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Since it's founding in 1997, the CYC-Net discussion group has been asked thousands of questions. These questions often generate many replies from people in all spheres of the Child and Youth Care profession and contain personal experiences, viewpoints, as well as recommended resources.

Below are some of the threads of discussions on varying Child and Youth Care related topics.

Questions and Responses have been reproduced verbatim.

ListenListen to this

Use of the word "non-compliant?"


My name is Allyssa McLeod and I'm entering my second year of Child and Youth Care studies at NSCC.

During my first year of study I completed two placements both of which were in a residential setting. During my first placement I used the term non-compliant to describe a youth's behavior (not listening). I was told that I shouldn't use that word to describe a youths' behavior.

On my second placement the residential facility used the word non-compliant to describe youth's behavior through their logs.

Is it acceptable to use the word non -compliant when describing youth's behavior?

Thank you,

Allyssa McLeod


I guess it’s about context to some extent Merriam-Webster defines compliant as “willing to do whatever you are asked or ordered to do” which has a submissive quality to it and may have a nuanced meaning that the client has given up their self-determination.

Within a community setting this may be seen as burdensome in that the youth might be seen as cowed or even beaten down by the system of supervision or monitoring.

Within a residential setting there are, I would imagine, a set of rules that the youth would be required to adhere to and these rules might be explicit and thus contextually it might be wholly appropriate to describe the youth as not compliant as measured against these “rules”.

Personally looking back at reports I have generated in both a community and a residential setting I would tend to phrase it differently for both. In a community setting and using your example I would use a form of word like "unable or unwilling to listen and follow advice and support” or an “inability to follow through on agreed actions”.

Within a residential setting I would be more inclined to say what had they specifically done or not done rather than a generic non-compliant.

Finally, and I apologise for my long response, as I was often told by my tutors “tell the story”. As humans we are hard wired to follow stories verbal or written so tell the story of the activities, describe them, contextualise them, analyse them in terms of where does that leave us , what do we do now , and if there are various options explore each.

Bryan Ritchie

Hello Allyssa,

As a start, you may want to have a look at this piece of classic Child and Youth Care writing – /cycol-0801-fox.html



Personally I would avoid using this term unless I explained what it meant – not listening is a much more accurate description. Having said that it is a term I have come across in logs within my own residential experience but in terms of yp logs we need to hold in mind that young people reading these wouldn't necessary understand the meaning of this phrase and it could be misinterpreted by the reader.


Hi Allyssa,

I think the term “non-compliant” implies a power imbalance in the relationship. You comply with instructions. If the kind of relationship you want to have with a young person does not involve giving instructions, then compliance really should not be part of defining the relationship. Compliance or non-compliance is not a characteristic of a young person, it is a characteristic of a relationship which is a two-party process. A person cannot BE non-compliant. Non-compliance can only exist in a relationship where there is a power imbalance and one party is taking a dominant role and requires submission from the other party. Non-compliance is also commonly called “resistance”.

I like the definition I learned from a NLP training – it was said “Resistance is a sign of a lack of rapport”. That is a useful definition for me, because it places me (as the practitioner) in a position where I can change it. If resistance or non-compliance is a characteristic of a person, I really have no control, because I do not control what other people do. But if I see it as a sign of a lack of rapport, in other words a reflection of the relationship instead of the person, I CAN do something about it, because I can change the way I am interacting. Then I can reflect on what I am doing and how I am doing it…. How am I communicating? What am I doing or saying that is implying power in the relationship? Then I can change that.

There are many other reasons why non-compliance is not a good way to think of children, but this is a practical consideration for me that works because it is functional.

So thinking of a child as non-compliant is not useful, because you are literally powerless to do anything about that. But thinking of it as reflection of the relationship and level of connection gives you the power to change it, because when you change how you interact, you change the relationship and you give the other person more choice.

It does not matter to me whether this is “true” or not, simply that it is a useful way to think about it because it works.

Hope this is helpful.

Kind regards, Werner
South Africa


My suggestion is your first step is to read Lorraine Fox and "The Catastrophe of Compliance"‎: /cycol-0801-fox.html

Andy Leggett

Depends on the context I guess. In everyday logs maybe the word is harsh to describe not listening. What was their use of it? For example , in a document you might see : Following scheduled programming as directed: non compliant.This may be different from a daily log saying ," resident was noncompliant when staff asked them to eat slowly."


As an editor of a number of Child and Youth Care texts (by Michael Burns, you probably have them in your course) and having had some 40+ years in the field, the short answer is yes – non-compliant is an acceptable word to describe a youth's behaviour, but ... much less acceptable to describe the youth him/herself.

However ... beyond that, things get fairly complicated.

First, there is the question of acceptable to whom. Some agencies use it a lot, others, as you've seen, don't use it, or don't like it used.

