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Divisions between behaviour management and therapy: Towards new directions of authority in child and youth care

Jim Vanderwoerd

The author’s frontline child care experience has revealed that managing children’s difficult behavior has become separated from the goal of therapeutic change. The trap for some child care workers has been to ‘prove’ their competence by controlling children, at the expense of effective therapy. Early child care theorists (Redl & Wineman, 1957; Trieschman, Whittaker & Brendtro,1969) demonstrated that, theoretically at least, there was no separation between managing behavior and promoting positive therapeutic change. It was suggested that a key element in practicing authority is to treat children with respect. Respectful authority promotes eventual equality, and does not maintain permanent dominant relationships.

I have been intrigued by the concept of authority for a long time. I remember in high school I used to wonder why some teachers had us sitting quietly and passively, while with others we would be rowdy and disruptive. Why is it that some have a natural aura of authority about them, and others must struggle to get even marginal compliance?

When I entered the field of child care I began to experience first hand what it was like trying to control difficult children. I never had any magic aura about me, so I was one of those who engaged in a constant battle of power and control. It seemed the better I was able to control children, the more positive feedback I received from colleagues and supervisors. Put another way, the better behaved the children, the better I felt as a worker.

But something seemed amiss here. Judging one’s competence as a worker by the behavior of the children is ludicrous, especially when we realize that these are not just any children, but children whose emotional disturbance and history of neglect and abuse makes them all the more difficult to manage. Using the children’s behavior as a gauge for worker competence is not only unfair and inaccurate, but destructive. Nevertheless, my experience in child care is that this was often the case, to the detriment of the workers, the programs, and the children.

I would suggest that there presently exists a division between what we as child care workers do in behavior management, and what we do as treatment. Too often, we are forced to put behavior management on the front burner, and judge our programs, our progress, and ourselves on this only. While we concentrate on managing behavior, we fail to engage in any long-lasting, effective treatment. The theorists did not divide management and therapy for us but the two have become separate in our practice. The result is child care workers who judge themselves by how well they control the children, rather than by therapeutic results.

This creates a miserable dilemma for workers. If they do not possess that magical aura of authority, they either resort to adopting a heavy-handed style which is neither comfortable nor effective, or they attempt to win children’s cooperation by being friendly and overly permissive. Meanwhile, the authoritarian style workers scoff at others who cannot ‘do it as well.’ This creates tension among staff, and, when the goal becomes whether one can make a child jump, and how high, fosters destructive competition.

I want to address the chasm between authoritarian behavior management and effective treatment, and show how effective treatment cannot and does not happen when the goal is to manage behavior only for the sake of demonstrating worker competence. I will look back to our theoretical foundations which remind us that behavior management can and should be part of effective treatment, and not counter to it. I would like to pose some alternative ways of looking at authority, and would suggest that we can use our authority therapeutically, not just as a means of control.

Redl and Wineman (1957), in their classic volume on residential treatment for children, The Aggressive Child, never envisioned behavior management as anything but treatment. In the chapter “Techniques for the antiseptic manipulation of surface behavior” they listed numerous techniques in which workers seek to rebuild and support the damaged egos of their children, and manage their difficult behaviors at the same time. In fact, it is through management of the day-to-day behaviors of such children that workers are allowed the opportunity for treatment. Using the daily routine as the place for treatment has become known as milieu therapy. In this model all parts of daily experience – the physical characteristics of the setting, the furniture, the routines, the people, the food, and so on-become tools for therapy. Clearly these are also an integral part of behavior management. In the therapeutic milieu, at least in theory, therapy and management are intertwined and inseparable.

Trieschman, Whittaker & Brendtro (1969) expanded the concept of the therapeutic milieu in their well-known book The Other 23 Hours. They included informative and detailed guidelines for the creation of therapeutic routines such as waking up, meal times, and bed time. As well, they added the notion of the therapeutic relationship. They described the relationship between the worker and the child as another area in which treatment occurs. In fact, the uniqueness of residential child care is the opportunity to develop a relationship with the client unlike any other helping relationship. Nowhere else does the worker become such a large part of the client’s daily life. Through the therapeutic relationship, the worker is better able to manage difficult behavior, and engage in effective treatment. Here again, we see how behavior management and treatment are connected.

Modelling as Treatment
One of the key ways in which workers can use relationship is in modelling, through which a worker has an excellent opportunity to effectively manage children’s behavior. Consider, for instance, the child care worker who demonstrates composure and does not blame others or make accusations when angry at a colleague. A child with whom this worker has a relationship may be more likely to adopt a similar way of handling angry feelings. This is behavior management, in that the child’s destructiveness when angry is curbed, but also treatment, in that the child learns positive skills in handling anger. Swanson & Richard noted that “... the aggressive child has learned that aggression pays .... Aggressive children need to learn that adults whom they admire are capable of getting their needs met without acting aggressively” (1988, p. 987).

