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practice

Positive peer culture: Tapping an invaluable resource

William C. Wasmund

ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the basics of “Positive Peer Culture,” with special attention to the pitfalls associated with this method. It examines some of the basic techniques of this form of peer group treatment, emphasizing the spirit rather than the letter of the principles.

As with most methods, a firm grounding in program philosophy prevents its practice from becoming contrivances. PPC is a deceptively simple program — asking people to help other people. This may account for some of its undoing because simple is not always popular and certainly not always easy. Harry Vorrath developed his version of Guided Group Interaction (GGI) in Kentucky, after having interned in the Highfields program in New Jersey. He changed the name to Positive Peer Culture (PPC) when he became uncomfortable with poorly managed counterfeits — programs which had incorporated isolated, convenient elements of his program to address specific problems. Unfortunately there are now as many variations of “PPC” as there were of “GGI” and my premise for this presentation is “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If it Ain’t Got That Swing.”

Personality characteristics of group workers
Before discussing the program itself, let’s examine who we “catalysts of change” are. Since we have chosen to work with exceptional children in exceptional situations we could expect to find some things exceptional about us. Do we possess any particular characteristics which differentiate us from the general population along several important dimensions? The answer to the second — whether these differences are attributes — depends upon one’s point of view.

Fifty group workers from seven different agencies completed Cattell’s Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). When compared with the general population, group workers could be described as brighter, more insightful, more imaginative, enthusiastic, candid and forthright, independent, assertive, and possessed an abundance of “Tough Poise.”

We enjoy managing others and are effective with student groups and staff teams because we feel free to participate, and we identify and discuss group problems openly and candidly. We tend to be energetic, unrestrained, and sometimes impulsive. We are tough-minded and prefer our own decisions. Because we tend to be so forthright and direct, we are generally well-liked and trusted by others, particularly children.

In the context of working with extremely manipulative youth, these traits are undoubtedly valuable and perhaps essential. In fact, the remarkable inter-and intra-agency consistency among group workers’ scores suggest these characteristics are also at least informally recognized and valued by supervisors or administrators. Nonetheless, “all that glitters is not gold” and people as independent as we may be difficult to supervise because we prefer to do things our own way. We risk becoming “laws unto ourselves” who much prefer telling to being told.

Our independence and assertiveness may cause others to question our motives and methods. Although dedicated and capable, we can seem like Boy Scouts insistently helping older people across the wrong street. Knowing ourselves — our strengths and weaknesses — would seem a prerequisite to addressing the task of altering the values or perceptions of others. The Therapeutic Community Anxiety, Confrontation and Other Stuff. Most children who exhibit habitual or repeated behavioral problems are emotionally and ideologically dedicated to an anti-social value system. Before they will abandon that system they must question its usefulness to them.

Consequently, disturbed/disturbing children must be allowed to experience the inherent conflicts between conventional and anti-social systems. So, you see, one does not “raise anxiety” in some cavalier fashion; one relieves it by helping students address the discomfort they feel from naturally occurring dissonance. This can best be achieved in an environment which permits the free expression and examination of feelings — anti-social as well as social.

“Rewards” for honesty and candor must exceed those provided by either the anti-social peer group or by staff members simply seeking “good,” conforming behavior. In this way students may compare conventional and anti-social life styles, making personal choices and changes without fear of retaliation. Since our students are typically unable to sustain meaningful interpersonal relationships, communication is more productive than confrontation.

Positive Peer Culture offers an especially unified, cohesive social system in which both students and staff are devoted to responsible, lawful behavior. On the one hand, staff must not merely reject or condemn, perpetuating an adversarial student/staff relationship; on the other hand, they must avoid rewarding skilled manipulations or conformity. Effective, firm limits are as necessary with PPC as with any other treatment system but those limits must not be applied punitively or capriciously, and problems must be viewed as opportunities for change.

Students should perceive their peer group as their primary source of help and support. The ambivalence caused by the conflict of conventional and unconventional behaviors provides opportunities for recognition and achievement in conventional pursuits. Consequently, rewards must be meaningful to students. Peer acceptance and respect are certainly longer-lived than badges or special privileges. People do not resist changing; they resist being changed.