Some CYCs/agencies don't like it because it doesn't really describe the behaviour, what the youth actually did in response to what request. It becomes jargon or a catch-all term for all kinds of behaviour. And daily logs are notorious for agency jargon. So, my first bit of advice would be to use the language the agency uses, at least until you've established yourself in the agency.

In some cases, agencies don't like it because it gets too close to the truth of the agency – that it is primarily concerned with compliance. They prefer something that "sounds better."

My main problem with it is that the context of the non-compliance is often left out – what the non-compliance was in reaction to. To take an extreme example, not complying with a request to finish a meal when the youth is feeling sick would be better described as intelligent rather than non-compliant.

I once worked with a 10-year-old who was non-compliant when ordered loudly to get to the table for supper. When he was simply told that it was supper time, and just left, with the assumption he would comply, he did. Here, I would say his non-compliance was a measure of his self-esteem – he expected to be treated with respect.

And this is the main problem with the word non-compliance – it often hides characteristics of the youth, usually positives ones, or misdirects people's impressions of the youth, usually in a negative direction.

So my second piece of advice to you as a professional Child and Youth Care in training would be – use the term if you really have to (be "compliant"), but always think about the context. You'll learn a lot about yourself, the youth, and the agency.

Dennis McDermott

It's a word we try to move away from where I am from. Compliance is something that can be a very bad thing in children, many of them are probably in care or treatment because of something an adult did and they could not say no too. Dr Lorraine Fox did an article called ‘The Catastrophe of Compliance’ . It's a great read on the subject, really hits all the points, her work in CYCW really changed how I viewed the profession. /cycol-0801-fox.html

When youth are " non-compliant" it can be hard, but it's probably a sign that they feel safe enough to say NO. Or sometimes they do it because of pain-based behaviours from the past they have.

Either way it's something we need to change our glasses, so we can look at it a different more therapeutic way.


Gordon Hawkins

Hi Alyssa, I’m Stephen, I have worked in the residential field going on 17 years now and I offer my two cents worth on the “non-compliant” issue, there are a few factors to consider when using that term to describe behaviour. One when I hear the word ‘non-compliant’, I think of someone being purposely difficult, like someone in jail … not a mindset we should have.

When a youth is not listening we have to ask ourselves why? Did they understand what was asked from them? Do they know how to follow through on what was asked from them ? Or are they choosing to say NO (they have that right). However, all too often the follow through on request is often based on how we ask; it’s not uncommon to have to ask twice, or to meet with resistance at first request. Take ODD behaviour for example, they have to say no before they can say yes.

Remember we are there to facilitate, not to tell them what to do, and before one can give direction, one must earn their trust and build rapport.


Great wondering – and great noticing.

Using the word 'non-compliant' to describe a youth or their behavior is simply a way to blame the youth and absolve the worker of any responsibility for things not working – for me, it is right up there with the use of the word resistant.


Hi Allyssa,

I believe that there is much power in words. I also believe that the use of this term in different agencies perhaps depends on the agency/workplace and the climate that has been set within. What perspective is the agency working from as a whole?

From a strength based perspective it can be argued that the term "non-compliant" is a negative and deficit based term. It as if as though the term itself is rooted in a dichotomy of good and bad, with no grey area. It assumes that compliance to an authority that maintains power is the 'good' and (perhaps most importantly) it also assumes that compliance can actually be measured objectively. (For example: 'Sally was non-compliant' VS 'Upon request to go to her room Sally pushed over the table and left the building’). I believe that labeling the youth as non-compliant completely shuts the door to the observation and curiosity that it takes to uncover the meaning and purpose behind their behaviour.

In unpacking the term, it is interesting to reflect that being 'non-compliant' in many historical settings meant being strong, resilient and spirited and standing up to oppressive authorities.

Many thanks,

It is possible to see the term as neutral, or non-judgmental, but just a fact. We ask someone to do something and they don’t it. That’s non-compliance. However, as others have pointed out, depending on what is being asked it can be seen as “negative” or “positive”. The real task with youth is to help them learn to anticipate the outcomes they can expect from their lack of compliance with a request. This is what maturity is – the ability to predict outcomes from our behavior and then make an informed decision about what we want to do. If staff are “non-compliant” too often they will lose their jobs. On the other hand, if staff are asked to do something that they cannot do in good conscience it becomes a matter of ethics.

Compliance with demands or requests is a very complicated matter and young people need our help figuring out how they will make their decisions. Youth who have been mistreated have even more difficulty since often they “complied” with demands from adults (keeping secrets, covering things up, being victims of abuse) they experienced much pain and thus often feel safer just not cooperating with adult demands. That’s why we call it child care “work” I guess. We have to work on ourselves to understand why kids don’t cooperate – simple reasons like immaturity or contrary personalities, or complicated reasons like past pain from compliance with people who hurt them. In any facility, it’s a good discussion to have, and one that will be had continuously.