When we fail to recognize the importance of modelling, we stop being therapeutic, and become only managers of behavior. This becomes especially true when what we say is incongruent with what we do. The danger is in being unaware of what we are modelling to the children. As Bertcher commented, “Adults who work with children are continually modelling particular attitudes and behaviors, whether they intend to or not” (1973, p. 179).

This was never more clear to me than when I witnessed a program director vent her wrath on four hapless boys who had just been returned from a failed AWOL attempt. The four boys sat nervously around the kitchen table, waiting in dreaded anticipation for the director, who had been summoned to handle the crisis. When she arrived, she lashed out in a verbal barrage of expletives and threats! I watched in despair as months of work trying to curb their aggression and vulgarity went down the drain in a few short minutes. All the grand programs in the world do not mean a thing when the top boss behaves like that. While we were trying to teach that swearing and threats are inappropriate in handling conflict, her message here was “you may swear and make physical threats if you’re bigger than someone else, or they make you mad enough.” This tactic certainly was effective in managing the boys’ behavior, at least temporarily, but clearly lacked any positive therapeutic effect. Perhaps the only thing the boys learned in the whole episode was that violence is perfectly okay when someone or something becomes frustrating enough, or when someone is above you in the hierarchy.

Behavior management becomes ineffective as therapy when it fails to teach internal controls. We need to manage the behavior of emotionally disturbed children because they lack the internal controls to manage their own behavior. As Lewis (1988) aptly noted, we cannot force children to adopt certain attitudes, even when we are successful in controlling their behavior:

... identification is largely an unconscious process, and may not be brought about directly through punishment, preaching, bribery, or coercion. These practices . . . can produce surface behavior-superficial compliance or conformity. But these changes are fake. They do not reflect real absorption of new strengths and values, and they disappear as soon as the external pressure is removed (p.27).

The goal in our management should be to gradually turn the reins over to the children, so that they may eventually control themselves.

Difficulties in the Team
When some of the workers on a team operate solely on an authoritarian behavior management basis, this creates many difficulties for the rest of the team. A behavior-management-only approach provides only external controls for disturbed children. The children tend to become bitter and resentful toward these controlling staff, and feel apprehensive and scared about voicing this around these staff. While their behavior might be under control, they are struggling to keep their impulses in check. As a result, the workers who do not provide rigid external controls become safe outlets for these children to vent their pent-up frustrations. The ‘safe’ workers end up taking the brunt of the behavior which originated with the authoritarian staff, setting off a damaging spiral. The authoritarian staff often severely chastises the child for misbehaving in the staff’s absence. The non-authoritarian staff feel guilty and incompetent, while often the authoritarian staff implicitly accuse those staff who have difficulty with the behavior, and feel some triumph at their own success. The energies of the team are spent on inter-staff conflicts, with little left over for effective treatment.

It is tempting for child care workers to judge themselves and their colleagues on how well they can control the group. According to Trieschman et al., “Since child behavior is usually thought to be the prime indicator of worker inadequacy, the competent worker is the one who exercises high control over his charges, is quite authoritarian, and suppresses any acting-out behavior” (1969, p. 225). When the children’s behavior becomes the measure for competence, then destructive competition arises between staff. Trieschman et al. were certainly aware of this when they commented further, “It is not uncommon to see workers go to great lengths to demonstrate their ‘behavior control prowess’ to one another, often to the detriment of the children” (1969,p. 225). It can become extremely difficult to discuss effective strategies for difficult behavior when staff feel threatened or accused by their colleagues. When a worker brings up a difficulty with a particular child, the implicit message is “I don’t have trouble with so and so, so the problem must be you. I don’t have to deal with it, or worry about it. It’s your problem, you solve it.” Obviously this is damaging not only to the worker, but indirectly it hampers the effectiveness, or even existence, of any treatment for the child. While this may seem rare or harsh, it was part of my experience all too often. I admit that I, too, was guilty of this, sometimes feeling a twinge of pride or superiority when observing another worker having difficulty with a child whom I had ‘mastered.’

