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The problem with problems: Developing polarities and curriculum

Moving away from the "problem" approach — how do we start? Brian Gannon takes us through some practical thinking ...

We are told to avoid the "problem" approach and embrace the "strengths" approach. Easier said than done. It is usually in the context of a problem that we first meet the youth we work with (whether the problem really belongs to them or to someone else, and whether or not the problem is really a problem). Whatever, our first task is to receive the "problem", to recognise that someone experiences a problem, and to be willing to help work at solutions to problems.

The problem with problems (at least if we are seduced into listing and writing down the problems brought to us) is that

We don’t have to be rocket scientists to know that both of these expectations are at best illusions, at worst delusions. More than this, it is a discouraging start for a kid to enter our program and see such a list as this ...

John: Truancy; Stealing; Bed-wetting; Aggressive behaviour; Poor school grades ...

It doesn’t even help much if we list some of a child’s good points opposite these "bad" ones, like this:

Sue's problems                                     Sue's positives
Smoking                                                        Enjoys going for walks
Jealousy, hostility                                    Good at making fudge
Sexual acting out                                       Keeps her room tidy
Inability to co-operate                           Remembers mother’s birthday
Bad loser                                                       Plays hockey

It’s good that we could write down some good points for Sue, but we are still left with two unrelated lists about which we really don’t know what to do. It’s not as if the five problems on the left are counterbalanced by the five strengths on the right – so that the scores are even and there’s nothing left to worry about. We know that this is a very simplistic way to think about strengths, just as listing or labelling problems is a poor way to approach problems.

Recasting problems
The way past these dilemmas is to do a little thinking about these problems, add some new words, then turn them on their sides and then change their shape a little. Let’s try this.

Here again is John’s list of problems:

First we add some new words. Take truancy, the first item on John's list. What we want to do is decide the "subject area" of the problem, aiming for objective and neutral subject areas. For example, "truancy" is a "problem" word but it falls into the category of "School attendance". School attendance is a neutral descriptor and it could include all possibilities along a continuum from "Never goes to school" to "Always attends regularly".

Now if we recast Problem-Truancy into Category-School Attendance and choose the continuum between "Never attends" and "Always attends regularly", the model will look like this.

Category: School attendance
Never attends ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Always attends

Let’s assume John is truanting two days a week (which means that he is going to school three days a week). If we now place John’s school attendance rate onto this continuum it might look like this:

Category: School attendance

0         10         20         30         40         50         60         70         80         90         100

Never attends •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Always attends

This model begins to offer a true reflection of the strengths approach. It shows us that John is 60% of the way along the continuum we established. When we show this model to John we are being less pessimistic and less pejorative: he can see graphically that he’s not just a problem, but that he has progressed along this continuum, and how far he still might go to attain regular school attendance.

So we have turned a YES/NO dichotomy or a judgemental label into a more hopeful and dynamic continuum between two poles. We have illustrated not only movement but also direction. This simple reconception of problems has added both the strengths and the developmental perspectives. We have also established for ourselves a more objective goal to work towards – and a more positive attitude to John’s School Attendance to encourage us all, especially John.

Nice. Let’s stick with this new idea, but it’s still very simplistic. In our team meetings we have to work a little harder at deciding on the Subject Area as well as the poles at the opposite ends of our continuum. "School Attendance" could, if we are not careful, remain a measure of behavioural compliance, and "Never Attends" or "Always Attends" just clever words for "Problem" and "No Problem" – or even "Naughty" and "Good"!

(In parentheses: The really interesting part of child and youth care practice – and where I believe most of us do our best learning – is our participation in team meetings where we put together all our ideas, knowledge, experience and theory, and tease out different aspects of all this as it relates to John and his truanting. We make hypotheses about what's going on and what might help, and then plans to test these, and thus learn more about John and the types of problems we are working with ... so that we are not just running a bed-and-breakfast outfit but a focussed and intelligent service aimed at better function for John and his family.)

So we get to ask more questions ...

Why might John not want to go to school?  Is there some threat there?  Does he feel inadequate and embarrassed. Is there a social or interpersonal conflict of some kind?  Is he teased or bullied?

Why might John not want to go to school? Most kids are stimulated by school, eager to participate in events, make progress ... What is the status of motivation, identification, future plans in John’s life?

Or is it perhaps that school just isn’t on John’s map right now? Is he totally preoccupied by some other issue (hurt, fear, enthusiasm) so that school doesn’t even figure? Is school too low on his own list of priorities? Is he being passively aggressive, is this a resistance to someone? Is he depressed? Is he for some reason not ready for school right now? Do we put John at risk by making him go to school?