Lorraine Fox

Good morning Allyssa,

In your first paragraph you state; "used the term non-compliant to describe a youth's behavior (not listening)". Though your question appears to be referring to the usage in terms of what is politically correct and the acceptable status quo, and not whether one is to actually comply or not; I make the following comments as support for my opinion of your word usage.

I would first say, one does not "comply" with listening – one attempts to listen using their skills to be attentive and to interpret. Listening is a skill as we all know, but people need to be taught this skill, just a side note. I wonder if the youth is non-compliant or if the problem really lies in the communicating? Complying to the "norm" and what is acceptable? I personally would rather be described as someone who has had difficulty in comprehending, limited attention span, or refused to participate, or perhaps someone whose thinking lies outside the box--thus NOT coming to the same conclusion/reaction-action as the "norm".

Labels – which is what the word non-compliant is, be assured of that – should be thought through very carefully, keeping in mind, your reports are added to mounds of other reports on the youth. As time goes by, all these ‘non-compliant’ comments deem the child/youth so negatively, when in reality, the problem lies elsewhere. Injustice once again served all at the expense of the child. Questions, in today's society that has the attention span of a gnat – little humor here now :) – who is actually listening and for how long? Is there something blocking the listening or thinking cap? anger, pain, boredom, another re-hash? Was there an expected outcome due to this listening? Was this listening project another attempt at dishonest manipulation of child to get the required outcome? Having no case file to interpret on my end leaves me with unanswered questions. Perhaps your other job would prefer a deeper thinking on your part vs an overused label, and an attempt at explaining further what is actually going on. The word is inconclusive. Just a thought.

Secondly, the word non-compliant has been met with negative connotations over decades and is simply over-used. The reader cannot help but to react to this "word" and immediately form a prejudice. Should I read a report that consisted of word usage of "non-compliant", I would be asking all those sorts of questions mentioned-above. I believe there are much better words to describe your activities or sessions with the child, as well as digging a little deeper into the issues on "non-compliance" and listening. Is the child NOT giving you the response that you are requesting? Is it really THAT important, or is this a power struggle between youth and authority? I personally do not like words like conform, comply, delinquent, dysfunctional, incorrigible and I also don't think anyone is serving the youth by attaching such labels that really do not DESCRIBE in depth what is really go on. Of course, I have not read your report. I digress.

I hope this helps some and best of luck with all your encounters.

Love and peace,
Aliese Moran

Hi Allyssa,

In response to your question, I think there are different factors to be considered. 1) What is the culture of the program? If they have a practix and strength-based approach, then using non-compliance may not fit with this approach as it risks conveying judgement. Secondly, youth are so much more than their behaviours and all behaviours serve a purpose. Give thought to the context for the behaviours. Perhaps the program is encouraging staff to view youth behaviour from a clinical lens versus a behavioural lens. Ask yourself how you understand these behaviours; what need is being expressed through these behaviours. The program culture and theoretical framework from which they practice will determine the suitability for the use of non compliance. Hope this provides further thought to your question.


I have worked with kids for over 40 years and always tell them that I always comply with many circumstances.

I comply with driving rules, drive on the correct side of the road, do not drive too fast and stop when people want to cross the street.

I comply when my supervisor says I must work overtime, when I have other things to do.

When I go to a ballgame I comply with the stadium rules – same with a movie theater – when shopping I don't cut ahead but wait my turn in line and comply.

Life is full of opportunities whereby I must comply.

Even in a negative situation, for example if I were held up and asked to turn over my wallet, I would comply, not resist by being a hero and putting myself and others in danger.

I teach children that compliance is a personal choice and if I don't comply I may have to face a consequence I do not like. If I were asked to comply with something immoral, such as not paying taxes (which support many human services) or a country going to war, I may choose not to comply, but I may pay a price, and then I must decide if that price is worth the non-compliance.

I believe social compliance is Kohlberg's 4th level (highest level) of social maturity – I do it (comply) for the good of the world and not myself – and not for some type of material reward.

I teach kids for the most part – maybe 99% of the time that I try to be compliant and occasionally I may be non-compliant to change a social injustice, like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King did. When one complies with society's rules, life tends to be more rewarding. Compliance can be hard – non-compliance can be easy and self-defeating – it's a choice.

Gene Cavaliere
Rhode Island

Hello Alyssa,

I have a slightly different take on "non-compliant" but can definitely agree on its usage in documentation and negative connotation. My 1st point would be that youth (and adults) are always communicating through their behaviors. What do I mean? If you have a youth who is not listening to staff directions there are several factors that can come into play. One being that they may be in an environment where there is WAY too much stimuli. This will overload their senses and make it increasingly difficult to concentrate and "comply" with the rules or instruction. Being aware of sensory-neutral or soothing colors in the classroom or placement can help reduce this and allow improved focus for the kid. My 2nd point is that the culture of the workplace will dictate how the word is used. For example, placements that are structured more like RTC's tend to use this language, because overall the goal is for a kid to "work the program", which in itself implies you follow the rules, you succeed. In strength based environments, you are literally building on what a kid brings to the table and helping them master those skills, while providing support in those areas where they've developed maladaptive responses. It's youth centered, so taking into account what their idea of success is will lend to a dialogue that is much more in-tune with their particular needs and a better chance at them following your program traditions and expectations.