Our Own History
Before we come down too harshly on those ‘terrible’ authoritarians, it might do to remember that few child care workers actually start out this way or intend to work like this. Child care work is unique in that it involves a heavy emotional and personal investment. The capital which we have at our disposal to invest is the sum of all our training and experience. Because child care involves working with children in their daily lives, it has a strong parental component. All of us have been raised by someone, if not by a parent, then by some other parental figure. Our own experience of childhood and the parenting we received is unavoidably a part of the experience we bring to our work. Even with intense education and training, we are unable to extricate our experience from our repertoire of skills. As well, many child care workers are hired with little related education or training, beyond the inevitable desire to ‘work with kids,’ and perhaps the ubiquitous ‘summer camp counsellor’ experience. In other words, our work with children is a reflection of how our parents ‘worked’ with us; often what was good enough for them, is good enough for us.

Ebner referred to this reliance on our instincts and experiences as our “automatic pilot” (1979), and concluded that a large number of workers adopt a “hardhat” style as their “automatic pilot.” He characterized “hard-hats” as workers who are externally oriented, seek to control and conform, rely on consequences and punishment, and place emphasis on traditional values and respect for authority (Ebner, 1979, p. 37). “Hard-hats” appear to be behavior management oriented, and tend to ignore treatment, instead opting for short-term observable results.

A reliance on our “automatic pilots” can be destructive, but it need not always be. It is impossible to imagine that we can completely escape our instincts, especially when we are dealing with a crisis. Rather, an increased awareness of our “automatic pilots” would allow us to evaluate whether they are effective or detrimental to meeting our therapeutic goals.

I think it is clear that despite what our theories tell us about effective therapy through behavior management, the truth is that they have become separated. Too often, our behavior management becomes control focused and authoritarian. Dahms (1978) has suggested that without building a meaningful, therapeutic relationship, authority becomes “... arbitrary and ... has to be propped up by intimidation, fear, threats, and hostility. Not only is this kind of authority short-lived, but it is obviously destructive and counter-productive to quality treatment” (p. 337). I would like to consider some alternatives to this kind of authority, and challenge child care workers to critically evaluate their own style of authority.

Authority and Control in Child Care
First, we must answer the nature of our authority, and to what end we practice it. Do we insist on compliance for its own sake? Do we seek to control the children for our own benefit and sanity? Does our authority setup a permanent dominant relationship, or does it encourage eventual equality? Do we seek to support or to control? Do we meet our needs, and address our own fears of inadequacy, or do we use our authority for others’ benefits? I will discuss these questions by looking at how others have considered authority, and how we might arrive at a concept of authority that is respectful, effective, and conducive to meeting therapeutic goals.

It would be unwise and naive to think that we could close the gap between behavior management and treatment by ignoring or avoiding our status as persons in an authority role. Whether we like it or not, we are thrust into the role of authority figures, and we must work with it. Most of the children and youth who come into care do not do so out of choice. In this sense, they’re involuntary or ‘mandated’ clients, and have no choice but to accept the service that is offered. Hutchinson (1987) pointed out that child welfare clients are included in an increasing number of mandated clients, and suggested that social workers come to grips with their role as an unwanted authority figure in the client’s life. While the child care setting differs from other arenas of social work practice, the need to address the suspicions of wary clients does not become any less.

Another way to avoid authority is to attempt a ‘buddy-buddy’ relationship with a child that denies the obvious child-adult difference that exists in the relationship. While this does not give adults the right to be dominating by virtue of their adulthood, it does entail recognition of the boundaries between child and adult. This is particularly evident with young workers, who makeup a large percentage of many staff. As Trieschman et al. suggested, while many young workers “... have not yet fully adopted the adult role themselves ... it is essential that [they] carve out some sort of adult role” (1969, p. 89). The point here is that we do not serve children well by abdicating our authority completely. The children need to learn how to relate to a positive authority figure. Trieschman et al. concluded, “... the worker who disavows this role removes the possibility that the child will learn this from him” (1969, p. 89).

We also cannot ignore the fact that a certain amount of control must be exercised in order to prevent chaos, and maintain order and sanity. I am not suggesting that we abandon our control, or let children do as they wish. Obviously no treatment could be possible in an environment where kids are charging around the house, threatening staff, destroying property, and generally running amuck.

This is one of the sources of the dilemma: how do we create an atmosphere that allows treatment to take place, and maintain control at the same time? Again, Trieschman et al. were aware of this when they commented:

“Control and management of disturbed children is a large and important part of the duties of child care workers, and there are few who would currently defend the worker who was unable or unwilling to exercise appropriate controls over disturbed children.” (1969, p. 225)

The question then, is how do we maintain a proper balance between appropriate management of behavior and treatment which is positive and effective?

