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Posted April 12, 2003 

By: Lon Woodbury

(The following is taken from some of the concepts the author uses when he visits a program for evaluation, or provides in-service training.)

In order for an Emotional Growth/Therapeutic school or program to succeed, the staff must be in control. Part of the school's objective, of course, is to teach the students how to develop self-control. As they learn this, the students can be of immeasurable help assisting the school to operate smoothly, while they also gain excellent practice learning to balance leadership with responsibility. But, the way in which a school maintains control has a profound influence on the degree to which lasting change will occur in the students, and how much real responsibility the student will be able to learn.

I am aware of two basic models that can be used to establish control in a school. One might be termed the “institutional” model, based on rules and punishment. In this model, the staff is obviously in charge, and students gain privileges by convincing the staff to grant them. While this can produce compliance, it can also encourage manipulation, passive resistance and the like. This is what we usually see in state-run juvenile detention facilities and boot camps for troubled teens.

The other model might be termed a “community” model, which is based on relationships and mutual respect between the students and staff. The staff are hired for experience and sensitivity; they already have their personal lives essentially in order. Based on their own merit, they have the ability to quickly earn the respect of the students. On the other hand, the students are there because their lives have not been working well. They still have to learn how to become responsible and gain positive respect from staff and the other students, thus earning privileges. The trick is to structure the school in a way that a student's responsibility and privilege level matches the level of responsibility the student is capable of handling appropriately. Of course common sense must apply, and when students start undermining the community through manipulation or other techniques, the staff must be able to recognize what is happening and take charge to eliminate the weakness in the structure.

Some of the indicators I have seen in programs where the staff are using institutional means of control are to require a group of students to walk in single file, to do body searches frequently, to have the staff watch the students with the posturing and vigilance that is suggestive of guards, locking dorm rooms during off hours, assigned seating, and having the staff carry obvious and blaring walkie talkies. All of these foster an us vs. them attitude, and communicates a very low level of trust for the students. The students realize they are not trusted and that their job is compliance; rather than changing their attitudes, they learn to comply until they can get released. In a school based on this model, an underground mentality thrives, and the students see little reason to change their thinking.

In a community model, the control is more subtle, but when the right elements are present, it is a much more effective way of helping students learn to change their behavior as a result of altering their view of themselves and their world. When relationships are based on trust, the staff will not ask the students to do anything the staff would not do. This is one of the most important principles I have seen. Thus, if the job is to clean out the stables, the staff is shoveling right along with the students. This is a much better way to build healthy and healing relationships than to have a staff member stand and watch the students, telling them what to do.

In addition, in a community model, if a student feels a staff member hasn't been fair, he or she can confront the staff member in a group, without reprisals. However, the issue has to be a valid one. A spurious accusation will undermine credibility, and the trustworthiness of that student will quickly become an issue both with the other students as well as with the staff.

Another way of determining which model is being used for maintaining control is to closely watch the students. If you get the impression the students are merely complying, with the staff obviously in control of the students, then you are witnessing a staff who tends to think institutionally. In this scenario you can expect the students to be having private thoughts that are radically different from their public expressions.

However, if the students seem relaxed, and the school has a feeling of safety, then the staff is thinking like a community, and the students are more likely to feel that's its their school, and have a personal stake in its successful operation. And, most importantly, the students are more likely to accept the lessons the staff is trying to teach.

It would take a book to explain how a community model can be used to run a school, but in a very real sense, the staff are teachers, and the teachers are the lesson. It is when the staff accepts the responsibility of being the lesson, that they treat the students with respect rather than suspicion; then they can exert the means of control that is most effective in helping kids with problems.

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