Aaron M.

I’m afraid I’ll have to take some issue with you Gene. Your statement that “life is more rewarding when you comply” may be generally true, but it is not generally true that children have been asked to “comply” with the things children in care have. Children in care have more often than not been caused great pain by “complying” with demands made on them by their families. I would use your examples in a classroom of well-treated children, but not in a residential treatment Center.


Lorraine, I see what you’re saying, but maybe I can convince you otherwise.

Youth living in residential should be experiencing great joy with their caregivers.

It has been my experience that the vast majority of youth usually do very well in treatment and return home and to their local school as close to grade level as possible. Older youth may find independent living, college or the military. For the most part, these kids that do well with their time in residential care, are mostly compliant with group living norms, cooperative, and deal with day to day events in productive ways. They do their daily routines, school time, homework and chores. They all do have their difficult moments, but with positive staff intervention they accept the reality of residential living, learn improved social skills, develop strong bonds with their caregivers and look for the more positive attributes of their living community. This includes fun time, board games, arts and crafts, outdoor recreation (soccer, basketball, softball, swim, etc.) to community events, mall trips, dances, concerts and more structured activities like learning to play guitar, rehearsing skits and/or putting on plays, and so on. Those that may have more talented staff may experience, camping, songs and stories by the campfire and more. Many former resident call or write letters to staff to let us know how their lives are going. Many have even returned to visit me, some with their new families, with spouse and children in tow. They are so proud of how their lives have turned out. They usually express their thanks and gratitude for the times as younger children when caring adults were open and accepting to their most troubling times. They have learned successful socially acceptable living behaviors and for the most part comply with society. They usually end their visit with vivid memories of the fun and happiness of residential, always pointing out that great staff person who helped turn their lives around.

Sadly, there are those few residents that do not do so well in group care, those needing the greatest amount of staff intervention and resources. Their times in community living are not as memorable with all the difficulty they experienced. Because of what happened to them or what they did, they did not or could not learn how to become compliant community members. They may spend much of their time non-compliant, trying to defeat the very system trying to help them. Some take great pleasure in sabotaging their recreational activity, upsetting other residents and even attempting to ruin a campfire experience. These youth need extra restrictive situations to prevent harm to other youth, staff or themselves. Many of these youth do make some positive progress, but not enough to improve the quality of life. After leaving residential I have run into them, such as at a shopping mall, hanging out by themselves, friendless and returning to their empty apartments. Others turn out homeless, have addiction problems or a criminal record. And worse, a very few have committed horrible crimes, including heinous murders and will spend a lifetime in jail. Others I personally knew have returned to their community and have been murdered themselves. Of course there are the few that miraculously overcome their tragic lives with resiliency and have great outcomes, as are there those youth that did seemly well but ending up in unpleasant life circumstances – but these are the exceptions. With my work with gang kids, I learned that they must be very compliant to the gang style norms and rituals. A non-compliant gang member will be in very serious trouble indeed with the gang hierarchy itself if they do not comply. Whatever society a youth finds him/herself in, he/she must comply or life may not be a smooth road.

When kids comply with demands from troubled families they are in survival mode – doing their best compliance, hoping to avoid the least complicated family reaction or even retaliation if severe abuse is going on. Those kids that resist and do not comply (again in survival mode) are usually called defiant problem children, trouble makers, etc. by their parents. Some may even run away or get kicked out of home. If they end up in residential they usually use their same self-defeating survival techniques with residential staff until a positive connection and understanding occurs of where they are, and usually then, cooperation and compliance sets in.

Gene Cavaliere

Hi all,

Wherever there are vulnerable people, there is someone willing to exploit them. Perhaps it's an occupational hazard, but I get a bit of a shiver down my spine at the thought of children 'having' to comply with adult direction. I deal with that by educating my kids to identify risk and I tell them that they never have to do anything sexual or exploitative just because someone says so. I tell them that if something feels wrong, it probably is, and they shouldn't do it.

That said, when I provide care to children I see my role as facilitating them to become functioning independent members of society. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that there are rules which we all must live by in order to achieve and maintain social stability. If we do not 'comply' with those rules, society will punish us. An ability to comply with direction (particularly when we don't agree with it) is a necessary prerequisite to being able to function in any modern society. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the kids in our care can take direction and be compliant.