Authority, Control and Respect
I would suggest that a key element in assessing our behavior management techniques is the degree to which we treat children with respect. Diana Baumrind (1966) seemed to touch on the idea of respect in her investigation into different parenting styles. She identified three types of parents: permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. Permissive parents tended to give up their authority over their children. They provided few or no controls, and very little predictability or security. While they may have attempted to respect their children’s autonomy, they did not recognize their children’s need for guidance and direction. Authoritative parents recognized their children’s autonomy, and allowed them the opportunity to explore and test their environment under the safe, predictable structures which the parents provided. When disciplining their children, authoritative parents provided logical and meaningful explanations to their children, and related consequences to their children’s behavior. Finally, authoritarian parents tended to offer no explanation when punishment was dealt out.

Eleanor Maccoby (1980) found that children of authoritarian parents tended to have low self-esteem, lacked empathy, were unable to internalize moral standards, lacked independence, and were weak in establishing positive peer relationships (p. 384). Assuming that most of these children were ‘normal,’ we can imagine the even greater difficulties for emotionally disturbed children. They experience adults as scary, unpredictable, and harsh, and they expect all adults to be this way. Our job as child care workers is to rebuild their concept of adults – and of the world – as secure, predictable, and controllable. W e do this not by demanding compliance, but by showing respect for their ‘personhood.’ However, we also need to provide firm and fair boundaries, to provide safety and security, and to communicate respect.

If we truly respect children, then our authority will not be such that it maintains a permanent dominant relationship. Jean Baker Miller (1976)described dominance occurring in two forms. The first is permanent dominance, in which authority maintains the inequality in the relationship, and encourages continual patterns of dominance and submission in other relationships. In other words, if our authority encourages permanent dominance over children, then we not only harm them in our specific relationship, but also cement in place a long-lasting characteristic of submission which children will carry with them beyond their time with us. Children may grow to resent authority, and see themselves as hopelessly confined to unchanging patterns of dominance by others.

A second way to look at dominance is to consider it as a temporary state. Here, our authority is legitimized by a variety of factors, such as age, position, greater experience, greater knowledge, or whatever. This in no way assumes that our authority makes us superior over another. Rather, it gives us a responsibility to those over whom we have authority. Our task is to use our authority to encourage the growth and development of another toward the goal of their eventually acquiring equality. We must seek through our authority to eliminate dominance, and thereby teach children how to operate from a position of equality with others.

When we arbitrarily control children, we do not allow them the opportunity to grow and change. Our behavior management techniques must allow children to experience our external controls and limits as fair and respectful. It is sometimes said that our job is ‘to work ourselves out of a job.’ Using our authority to encourage eventual equality is one way of doing this.

I would be foolish to imagine that by writing this paper, I might change the practices of those “hard-hats” out there. It is unlikely that many will read this; more often than not, frontline workers are too busy with their tasks to ever put their noses in a journal. However, I also do not believe that my own experience and observation of damaging, disrespectful working practices are isolated or rare. I would suggest that if we honestly look at the places where we have worked (or are working), we could identify certain workers, perhaps even ourselves, who practice from an authoritarian perspective, unmindful of the damage being done. If even one child care worker is prompted to re-evaluate his or her own working style, then this effort will have been a success. As child care workers, we are entrusted with a unique responsibility for precious children: do we treat them with true respect, or crush them under our self-serving authority? 


Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37,887-907.

Bertcher, H. J. (Fall, 1973). The child care worker as a role model. Child Care Quarterly, 2(3), 178-191.

Dahms, W. R. (Winter, 1978). Authority vs. Relationship? Child Care Quarterly, 7(4), 336-344.

Ebner, M.J. (Spring, 1979). Hard-Hats vs. Soft-Hearts: The conflict between principles and reality in child and adolescent care and treatment programs. Child Care Quarterly, 8(1), 36--46.

Hutchison, E.D. (December, 1987). Use of authority and direct social work practice. Social Service Review, 61(4), 581-598.

Lewis, W.B. (1989). Helping the youthful offender: individual and group therapies that work. Child & Youth Services, 11(2), 1-217.

Maccoby, E. (1980). Social development: Psychological growth and the parent-child relationship. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanvich.

Miller, J.B. (1986). Toward anew psychology of women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Redl, F., & Wineman D. (1957). The aggressive child. Glencce, Illinois: Free Press.

Swanson, A.J., & Richard, B.A. (1988). Discipline and child behavior management in group care. In C.E. Schaefer & A.J. Swanson (Eds.), Children in residential care: Critical issues in treatment, pp. 77-88. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Trieschman, A.E., Whittaker, J.K. & Brendtro, L. K. (1969). The other 23 hours: Child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu. Chicago: Aldine Publishing. 

This feature: Vanderwoerd, J. (1991) Divisions between behaviour management and therapy: towards new directions of authority in child and youth care. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol. 5(1), pp. 33-41