, careful consideration must be given to the nature, pace, and sequencing of normal development along various competency dimensions – physical, cognitive, psychoemotional, social, linguistic. Developmental schema have something to offer to the understanding of competency development. The point here is only that all considerations of competency learning assume some sort of developmental context.

The primary assumption of a competency approach to child care is that troubled children have experienced poor and/or misdirected competency development. There is much they have not learned, and much, usually, that must be relearned. It appears likely that much of the socially inappropriate behaviors that earn for them labels such as "delinquent," "disturbed," and "troubled," are mischanneled efforts to achieve mastery of dysfunctional environments. The essential purpose of the competency-promoting milieu, therefore, is to replace vicious circles of defeat, failure, alienation, and negative behavior with health-producing circles of engagement with a stimulus- and opportunity-rich learning and success-oriented culture. Whereas a lack of socially acceptable competencies undermines the child’s self-esteem and acceptance by the community alike, the ability to do socially valued things well provides enhanced self-regard and increases the likelihood of acceptance by peers, parents, and others.


Allport, G. (1961). Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

White, R. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review 66: 297–333.

White, R. (1961). Competence and psychosexual stages of development. In M.R. Jones (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

White, R. (1963). Ego and Reality in Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: International Universities Press.

Durkin, R., Forster, M. and Linton, T.E. (1989). The Sage Hill program for competency promotion,
in Balcerzak, E. (Ed.) Group care of children: Transitions toward the year 2000. Washington DC: Child Welfare League of America. pp.298-301

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