Controls from Within: The Enduring Challenge
Larry K. Brendtro and Nicholas J. Long
Problems as Opportunities
"Turn problems into opportunity" is a truism among leaders in modem business and the military. There is no more powerful way of confronting a crisis than by converting a liability into an asset. However, until recently, this proactive philosophy was not widely practiced in work with children in conflict. Dominant approaches were reactive and focused on punishment and pathology.
The authors and others trained by Redl and Wineman continued work on the life space philosophy during years when the climate was not hospitable to optimistic views of childrenís problems. Today, there is a revival of interest in positive models. Sparked by prevention research, the American Psychological Association called for a "positive psychology" focusing on strength and resilience instead of dwelling on deficits (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
An example of positive psychology is the new discipline of developmental psychopathology. Researchers in this field are demonstrating that childhood behavior problems are disruptions in the process of normal growth rather than immutable defects in the child (Cicchetti & Cohen, 1995; Sameroff, Lewis, & Miller, 2000). Perhaps the most consistent finding from resilience and developmental research is that caring adults are critical in helping youth cope with crisis and adversity. This is the rationale of life space intervention.
The Revival of Relationship Science
LSCI methodology is grounded in cognitive, behavioral, developmental, educational, social, clinical and counseling psychology research. With the advent of formal training and certification, LSCI gained consistency and fidelity. Participants in a 45-hour course are taught 27 specific competencies. The method necessitates forming an alliance with a youth and working to recognize and correct destructive behavior. But troubled children rarely leap into our therapeutic laps, so the challenge is to convert adversarial encounters into respectful problem-solving alliances (Seita & Brendtro, 2002). These are sharp contrasts:
Our mentor, William Morse of the
University of Michigan, taught that relationship is more powerful than
technique. For a time, there was limited scientific evidence to support
this contention. Now we are experiencing a "greening of relationship
We now have available an array of strategies for fostering pro-social change through strengthening relationships (Goldstein & Higginbotham, 1991). The reclaiming methods of LSCI are designed to maximize the likelihood that a respectful alliance will develop. This requires adults who learn the skills of relating to youth with respect, even at times when respect is not reciprocated or "deserved."
The Problem-Solving Process in LSCI
Stage 1. De-escalating Crisis
When a youth is distressed, the first priority is calming the emotional storm. This requires adults who can control their own counter-aggressive feelings and verbal and nonverbal behavior. Zillman (1993) summarized research on the escalation of angry emotions in conflict cycles. If the adult reciprocates angry emotional displays with a youth, negative emotions escalate in both parties. Providing support and empathy during a crisis may disengage one from the enemy role and help calm emotions. Angry persons need time to recover control. However, the common sense advice of just leaving the person alone to cool off may backfire. Isolation may fuel alienation and anger. Studies show that some angry persons become more furious when left alone to ruminate and plot revenge. If the adult needs to withdraw for a time, this must not communicate rejection or retreat, but respectful distancing so calmer minds can prevail.
There are tested programs for crisis de-escalation, including the training provided by Crisis Prevention Institute, whose affiliated company, Compassion Publishing, publishes this journal. All who work with potentially aggressive persons need such basic training to prevent and defuse crisis. But when problems persist, LSCI offers another level of intervention. After de-escalating a crisis, the next step is to understand what happened.
Stage 2. Clarifying Time Lines
Some adults question whether talking to a youth in crisis might reinforce negative behavior with attention. More typically, angry youth find talking to adults about their problems aversive, not rewarding. If adults in the past have been coercive or disrespectful, this new adult will be cast in the role of hated authority. Thus, whether a youth is seeking or trying to avoid attention, the goal is to use the crisis as an occasion for positive learning.
Time lines are widely used for interpreting the meaning of behavior. Detectives build time lines to deduce "whodunit." Therapists use time lines for "tracking" origins of symptom behavior. Functional behavioral assessments use a time line called ABC (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence) to form hypotheses about the purpose or goal of a behavior.
In LSCI, the key time line skill is tracking a conflict cycle where stress escalates into crisis. Such conflicts offer a snapshot of how an individual thinks, feels, and acts. Since persons donít reinvent themselves in each new crisis, time lines can reveal the studentís specific pattern of coping behavior. We look for both constructive and self-defeating coping strategies. Surface behavior often masks a youthís real thoughts and feelings. A student may act ingratiating to a hated teacher, puff up with anger when afraid, or act the clown to cover embarrassment. Without knowing the personís private logic, we risk misinterpreting the meaning of the behavior.
Youth are prime experts about their own inner world, but adults often ignore this data source. Loeber (1991) contends that "deviant individuals" are the most unreliable informants. Perhaps, but the role of all scientists is to be truth detectors. Even the fact that a kid lies raises intriguing hypotheses and opportunities for communication. Has this young person been betrayed by other adults? Does he or she expect punishment for being honest? Does the person fear disclosing a painful or shameful event? When the youth believes it is safe to tell the truth, the need to deceive diminishes.
There is extensive research on why humans are motivated to confide in others in times of crisis (Pennebaker, 1990). Presumably, opening up has survival value by enlisting social support, advice, and empathy. The more distressing the crisis is, the greater the need to talk about it. Otherwise, emotionally charged experiences cause intrusive thoughts and feelings. Persons who can "tell their story" can reduce stress and build positive bonds with others.
Stage 3. Diagnosing the Problem
If this is a serious or chronic pattern of self-defeating behavior, the staff proceeds to identify the appropriate intervention; Redl called this process the "clinical exploitation of life events." This involves three additional stages to help the student understand the cause of a problem (Stage 4), acquire new coping skills (Stage 5), and transfer training into the life space (Stage 6).
There are many systems for assessing problems of children and youth. Prominent is the DSM psychiatric model that classifies behavior patterns as mental disorders such as anxiety disorder or conduct disorder. Alternate psychological models use statistical studies to identify behavior dimensions such as aggression or withdrawal. Such approaches may offer useful information but seldom cast much light on the meaning of the behavior, the strengths of the child, or the specific interventions needed (Scotti et al., 1996).
LSCI views problem behaviors, such as aggression or withdrawal, as coping strategies that serve some function for the person. Staff observe behavior and dialogue with the youth in order to identify the purpose of the behavior, the youthís coping strengths, and interventions to resolve the problem. Below are six major patterns of self-defeating behavior addressed by LSCI with brief examples of related research:
The content of LSCI interventions is specific to each of these problems. The general process for problem-solving follows the steps described below:
Stage 4: Gaining Insight
Stage 5. Acquiring New Skills
Stage 6. Transfer of Training
Writing for the American Psychological Association, Martin Hoffman (2002) called for a comprehensive, empathy-based theory of pro-social development. Discipline encounters at home and school should provide the foundation for building conscience. Naturally occurring problems can teach children how their behavior impacts self and others and how they can work toward positive change. To be effective, this inductive discipline requires a respectful relationship, since a youth indifferent or antagonistic would not be receptive to the adultís teaching. The model Hoffman proposes has been in preparation for a half century.
Turning problems into opportunities is not just an idealistic whimsy, but a practical plan grounded in the science of positive youth development. Life Space Crisis Intervention is an idea whose time has come.
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