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Posted: Jan 23, 2004 21:22

POSITIVE PEER CULTURE

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Harry H. Vorrath and Larry K. Brendtro
Hawthorn NY:Aldine De Gruyter:1985 2nd Ed.
ISBN-10: 0202360385



Reviewed by: Lon Woodbury

Anytime someone wants to create a Positive Peer Culture (PPC) “by the book,” this is the book. Many of the schools and programs I’ve worked with in the Emotional Growth/Therapeutic network have either a dog-eared copy of this book handy, or have hired either Vorrath or Brendtro as consultants. As consultants, they have been helping programs convert their existing procedures to take advantage of the insights found in PPC.

The PPC approach is based on the powerful influence of peers. Its goal is to orient the peer culture in a positive direction, with its central premise being that positive values come about as a result of helping and caring for others. In a PPC program, adolescents are asked if any particular action will help, or hurt others. And, in a well run PPC program, whether something will help or hurt others becomes the basic criteria for everything that is done.

The book is very critical of strict behavior modification programs based on invasion and exposure, explaining that confrontation in order to “break down” a person might bring about compliance, but not the desired change in attitudes. Instead, PPC promotes trust and openness in the students, because only through developing those attitudes can old habits of anger, alienation, manipulation, etc. be eliminated. Nor do they recommend a sheltered environment where the students become dependent on adults. Rather, the authors claim that helping others will provide “opportunities to experience difficulties and surmount problems in order to learn how to cope effectively with the vicissitudes of life.” This is done partly through staff “modeling,” and “relabeling.” Modeling simply states that the character and philosophy of each staff member is vital; relabeling is a technique that focuses on specific behaviors to teach. For example, the staff might refer to helping behavior as “strong, mature, and powerful,” while hurting behavior is referred to as “weak, immature, and inadequate.”

The book is also not very sympathetic with modern popular systems of psychiatric classifications. The fact that systems of classification have an extensive history, is indicated by the book’s quote of Plato: “They do certainly give very strange and newfangled names to diseases.” The ongoing expansion of modern systems of psychiatric classification are referred to in the book as “an admission of the confusion and chaos that pervade the field of ‘problemology.” In contrast, PPC relies on a basic list of problems, starting with the concept that problems the students have can be seen either as “inconsiderate of self’ or “inconsiderate of others.” However, “if a behavior or feeling does not in any way hurt another person or the self, it is not a problem.” The book goes on to develop a list of problems, consisting of three general, and nine specific problems. All attitudes and behaviors that are hurtful are covered by these twelve simple problems.

The way in which a PPC structure can be implemented is the main focus of most of the book and it supports its conclusions by referring to many specific situations that were personally experienced by the authors. It then includes suggestions for how to implement this model in day programs as well as residential situations.

The chapter devoted to PPC in residential settings is especially relevant to Woodbury Reports since we are mostly devoted to residential settings. It lists common roadblocks to successful treatment, which is a list of how any residential program can go astray. In my 20 years working in this field, I have seen how each of the ways that the authors describe, undermine the effectiveness of programs:


  1. The Wrong Youth,

  2. Improper Length of Care,

  3. Isolated Professionals,

  4. Complications in Communication,

  5. Cafeteria Approaches,

  6. Parkinson’s Law,

  7. Peer Culture Cancels Treatment Efforts, and

  8. Inappropriate systems of management.


Every time I have seen a program struggling, the root cause almost always can be found in the above list.

The network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs seem to be especially influenced by the ideas contained in this book. This is not to say every school or program should be done “by the book,” but the staff should at least be aware of the ideas the book is presenting.




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