By Larry Stednitz, Ph.D
An Associate of Woodbury Reports
(Woodbury Reports is printing this as the second in a series of articles regarding the evaluation and development of residential schools and programs for children. Each article will address a program component and/or issue that is topical and critical to effective programming.)
A program's philosophy is the guiding light and provides the direction of a program. In the very beginning of most successful organizations, the leadership painstakingly develops a mission statement to guide their activities. A mission statement is clear and to the point. For example, a program may have a mission to "help children and families," or "to create a powerful program that changes lives." It is usually simple, easy to remember and inspirational in nature. A common thread is to provide the highest quality of care to youth and their families. When developing a mission statement for such an important undertaking, it is imperative to carefully contemplate ideas and empower all employees to participate. The mission statement is the broad goal of the organization.
A strong mission statement is accompanied by a philosophy that underlies what the program believes about helping others resolve problems to live productive and happy lives. For example, a program may believe the youth they serve have not been held accountable for their actions at home, and a highly structured environment is necessary for the development of routine and predictability in their lives. Because of these beliefs their program is created with a highly structured emphasis on behavior and holds youth accountable for their actions through rewards and negative consequences. Based on this belief, the youth will become accountable and eventually learn to follow the rules to accomplish age-appropriate tasks and assume responsibility in their lives. Out of this order and structure, it is assumed the youth feels more secure and begins to make responsible decisions. The philosophy contains the beliefs that a program has about human nature and in particular, the youth and families they want to help. It represents what they think is the best way to accomplish the mission.
Be Able to Individualize
Even though programs outline the enrollment requirements very clearly, youth vary greatly in the manner in which they behave and respond to a program. The philosophy therefore requires a degree of flexibility to allow for a wide variety of interventions available to the youth. Having this flexibility allows programs to individualize instead of using a cookie cutter approach where everyone receives the same care regardless of their unique differences.
Must Be Comprehensive
The philosophy addresses many broad areas including daily living skills, vocational/educational practices that are age appropriate, the nature of interpersonal relationships, how to best restore family functions, and how to best re-integrate the youth back into the family and community. In essence, it is a comprehensive philosophy that addresses the needs of individuals as well as the majority of youth.
Staff, the Watch Dogs of Philosophy
Philosophy comes from the leadership team, their life experiences and training. It is the task of leadership to do the hard work of identifying what they believe creates positive change in the youth they serve. While it may be ideal for all programs to be based on "proven research," there is limited research that points clearly to certain philosophical belief systems that are proven to produce results that are uniformly predictable.
The program director and key leadership of the team is charged with the responsibility of being the "watch dog" of the philosophy. Their role is to continually review and discuss the basic tenants of the philosophy. It is imperative for every employee of the program to be immersed in their knowledge and understanding of the philosophy. To instill 100% of the philosophy, the leadership teams' role is to train and regularly supervise the program staff.
One View - Root of Problem is Psychological
Philosophical viewpoints vary greatly and these viewpoints provide a distinct focus for the program. For example, a program may believe the youth is having difficulty in the home and community because they have psychological and psychiatric problems that will disrupt their lives unless the youths gain insight into their problems and adjusts their behaviors and emotions accordingly. Because of this program's philosophy, the use of psychodynamic, individual, family and group therapy, coupled with psychotropic medications and a basic behavioral system is the primary focus of care. As a result of "working through" their psychological problems, the youth will function better in the home and community. They will be happier and able to live productive lives.
Another View - Root of Problem is Thinking
A second program may believe these same youth are having problems because of an inadequate thinking process. These "thinking errors" caused the youth to make poor choices and have resulted in them being in trouble with the legal system, schools, and their ability to function successfully within their family and community. This program will use cognitive teaching approaches to help the youth look at the errors in their thinking. Once the youth begins thinking in a more accurate and healthy manner, they will eliminate the negative behaviors, and their life and relationships will improve because they are no longer making poor choices.
Program Consistency Vital
Either one of these approaches may be effective. The most important factor is to ensure that the philosophy of the overall program is consistent and focused on the primary purpose of the organization. Understanding the program's philosophy is a key to understanding and assessing a program.