Sometimes rules are unfair and unreasonable but that still does not give any individual the right to become abusive or destructive in their behavior. Many of the kids that I worked with over the years have grown up like wild animals (no disrespect intended). They have essentially raised themselves and have very little ability to cope with even the most reasonable of boundaries. When working with those kids I have no difficulty in focusing on the children's ability to be compliant with reasonable direction. Failing to do so would (in my view) be irresponsible because if we don't teach them to comply, society will, and the consequences will be far more severe. We have all worked in services where staff have abused their positions and been punitive in their expectations and demands on kids. While that is never OK, I see that as an opportunity for growth, and I teach kids how to respectfully challenge unfairness in a way that will not have negative consequences for them.

Go ahead and use the term. In my view, the issues that should be at the heart of the work are 'Can the children comply with reasonable direction and how do they express themselves when they are having difficulty with compliance?’

With kind regards

John Byrne


Hi Allyssa,

Great question and nice description of the practical problems of application. It gets at the heart of what happens to kids in all kinds of programs. To pick up on part of Thom and Lorraine's responses....

I cannot ever remember seeing "compliance" in the mission statement of a youth program. The reason for this is that they know it is wrong. And yet far too often it is the implicit curriculum.

A lot of literature and research in child/adolescent development, parenting/family studies, formal and informal education, and youth services says that compliance is nearly the worst outcome/goal for kids.

And then there is the ethical problem. It is simply wrong, aside from the consequences.

Kids who have been used and manipulated by adults have been taught compliance well, and for them it has been a catastrophe.

Youth who are in some pain have a only a small number of advantages, and one of them is that they often have some spirit, energy, and life. In my experience efforts to enforce compliance are pathologizing an energy that otherwise helps them survive and thrive.

In the early 20th century Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, used a nice example to try to get adults to be less authoritarian with kids: He said that to calm down a runaway horse you do not ride directly at it. Instead, you approach it from the rear and ride along side until it calms down. Don't know if it is true about horses, but the analogy holds.

With children and youth (and adults), it is not easy, which is why it is so rarely practiced. Baden-Powell failed to convince the people in his own organization.


Doug Magnuson

I’ve not read every last word of this thread so I may be repeating some of what has been said. The conversation seems to me in some of the points to be the usual adult take on ‘point the finger at the youth’. It is the youth that is ‘non-compliant’. Non-compliance is an adult construct. Non-compliance (whatever that actually is) is only one side of the equation – the other side is us – the adults – and our expectations of the kids. What is the child perspective word for the awkward behaviour (for isn’t that what non-compliance is?) by staff. For every youth or child that is judged as non-compliant we need ask, what is the ‘supposed non-compliant act in relation to? Non-compliance as a constructs tells me more about the person using the term than it does about the child. It does not help me understand the child one whit. So I would not ‘go ahead and use the term’. Here is the challenge – stop using the term altogether and replace it with a greater understanding of child in context. What would be lost by dropping the term? What might be gained?

Regards to all that contributed.

Johnnie Gibson
Galway and Donegal Ireland

Doug. I love the runaway horse analogy!

I don’t think any of us would argue that compliance is always bad, but for abused and neglected children and youth it is always complicated. “Getting along by going along” is a trite phrase that has everything to do with what a young person is being asked to comply with. I agree with John when he points out that there are always consequences for non-compliance and one of our tasks is to help our clients calculate them in advance of choosing a behavior, and, deciding whether the freedom to choose not to comply is worth the consequence they can anticipate. To me, riding alongside them would be not “punishing” them for non-compliance but being next to them as they contemplate their options and anticipate the outcomes of their decisions. Punishing is easier, and is not treatment.


Hello Allyssa and others,

This is a great discussion and one that warrants a lot of attention. I agree with many of the points made here and would like to point your attention to the words of Lorraine Fox here as she has done tremendous research in this area. You can find her work on cyc-net and I will post one here that changed my perspective on the issue of compliance a great deal, it is called 'The Catastrophe of Compliance':

This work is a must-read for anyone working with vulnerable children and youth, especially in care. I will use Lorainne's point from the article that has always stuck with me in practice:

"I fear that what we're calling "treatment" is more often nothing other than behavior management. Are we satisfied with quiet because it's easy on us, even though quiet is what most abused kids are while they're getting hurt and keeping family secrets. Are the across-the-board, uniform expectations and consequences in place for the benefit of staff, or for the good and healing 15 of the children?"

You see, when a child is 'not listening' to the rules there could be many things going on here- they may be testing and trying to establish trust- not an easy task for a child who has experienced trauma. Behaviour has a reason behind it and acting-out behaviour needs to be assessed properly, not squashed out through control and behaviour management techniques for the sake of following 'house rules'.

I will also take issue with Gene's point in this thread, specifically "Some take great pleasure in sabotaging their recreational activity, upsetting other residents and even attempting to ruin a campfire experience."