A successful PPC program must be viewed by its students as possessing four essential characteristics:

1) a social climate in which they may explore and then choose between social and anti-social behavior;
2) the opportunity to declare safely to peers and staff members their beliefs and disbeliefs that they will benefit by changing their values;
3) an atmosphere in which they may examine the role and legitimacy of authority figure;
4) a system emphasizing peer group decision-making which recognizes not only successful participation but particularly the willingness to consider, involve, and recognize others.

Stages of group development
Vorrath and Brendtro used a four-stage model to describe Positive Peer Culture group development and, coincidentally, so did Hersey and Blanchard when describing management styles in “Situational Leadership.” These may be combined for discussion, and I would emphasize that these developmental stages apply to all groups, not just correctional or therapeutic domains.

Stage 1: Casing may also be defined as “Acquaintance and Goal Ambiguity.” Members engage in superficial acquaintances and become increasingly uncertain about the goals of the group. The Situational Leadership position is defined as “Low Process, High Task.” Staff response is “Telling because the group needs to learn what to do.”

Stage 2: Limit Testing is a “Search for Position and Increased Defensiveness.” As anxiety increases, members attempt to establish their relative positions within the group. Fears and conflicts are more freely expressed, often by blaming others, particularly those in authority. The Situational Leadership position is defined as “High Process, High Task.” Staff response is “Selling” because the group has learned what to do; it now needs to learn why that is right to do.

Stage 3: Polarization of Values may also be called “Growth and Group Identification.” As members overcome their defensiveness, they become more involved, develop a sense of purpose, and trust others enough to express and explore their feelings. Group membership becomes important, and members begin to feel individually responsible for their own problems and the state of the group. The Situational Leadership position is defined as “High Process, Low Task.” Staff response is called “Participating” because staff can now rely upon some members to help convince other dissenting members about the value of the group’s goals.

Stage 4: Positive Peer Culture is also called “Decreased Defensiveness and Increased Group Strength.” Many groups never reach this final stage, but its achievement is more a function of staff skill than student resistance. Group trust and support continue to develop enabling members to relax their defenses and experiment with new behaviors and attitudes. The group itself becomes a source of learning and strength. The Situational Leadership position is defined as “Low Process, Low Task.” Staff response is “Delegating” because the group has developed skills among its members to resolve most conflicts and minimal advice or direction from staff members.

One stage builds from another. If early stages are not resolved, subsequent stages will be fraught with disaster. Theoretically, groups should pass through these stages only once but changes in group members, staff members and group leaders affect the stages at which particular groups operate. Secondly, although a group may function at a certain stage, some of its members may not. So, staff responses vary not only with groups, but with individuals within those groups, and with the situations in which they are placed — for example, school, work projects, recreation, group meetings.

Basic techniques
Groups function only as well as staff members develop them. As with individual growth and development, groups need judiciously and sensitively applied limits, encouragement, and permission to make mistakes. Although groups form naturally, there is no guarantee they will be positive or productive. Through their interactions with the group, staff members determine the valence. Membership in community peer groups is elective — not so with ours. Consequently we must insure that they have more options than merely to defy or comply.

“Badge heaviness” and autocracy may be particularly tempting to those of us with the personality characteristics described earlier. What we generally mean by “control” is enlisting the cooperation of our students. If we are perceived as concerned or honest, our students will generally permit us to think we “control” them; if not, they will not permit that illusion.

Agencies must continuously monitor their approaches to “control” and “treatment”, much like the classic economic paradigm of “Guns Vs. Butter.” Make only guns and we have to keep using them; make only butter, and those with the guns will maraud.

The more we control, the more we have to control, and the farther we get from our therapeutic community or treatment. On the other hand, treatment without control is untenable. Relabelling, confrontation, and reversals are simply techniques to help students move through progressive developmental stages. They are also means for staff members to stay on a “proactive” (anticipatory) rather than “reactive” side of the “response” curve. They are not control devices.

The more we anticipate, the less we need to react and therefore control. When we do not anticipate or prevent we find ourselves forced to ward the “control” side of the chart above. For example, a mnemonic in some PPC agencies is that the “Three C’s of PPC” are “Check, Confront, and Contain.” I think it is unfortunate to append these to POSITIVE Peer Culture because they are the result of not practicing PPC.

