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Posted February 19, 2003 

The Self-Regulatory Scale

By Lon Woodbury


Several years ago, I wrote, “The Structure Spectrum” (Woodbury Reports, August 1995 #35 & August 2000 #72) based on the understanding that when a residential placement intervention was recommended, some children needed more intense structure than others. When a child needs residential placement, clues from the child’s behavior should be examined to decide how much structure would be required to adequately meet the child’s needs, and the intensity of the structure of a particular school or program should be considered in light of those behavioral clues. If a child had severe clinical problems, he or she would need a facility with considerable clinical capabilities, which often would be a locked facility, on the extremely intensive end of the Structure Spectrum. On the other hand, if the child is just rebellious or spoiled, with a bad attitude and minimal clinical needs, then a locked facility would be unnecessary, and perhaps a well-structured rural group home with a savvy staff would be the better fit, which would be considered at a lower level of structure on the spectrum. While this has been a useful concept in helping parents pick the right school or program for their child, it focuses on the external structure that a school or program provides.

Another somewhat parallel approach to determining the best match between special needs students and special needs schools and programs might be to focus more on the student’s thinking processes, especially the child’s ability to self-regulate his or her behavior. Getting a firm handle on this seems more feasible now through new psycho-neurological research that looks at what is called “executive functioning,” a kind of goal-directed behavior (“Executive Functioning” New Research About Familiar Behavior, Woodbury Reports December 5, 2002 #100). In very general terms, a good deal of the mental processing involved in the all-important “executive functioning” seems primarily to be associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Research also indicates that this part of the brain can continue developing until late in life, confirming that indeed, “Old dogs CAN learn new tricks,” at least so far as self-regulation or executive functioning is concerned.

Although this recent psycho-neurological research on brain functioning shows promise, it seems science is largely confirming a concept about raising children that is as old as humankind, that is, the most important need of children while growing up is to learn self-discipline. “Executive functioning”, self-regulation, self-discipline, and self-control all sound like they are referring to the same thing, which happens to be the greatest need and purpose of raising and educating children in all societies. The advantage of the scientific research promises to find a way to “quantify” what in the past has been more of a subjective art. The promise from these new scientific insights would be a very helpful additional tool. But, we need to keep in mind that there already exists a context of thought and human experience that these psycho-neurological findings could supplement very nicely.

This Self-Regulatory concept, or “Executive Functioning,” or ability to self-discipline, can be a very useful perspective in determining what level intervention is needed for a particular child, once you can get a fix on the child’s behavior. From that perspective,
the child can be placed on what I call the “Self-Regulatory Scale”, which primarily describes the child’s acting-out behavior. These thoughts don't apply as much for various levels of depression where the child lacks motivation to even do the wrong things.

Most children more or less raise themselves, and so-so parenting is usually adequate, along with the typical experiences a child will receive growing up from children’s organizations, school activities, and the like. Some children, however, are more creative and idealistic than most, and once they recognize the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and self-serving adults that every civilization has, these children object and begin to rebel in some way. Other children develop distorted conclusions based on particular negative experiences they’ve had. The degree to which these attitudes have impacted a child’s behavior can be viewed in terms of their ability to self-regulate, where at one extreme, they would be considered to be relatively in control of themselves, while at the opposite extreme their ability to self-regulate would be very low.

When the rebellion is in its initial phase and not yet full-blown, and a child’s ability to self-regulate is relatively good, then the child will respond either to more effective parenting, or mild intervention from other adults such as counselors or mentors. Or, the child would benefit from emotional growth experiences such as an outward bound™ type of experience, or extensive involvement in some activity in which he or she has a strong interest. However, a case of full-blown active rebellion, possibly with disastrous consequences, can occur if all these children encounter are the so-so or poor parenting skills of their parents, while lacking the benefit of other adult mentors. In that case it is likely the child would eventually need a highly structured residential intervention. If action is taken early in the process of rebellion, and a decision for residential placement is made, then a well organized boarding school or military school might be very appropriate for a child with a relatively adequate ability to self-regulate, with the school’s discipline code providing the motivation to do so.

The next lower level of self-regulation is evident in the teen who might be doing well in one or more areas such as academics, but there are the warning signs of poor judgment in activities or friends that demonstrate that the behavior needs to be addressed. Residential placement in a structured emotional growth school or program might be necessary if the home environment is such that the parents can not establish adequate controls for whatever reason. What is called a “transition” school, or a ranch program would provide the structure to help this child clear his/her confusion about what is appropriate.

Teens showing even lower levels of self-regulation are the ones where things are going poorly in virtually all levels of their lives, but they insist everything would be fine if the authority figures in their lives would "get off their back." While they might appear to be very impulsive and out-of-control, a close look at their behavior would show that they still have enough self-regulatory ability to avoid obvious discomfort or danger. For example, teens might blow up at their parents and storm out the door, leading the parents to fear they might have so little self-control they are unable to stay out of danger. But, while they might storm out the door in good weather, in miserable weather they would be more likely to blow up and head for their room to make plans. Or, if they do run away, will run to the comfort of a friend's house rather than a crack house or the streets. This is usually followed by a phone call asking to come back home, but on their own terms. Teens who act like this usually can still can self-regulate their behavior, but their view of reality is distorted enough, (sometimes the term “jerk” fits best) that they don't have a clue as to why things are not working out for them. Teens acting in these ways will often be aware at some conscious level that things could be better, and often will ask for help when things are obviously turning sour.

These types of irrational behaviors sometimes contain indications of a clinical problem, and also demonstrate a lower level of self-regulatory behavior, with the possibility of a clinical problem causing the distorted thinking. A complete psychiatric examination is important at this level to at least rule out a serious mental/emotional clinical problem. These teens would benefit from placement in a highly structured school or program with at least the clinical capability to recognize psychiatric problems and/or the capability to provide needed treatment to supplement the environment in order to develop better "executive functioning" or self-regulation. Outdoor oriented programs seem to be very effective since nature itself seems to be an effective healing agency. A locked facility is usually not necessary at this level, unless the program is in an urban area, or the program wants to cut costs by reducing the needs for full staffing.

An even lower level of self-regulatory ability is evident in the dangerous combination of distorted thinking that is usually at least partly caused by serious clinical dysfunction. Residential Treatment Centers are designed to work with this kind of poor self-regulatory ability, and the good ones combine an effective emotional growth structure along with quality clinical treatment.

At the extreme lower level of self-regulatory ability or "executive functioning", are teens who at least at times are totally unable to control their behavior. This might be shown in explosive outbursts, violent behaviors with minimal cause, or poor decisions with no grasp as to why anyone would be concerned. This could be an extreme level of rebellion, but usually the cause is a psychiatric problem that needs sophisticated treatment. This level of self-destructive impulsive behavior can be dangerous and usually requires a locked facility, or at least a heavily staffed facility with motion detectors, and alarm systems. The mental health community has developed very sophisticated means of diagnosing and treating these disorders, and differentiating between them in order to determine appropriate treatment intervention.

Teens who are making poor decisions can be informally categorized in terms of the level of executive function they are demonstrating, and can be placed on a Self-Regulatory Scale. This not only is a useful way to incorporate the new insights coming out of brain research, and a way to sharpen our assessment of teens at-risk, it is also a way to look at a child’s behavior for clues about when residential placement might be needed, and what kind of facility would be most appropriate.

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