From our experience of John we can exclude a number of these possible reasons. Equally likely, we may connect some of the ideas with our observations in the program. What emerges from this team workshopping will be one or two further hypotheses, for example:

Does John have a problem crossing the divide between home and school? Is this taking a little more courage or decision than he has right now? Would he manage better once he is at school? Should one of us walk with him to school?

Is there a negative valueing of school in John’s family? Has his family experienced school as excluding, punishing, demeaning? Or do they negatively value learning, see it as part of an oppressive system, see it as consisting of hypocritical people?

This thinking generates some more of those objective and neutral subject areas we were talking about earlier, which go towards building a curriculum for John in our program. There can be "Ability to implement decisions", "Attitude towards learning", etc. Under these subject areas we must build the continuum, which is essentially the starting-point and the end-point for a particular lesson or achievement or life-skill.

This excursion into John's truancy illustrated that when we take time to build subject areas, we usually find ourselves far from the original unitary conception of the problem. Further benefits of this are that attention to these subject areas inevitably impact on other areas of the youth's life, not only the single problem of truancy.

A pole (or rather two poles, one at each end of a continuum) is a very useful construct when seeking accuracy and direction in our interventions. Instead of simply identifying something we want to stop right here (a problem) an opposite pole gives us somewhere to go from here. And the more trouble we take to define the poles, the more incisive and successful our interventions will be.

When we identify a problem, one question is "So if this problem is one pole of a continuum, what do we have at the opposite pole? – because the opposite pole is our goal and moving along the continuum is our task. In an athletics analogy, the problem we identify is the "starting pole" and the opposite end of our continuum is our "finishing pole".

Let’s imagine that Margie is using dreadful language all over the place. Until now we might have said ‘Swearing is the problem.’ Child and youth worker Ricky says: ‘OK, I get it. Swearing is the problem pole, the starting pole, this end of the pole ... so the opposite pole is "Not swearing" Easy!’

‘Oh, no!’ we all cry. ‘You haven’t been reading this article properly.’ "Not swearing" is just wishing the problem away. It’s like saying ‘Swearing is bad; not swearing is good: Be good!’

Half an hour later we have been through Margie’s swearing in some detail and found ourselves with a number of poles, none of which is "Swearing – Not Swearing". We found one continuum called "Expressing criticism or disapproval" and this had poles "Insensitive to people’s feelings" and "Sensitive to people’s feelings". There was a similar one called "Social Discrimination" which had to do with appropriate behaviour in different situations. It was agreed, for example, that with the crowd it was usual to use ripe language, but to badmouth your teacher at a school social doesn’t go down well. Notice that we didn’t decide to include ballet dancing or renaissance art appreciation in "Social Discrimation" – just the ordinary information that most kids pick up at home about behaviour en famille and behaviour when we have visitors; behaviour around the breakfast table and behaviour in church ...

Another subject area we added to Margie’s curriculum was "Expressing feelings verbally" ... and so it went. Another half-hour later we had built a rudimentary set of tasks we shared out amongst ourselves in respect of a curriculum for Margie. It didn’t even include the word "problem" but it sure seemed a good fit for this young lady whom we were committed to in terms of safety and success in life.

Poles can be complex. As we have seen, they sometimes come in bunches. Also, they normally need time scales attached. For example, we may have to be at least half-way along the "Expressing feelings verbally" continuum before we can start on the "Social Discrimination" continuum. Sometimes we know that there is some urgency for us to move quite far along a continuum by the end of the year, and another by the youth's 18th birthday. Also, we do not have to reach the opposite pole's 100% mark. In most cases, if a youngster has moved a fair distance, that is good enough. We will always leave kids somewhere along their journey to wherever, hopefully with a little more usable knowledge and confidence.

When we are handed a "problem" we have a judgement, a categorisation, a statement of unacceptability and disapproval – and an expectation to fix! It’s up to us to recast that problem in terms of a subject area in which the youth is still enrolled and in which we have responsibilities for teaching – giving information, discussing, offering experiences and opportunities, training skills. And its up to us to work out realistic, culturally appropriate, ecologically valid and reachable polarities which kids will want to buy into — and to enable or ease some of the difficult transitions on the way. When we collect together these continua and subject areas, we are building intelligent curriculum for individual kids in our program. Otherwise what on earth are we doing?

Standing problems on their end in this way, and showing how far we have come and how far we have yet to go (rather than just listing them in a rap sheet) is a good way to start.