I will argue that the traumatized child who sabotages does not do it for pleasure- that is blaming the child and that is much too simple and inaccurate an explanation. There is a lot going on for children in care and face it, residential care is not an easy place to be. Gene paints a lovely picture of a happy, care-free experience in care but unfortunately, that has not been my experience. Even with the best youth workers in place, the are inherent flaws in the system that need to be addressed. But that is another issue.

I would also encourage you to read the work of Dr. Bruce Perry. Basically, he has proved that traumatized children 'act-out' because of how their brain has been wired due to the trauma they have experienced. It is actually quite a complicated matter- please read "The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog".

Therefore, your simple question as to should we use the phrase 'non-compliance' brings up a whole discussion on the behaviour of traumatized children. It is not a simple answer but after the discussion has been had it is simple- the phrase, in my opinion, should not be used. You need to look at the child's experiences and the demand being placed on her. Plus, it is not an objective term so it is ambiguous. When writing a log be sure to describe what demand was placed on the child and the child's direct, observable behaviour as a result (i.e. child ran to room, yelled "fuck you" and slammed the door). And always re-examine and reflect on your own approaches.

My two cents :)


I completely agree with Lorraine. I can also just add the following; For children coming from relationships where they have been harmed in some way, compliance within those relationships would mean complying with being harmed. This is old dilemma of attachment and what happens with attachment in abusive relationships where the very source of care and protection also becomes the source of harm. So especially in residential and alternative care programmes, “non-compliance” is a sign of resilience, a sign of not being willing to be abused anymore and therefore a self-protective mechanism. What children rather need help with is differentiating between harmful and helpful relationships, and harmful and helpful actions, and making good choices that can have good outcomes for them. I guess I am generalising a bit, but for the most part this is how I make sense of the compliance dilemma. Rather than compliance think of engagement. Rather than asking “why won’t this child comply?”, ask “how can I engage this child more effectively?”.

Werner van der Westhuizen

Great, thoughtful, discussions.


I can only fully agree with Werner as he gets to the heart of the matter. When children come from abusive family relationships, whether they comply or do not comply, they’re in a no-win situation and their developmental needs are never met. Many times, these kids find that their world doesn’t make sense. If they end up in residential, they must be also be taught what a positive family experience is, compared to the negative care giving they may have experienced. Once they understand that they are safe, with caring staff, they are taught day-to-day living skills, including socially acceptable behaviors. Thus they have a better understanding of what compliance is all about and hopefully the world makes more sense. For that to happen to its fullest potential, residential living must become the most joyful life event possible with a “falling in love” experience with one or more Child and Youth Care care-giver that is just completely “crazy” about that youth. Hopefully, the youth will make better life choices and behaviors, mature, resulting in more positive control over the world they live in that will help them overcome past difficulties and even abuse.

Trauma is age dependent and the impact of trauma is relative and different for each youth. Revenge can become a natural outcome for some traumatized youth. So even traumatized youth will learn to take delight for the misfortune they cause in others. Not all youth experiencing trauma are helpless (even if they experienced “learned helplessness”) – they still need to be held accountable for their life choices. And not all youth in residential may have been traumatized. I hate it when youth fake their own PTSD experience or attempt a pretended flashback behavior and staff fall for it “hook, line and sinker”. I find out about it in individual or group work – sometimes they even brag about it. When youth outwit staff, nobody wins.

Unfortunately I have seen firsthand, poor practices going on in residential, whereby staff are trying to force compliance from youth that fits the agency’s purpose or model. In my years of Positive Peer Culture group work with aggressive youth, when peer aggression develops, it begins to sustain energy and the kids do their mayhem that may have started out with anger, but ends up pleasurable. More horrifically, some residential facilities unknowingly prevent positive youth development with an extreme punitive type culture and there should be no excuse for that, if indeed that is happening. This only creates more youth trying to defeat the system with non-compliance. There are so many issues going on and so much teaching or re-education needed. Residential staff (along with their positive peers) can be great role models for kids to demonstrate and teach compliance with great outcomes. This truly is a great discussion.

Gene Cavaliere

Werner makes a great point here: " Rather than asking “why won’t this child comply?”, ask “how can I engage this child more effectively?”. This is a wonderful, simple reminder of how to use trauma-informed approaches vs.compliance. If you don'tmind Werner – I am going to make this a sign to put on my wall at work – (I will attach your name to the quote of course!).

Gene – I forgot to mention earlier that I really like the way you describe compliance in life to the youth you work with – that it is a personal choice and life gives many opportunities to exercise this choice. That seems a very empowering lesson for them. I also love your analogy of the 'falling in love' experience between care worker and youth – I believe not enough of us in the Child and Youth Care field talk about or practice love and it's positive impact on youth because we are so afraid of crossing professional boundaries. This is a wholeotherdiscussion, however.

