It’s not always easy to connect what we learn in our studies with the kids back home. What on earth can Freud’s theory of the unconscious have to do with Kenny who keeps picking on Pamela? Gail sprawled in her room reading silly picture books doesn’t look much like Erickson’s adolescent identity-building. When I yelled at the twins for fighting and spilling tomato-sauce on the table cloth, Fritz Redl would hardly have called that a "life-space interview". At least, it certainly wasn’t a very good one! Maybe Freud, Erickson and Redl would have been more interested than we think. Let’s take one of the better known developmental theories, and see how we can more consciously — and profitably —use it in our practice.
A Theory of Moral Development
That’s the basic theory.
Of course it doesn’t work with all kids the same way at the same times. Some can take a little longer to get through stages 1 to 3; others may get stuck somewhere along the way.
Again, stage 3 may look very different on opposite sides of town: at one end we may crook our little finger while we hold our tea-cup, sip sherry and converse ever so politely; at the other we may be a little rougher, do a little grass and speak more frankly. But we get by in our neighbourhood, and that’s is what matters. Somehow (although we never even heard of Mr Kohlberg) we got through his stages 1,2 and 3.
So what about our young people in the children’s home, I hear you asking? Well, there are two ways, at least, in which we can helpfully use this or any developmental model or theory.
Keeping development on track
With Kohlberg’s model, for example, most youngsters pass from stage 1 to stage 2 by six or seven years of age. By this time they have moved away from a self-centred position and are more able to judge the social and interpersonal consequences of their own behaviour. Just stop and think of that: by this age a child should be saying: "I’ll do what you want because I value your approval". Now think of your group of children in the children’s program. Have your seven and eight-year-olds developed this level of social interdependence, where they can moderate their own behaviour in the light of your approval, in the interests of their relationships with other people? It is an important question to ask. Not many children in care easily get to this stage of moral development. Relationships have more often been the cause of hurt and disappointment to them. In their confusion the children have been ambivalent about the significant adults in their lives, often distressed by them and angry at them.
Applying theory to practice
If Margie doesn’t in fact value her
relationship with us and she goes on with difficult, self-centred and provocative behaviour, do we
She will behave to avoid punishment. We are not giving her footholds up to stage 2 — and somehow we owe this not just to Margie but to society. If nothing else, we need to hand on to society someone who climbed up through the three stages, not someone who only behaves through fear of punishment. We choose (a) and we buy ourselves some peace and quiet, but we are putting off a hell of a job for later, or for someone else! In other words, as busy child care workers we can easily be tempted to solve problems by saying "Do this, or else!" Mr Kohlberg says, if we want to be true to child development principles, we have to try harder than that! Trying out some theories to see if they ‘fit’ our particular situation often shines some light on things we can’t understand. Rick is eleven and has pushed us to the limit. He goes on with his stealing and bullying, he abuses the younger children verbally and physically, and is rude and unco-operative with adults. We haven’t known how to handle this, and we are hurt by our continuing sense of failure. There are a number of diagnostic or evaluative models we can apply, but what does Kohlberg’s developmental theory offer? By eleven Rick should be well into stage 2 ("I want to behave because I value our relationship"). We must then ask: "With whom does Rick have a valued relationship? For whom would he modify his behaviour? Who is significant enough to Rick that he wouldn’t want to spoil the relationship by his uncouth behaviour?" I wonder what the answer would be!
Ever heard of I-messages?
I-messages like this make youngsters aware of the social context and impact of their behaviour, and helps them to be responsible for their behaviour within that social context — and they help kids to climb from Kohlberg’s stage 1 to stage 2.
Ever heard of giving choices?
"You know how I feel about that sort of thing. You stretch my feelings for you to the limit when you get into that stuff. I’m not sure I’m going to be happy with our relationship if you ..." The housemother forces Liz back into stage 2 by threatening the relationship. She is not understanding the developmental process:
When Liz was eight, building this relationship was important, but Liz is a big girl now, the nature of the relationship must change.
We all learned about giving youngsters opportunities to make real choices. The point of these is to let them test their wings with regard to their own autonomy and decision-making. We are taught not to say "Wear the green pullover with that skirt" but "What do you think will look good with that?" This helps children take responsibility for their own feelings and tastes — so that progressively more adult decisions can be left to them, based on their own developing values. Giving sensible opportunities for making choices helps kids to climb from Kohlberg’s stage 2 to stage 3.
The building of a relationship, though, is often not what it seems. Many talk about relationship building as if it were a specific task, whereas it is really the byproduct of an number of tasks. Relationship really means ‘connectedness’ or ‘bonding’ and the only way we can achieve this bonding is by doing things together, lots of things over a period of time. Building a relationship means building a store of shared experiences. The children’s program is the ideal place where adults and children can make time and space to do things together, to group and re-group for different purposes, to spend one-on-one time and group time, to do serious things and have fun together —and because this is a children’s service and not a holiday camp, we do these things after intelligent and purposeful planning.
At a child and youth program where I was director, we regularly monitored the quality of relationships between each staff member and each youth, using a descriptive scale of 0 to 7. (0 meant no contact at all, 1 meant only routine contact, 2 meant some time regularly spent in a scheduled activity ... to 7 which meant a frequent, mutual and trusting relationship.) This exercise taught us a lot about the ‘economy’ of our human resources: there were some youngsters, who because they were functioning at a high level anyway, many staff related to well — while other youngsters were not getting anything beyond routine relationships. We could afford, therefore, to ‘detach’ some staff from better functioning kids and assign them to others more needy of adult time and attention. A parallel exercise indicated how individual children valued individual staff members, so we were guided in matching adults with children.
Are you holding your breath as they make ever more significant decisions in their lives, scrambling up from stage 2 to stage 3? That’s scary too, and takes special generosity and courage from child care workers. Or are we placing our preferences and biases above their choices and being conditional in our relationships — thus keeping them at level 2? When we think carefully about these things, when we consider how our theory can be integrated in our practice, we are moving away from being just baby-sitters and child minders; we are being more like the child development specialists we ought to be as child and youth care workers.
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Our colleague Vivien Lewis used to say that in the children’s program we must help the children to grow through three stages:
I cannot think of a better summary or application of Kohlberg’s theory.