“Checks” are only helpful remarks to encourage students to think. “Confrontation” only draws attention to unacceptable behavior, and “relabeling” more accurately redefines attitudes or behaviors; “reversals” simply refocus responsibility upon those who project responsibility. They are all intended as positive, preventive reeducation techniques.

Staff members’ roles are not to control students but to teach students to control themselves. Consequently “containment” only demonstrates failure to achieve that basic goal, and they usually occur because staff members have failed to anticipate. It requires no particular talent to make an already angry student angrier so when “containment” may not be avoided, the lesson should be “we shall not allow you to hurt yourself or any one else.” The lessons too often taught is “might makes right” or “you’ll go as we say.” The better we predict, the better we prevent unexpected problems and the more encouraging we can be.

These techniques might help some play the notes but if we don’t know the melody, technique will not help us or those under our care. That melody is simply teaching young people to care about themselves and others. Concern and common sense will keep us on the melody line. Fancy tricks or embellishments risk changing into the wrong key.

Containments, confrontations, and other techniques may be minimized if staff members remember that their job is to change the values of the group and then allow the group to influence its individual members. Beyond that many staff members have difficulty identifying group dynamics particularly the so-called “negative indigenous leader.” That makes group and individual development particularly difficult.

I teach our staff members that most groups contain three primary sub-groups: “Positive” members (those headed in the direction we want); “Negative” members (those who are not); and “Neutrals” (undeclared members whose values are ~ protean and whose behavior is hard to predict).

Since “Neutrals” are unpredictable, let’s give them opportunities to declare themselves — whatever they do (positive or negative), the mystery has ended. As they go, so goes the teeter-totter. As that teeter-totter slants more and more toward the “Positive” side, the “Negatives” become lonelier. It will not be so hard to decide who is “Negative” then particularly since “Neutrals” create “smoke screens” behind which “Negatives” operate.

I don’t know why this situation is so confusing to staff members but I’d suggest you explain the dynamics another way. Tell them they are running for office and the “positives” represent Republicans; the “negatives”, dyed- in-the wool Democrats; and the “neutrals”, undecided voters. Their tactics become much more obvious.

When we forget that our mission is leading instead of controlling, we may martyr our “negatives” and overwork our “positive” subgroup members. Too often we assume that “if there is work to be done, give it to a busy person” — us or our most positive group members. But when we do that we wear out our “Positives” while “Neutrals and Negatives” become increasingly alienated. Since we believe young people can change and our “Positive” subgroup already has, it’s natural to delegate responsibility to that well-rested bunch.

Other misapplications of PPC
We know Peer Group treatment works — we see it and measure it, referring workers and parents marvel over it, and students attest to it. However, our critics’ strongest arguments involve our excesses or eccentricities — areas in which we may have concentrated so much upon the process that we have forgotten our purpose, upon the notes and not the melody.

Brendtro and Ness (1982) surveyed staff members using PPC to identify potential problems. Those teams were most concerned about the abuse of confrontation, including hostile verbal interactions, marathon-length sessions, and even physically aggressive behavior — all under the guise of helping. Kangaroo courts and other coercive activities can certainly occur if one allows angry, aggressive, and disturbed youth to police themselves unchecked.

Mechanical, jargon-based communications in problem-solving sessions is frequently associated with an excessive use of problem labels: students mouth words they do not understand. Furthermore, “reversals” are a poor substitute for genuine, concerned communication “Reversals” should stimulate thought and lead to solutions. They are a tool to prevent students from displacing responsibility, not help staff displace theirs.

Family estrangement
Many families fear their children might reveal sensitive family information which might result in their being separated from their child. Furthermore, some facilities minimize students’ contact with their families by limiting visits, monitoring conversations, and delaying home visits until shortly before a student’s release.

Since most students do return home, reunification is important and we must remember the significance of parents to children. Unfortunately, residential treatment is such a powerful environment, we are often tempted to exclude parents whom we consider uncooperative. It may seem tempting but it is usually unfair, unwise, and unproductive.