All the same, I would still like to respectively disagree that youth 'fake' their PTSD experience in order to simply manipulate staff and get their own way. You may be right to some extent but it doesn't end there – if it did we would simply be blaming the child for misbehaving and not looking at the root cause of the behaviour. If a youth is in fact 'faking' PTSD symptoms in some way, then this is another form of asking for the much needed help and care they are craving. There is a saying in our field: 'the kids who need our love the most ask for it in the mostunlovingways'. I feel, as Werner points out, that we need to approach even this kind of manipulative behaviour with creative engagement, not complianceenforcement.


Hi Nancy,

Thanks for the wonderful compliment. I have to agree with you about the faking of PTSD symptoms. First of all it would be very hard to fake PTSD symptoms (you fake one or two, but the “whole picture” tells the real story), and secondly, if someone needs to fake symptoms of anything that is in itself an indication that they need help of some kind – so either way, the symptoms or fake symptoms are really the same thing: symptoms that something is wrong. Therefore one would never have to worry about symptoms being “fake”, because even fake symptoms are still symptoms of something. I prefer the word “signals” to “symptoms” (not my own “translation” but that of Ernest Rossi). If you refer to the behaviour as a signal rather than a symptom, it also changes the way we think about it and our role in responding. So fake symptoms are still signals of something being wrong, some need remaining unmet, etc. So even fake symptoms are creative and resourceful ways of meeting a need (even if it is not a good long term strategy).

Keep well everyone,

South Africa

First of all, in my long history in the child and youth work field, I don't ever think I've seen such a discussion that truly captured the essence of what we should be about and why. Thank you all.

The totality of these comments furthermore truly articulates why 'point and level systems' are so damaging. They get in the way of the work as you have shown it should be done.

A few months ago I offered to send my "Point Packs" to those who requested one. These contained copies of my articles and a few other things. The responses were so numerous that I realized there was no way I could assemble and mail out thousands of pieces of paper. So I set to developing a 'new' Digital Point Pack that could be emailed. This took longer than I thought it would and as well, as happens, 'life got in the way'.

But I finally have finished it and these will be on their way very soon to each person who requested one in an individual email. My apologies for the delay.

The 'Digital Point Pack' contains a number of items, as you'll see, but during the time I worked in it I located a number of new and very compelling pieces by others besides myself that are listed in a bibliography. These are very compelling and of course the more 'voices' are speaking about them, the better!

Karen VanderVen


I love the use of the word 'signal' that just makes so much sense and I will mention this in discussions in my class.

I look forward to the 'Point Pack' Karen, I know with your wealth of knowledge and material that was no easy task! I will be sharing it with my classmates and it is truly, very much appreciated. You make such a difference!

Thank you all for this wonderful discussion,


Hi... Paul Thorburn here, a 3rd year Child and Youth Care student at Douglas College, British Columbia. I love the "signals" instead of "symptoms" perspective. A great example of how language can powerfully shift our perspective. Thanks!

Hi all,

From the sections that I read closely – I agree – a heartening discussion.

Johnnie Gibson


Although I don't think I’ve seen every post, I agree that this has been an illuminating debate – and all the more so for some quite challenging views expressed early on. I would share the general unease about labeling anyone as 'non-compliant', as it seems to imply saying "the main trouble with you is that you don't comply with me". At the same time I have a feeling that some of us might feel OK at being so labeled.

And sometimes you have to comply – or appear to comply – if you want to survive. This is presumably part of what we mean by resilience.

While reading this debate I have been reminded several times of a story told to me some years ago by a student undertaking a home-observation of a mother with her three young children. For some reason (unclear to the observer) the mother was insisting that her oldest child should sit down instead of standing up. This was becoming quite a tussle – just the sort of battle of wills around compliance that we are all familiar with. After much arguing and anger on both sides the child was finally forced to sit down. But the payoff came when she then turned to her mother and said “In my mind, I’m still standing up!”

Adrian Ward

Thanks for your wonderful story, Adrian. It reminds me of something my late father used to say (and that was apparently common in legal circles) – “A man (sic) convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Useful to remember when we try to coerce a response.

Jim Anglin

Wow! Such a rich discussion and one that tugs at the very essence of who we are and are our intrinsic values and beliefs.

I wonder if this talks to a discussion about culture, as in, do we exist in a 'culture of respect' or one of 'domination'? (within the many interpersonal systems within which we live, such as family culture, community culture, organisational culture and even the culture of our civilization?)

Our expectations of Other and Self, in the context of our interactions with the Universe all are deeply rooted in this discussion and we are posed with the questions: Should we always comply with the will of other? If so, why so? Are there legitimate times for non-compliance? What if I don’t comply?

Jim and Adrian make the same point in two ways. I offer a third. In the film The Road to Wellville, look at the scene where George is being punished for NOT hanging his coat 'on the hook'. He is made to walk up and down the stairs, etc. At the end of this initial punishment his 'father' loses control and slaps George across the face (and immediately apologizes). Then see what George does! It speaks volumes.