Inadequate listening skills. Lack of empathy limits program effectiveness. Although students may quickly learn to “preach” pedantically or confront unflaggingly, they need careful guidance in interpreting verbal and nonverbal information empathically. Furthermore, lack of attention to individual needs can be a problem in peer group settings. Many of us fear that individual interests or activities will conflict with or undermine our group-directed efforts. In fact, since we often redirect students from staff members to other students, we may not always recognize or respond to individual interests or needs.

Distant staff-student relationships. Some staff members prefer to delegate their authority to students but it is essential for us to model appropriate and positive relationships. In fact staff abuse of control is also potentially problematic. Many of us have met staff members who seem to enjoy over-controlling or even provoking students.

Inadequate professional training. It may not be enough for practitioners to simply be “good delinquents.” However, we must not sacrifice talent for advanced degrees, especially since the study also cited group leader superiority or purist rigidity as stumbling blocks to free exchange of ideas or program growth.

Brendtro and Ness (pp. 229-230) outlined seven guidelines to correct these criticisms:

1. Replace peer coercion with peer concern. Peers have an obligation to help but no authority to punish or censure. Staff must ensure that antagonism and intimidation do not play parts in what is to be a helpful process.

2. Establish authentic communication. “Any structured system of problem identification, labeling, and resolution is valuable only insofar as it facilitates communication. Communications must be genuine, intensely human, and not mechanical” (Brendtro & Ness, 1984 p. 229).

3. Build positive staff relationships. There is no reason staff members cannot develop therapeutic relationships with individual students in peer group programs. In fact, successful programs are marked by strong, caring bonds between students and staff.

4. Provide private time and space. We all need and deserve time to be physically and psychologically alone, and no program should be so all-encompassing that it stifles a person’s individual interests or relationships with friends and family.

5. Involve the family. Parents must be partners with the treatment team.

6. Develop total professional competence. It is very tempting to simplify complicated problems by only considering a few elements. The purpose of teamwork is not to muzzle other professionals but to allow us to work cooperatively and productively. We may do well to acknowledge other disciplines, accepting help where we find it.

7. Generalize caring behavior. This is the factor upon which group treatment was constructed and upon which it still hinges. White (1963) proposed that motivation through competence, achievement through action, or effecting one’s environment is an essential and universal human desire. In order to maintain or improve self-esteem, one must feel he is a participant — not a recipient — in worthwhile activities.

Although we chide other professionals for not having applied these principles, we might do more ourselves. When our students act out their feelings of uselessness we must resist the temptation of turning the “power of peers” against them. When we do, we open the Box — unleashing all the Furies we’ve discussed: over-labeling to identify increased dysfunction and over-controlling to quell dissatisfaction. We may limit criticism from families by restricting visits for unhappy students and become more autocratic and more distant. None of us has really maximized the potential we profess to see in young people so as Sisyphus we spend more time than we must forcing the rock up the hill only to watch it come crashing down again.

People change people; our programs only facilitate that process. Any program or program element which interferes with that fundamental interpersonal process subverts our purpose. Genuine, responsible concern is essential and irreplaceable. We must not allow that concern to be subjugated to agency control or person convenience.

References

Cattell, Eber, Tatsuoka (1970). Handbook for the 16 PF. Champaign, Illinois. Institute for Personality and Ability Testing.

Empey Rabow (1961). The Provo Experiment in Delinquency Rehabilitation. American Soc Rev, 26, pp. 679-696.

Hersey, Blanchard (1976). Situational Leadership, Center for Leadership Studies.

Karson O’Dell (1976). A Guide to the Clinical Use of the 16PF. Champaign, Illinois. Institute for Personality and Ability Testing.

Vorrath, Brendtro (1974). Positive Peer Culture. Chicago. Aldine

Wasmund, W. (1979). A Training Manual for Positive Peer Culture Treatment Staff. Duluth. Woodland Hills.

Wasmund, W. (1986). Personality Characteristics of Peer Group Therapists in Adolescent Residential Settings. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 2. Spring.

This feature: Wasmund, William C. (1988). Positive peer culture: Tapping an invaluable resource. Journal of Child Care. Special issue. pp. 31-40.