Who's needs are being met when we demand compliance? Who's needs are being met when we demand respect?

Over a century ago G.B. Shaw (a fellow Irishman) said, 'The reasonable man adapts himself to the world {complies}; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man'. I think there is some resonance here also. If we keep trying to fit kids (and families) into our finite number of little boxes we miss so much. Non-compliance (to the rules, to direction, etc) is about telling us something that we need to hear and attend to. If we probe properly we might learn lots about the 'non-compliant' person (and maybe even about ourselves).

Great topic – thank you Allyssa


Hi Jim,

That is such a powerful saying and it totally captures the whole problem with trying to “win an argument” with a child. By the way, I have never been able to win an argument with a child and would love to know if anyone else has been skilled or lucky enough to do so. I find that “adult logic” has corrupted my thinking and boxed me in so that it becomes increasingly difficult to think free of the boundaries that we create for ourselves and which children are not burdened with (yet).

South Africa

What’s wrong with level systems? Let me count the ways. First if you want kids to fake (or hide) what’s wrong, let’s use a level system. I can only recall, many years ago (20+) when we started to take in fire setters. Well it happened, and we ended with a colossal fire in one of the main campus buildings. Most fortunately no youth or staff were hurt or injured, as we had extensive fire safety systems in place. After a lengthy investigation by the Fire Marshall and police, they found the culprit (with evidence) and he fully admitted to his crime. Staff was stunned: “He was our best kid; he achieved the highest level of the "Level System" and stayed there on the highest level far longer than any other youth at the time. It couldn’t be him!” And on and on it went by many staff in disbelief. But it happened, so enough about his great achievements he made using the level system.

Of course there is still something wrong with a youth who fakes or misdirects a behavior or signal (as it now referred to). But when staff don’t see it (the faking), and start looking up the wrong tree, that’s worse. The kids wins, and no one is better off. I think we have all been buffaloed by a youth at one time or another, and I will admit that it happened to me in my career. But when an entire staff and agency put their faith and reputation on a level system, well there is a great deal to debate here. Level systems require great compliance from the youth, but much for all the wrong reasons. For starters, a level system becomes a great tool for the youth to learn how to “beat the system or program”, while staff believe they are serving the youth. Kids quickly learn that different staff applies subjective standards in different ways. They learn the “loop holes”, become great “jail house lawyers” which only will serve them well when they leave residential and continue to learn how to deceive society. They are “all in” to get those points and get those rewards – who needs a positive relationship with staff that can help them in so many ways? Compliance to get something, as opposed to compliance to give something back are entirely different mind sets. Most youth desire to please their parent or adult care taker in most normative settings. When we hear our youth say, “Look, I cleaned the kitchen all by myself!”, or “I got this A on the test!” is a way for a youth trying to please an adult. The adult is pleased and lets the youth know. This is positive compliance. It is much better than, “I got my points, I got my level, now I get my rewards”. Levels systems just get in the way of relationships. What gets real bad is when a troubled youth just digs in his heals, refuses to comply to any program attempts to help him, continually acts out and the level system just buries him at the lowest level, getting few rewards or actives for long periods of time.

This youth that started the fire may never had his true needs met. He was complaint for all the wrong reason and just about fooled everyone. Level systems can be especially worse for traumatized youth. Traumatized youth have brain neural pathways that are negatively altered and damaged. Levels systems will ensure that these poor brain pathways stay that way – levels systems require youth to think in survival mode – how do I get….?, instead of using higher brain functions that require relationships, maturity and positive compliance. Relationships (without a level system) will improve brain functioning, which greatly helps the healing process of traumatized youth.

Gene Cavaliere

That saying has real value Jim. I wonder what we are teaching children in forcing them to comply. As many have said, their experience with compliance has more often than not resulted in trauma. As result, the compliance request, particularly when it occurs as a demand, in and of itself, can evoke survival like behavior which in turn is misunderstood and the child is further pathologized, with his emotional trauma being expressed but not responded to = more disconnection...

I suggest as well that we should be looking what we need to do differently to create safety in the relationship and environment, so that compliance is something children freely choose?

However, Alyssa I recognize that you are in your 2nd year of CYC. Knowing this I think it important that we remember that in our first few years of development, focusing on safety, behavior and external control is exactly what you should be doing. See Jack Phelan's work on the stages of professional development (below). The key at this stage in your development is how you get here. It will take lots of practice to not use compliance demands, as a means of engaging when things feel out of control...

It will also be particularly challenging if the agency you are working for has an incongruent (congruence is also very important to get a handle on with respect to out-of-home care – see Jim Anglin's work – Pain, Normality and the Struggle for Congruence: Reinterpreting Residential Care for Children and Youth) philosophy of practice (for example they use points systems wherein compliance is primarily rewarded), with the Relational Child and Youth Care Practice approach being suggested here…

Good luck!


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