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Controls from within: The enduring challenge

Larry K. Brendtro and Nicholas J. Long

A half century after Fritz Redl and David Wineman pioneered the life space interview with aggressive children, this method has evolved into a comprehensive psychoeducational model known as Life Space Crisis Intervention [LSCI]. This article highlights the scientific rationale and research base for LSCI, which builds positive alliances with youth and uses problems as opportunities for teaching and treatment.

Problems as Opportunities
Fifty years ago, Fritz Redl and David Wineman unveiled their ground-breaking discoveries about the treatment of aggressive children. Their book, Controls From Within (1952), put forth a novel idea: Use crisis to create a curriculum of self-control. They sought out the worst kids they could find to test out their methods, recruiting them from the childrenís mental hospitals and jails of the day. Like battlefield strategists, they carefully designed a plan of engagement:

"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
Multiple methods are required to meet the diverse needs of troubled children, and the most effective interventions are ecological and multi-modal (Goldstein, 1999). Life space approaches sprung from psychodynamic roots but were invigorated by drawing methods from other traditions to create a new psychoeducational model. In 1991, the "life space interview" was renamed Life Space Crisis Intervention [LSCI] to more accurately reflect its broadened theory base.

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 research" (Berscheid, 1999).  A wealth of studies validate the primacy of human relationships in the helping process (Safran & Muran, 2000). Research on a wide range of therapies shows that the single largest variable accounting treatment success is a positive helping alliance (Hubble, Duncan, & Miller, 1999).

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
Talking with kids in crisis can be a confusing and unsettling process, but LSCI offers the adult a "road map" of the psychological terrain. A six-stage problem-solving process enlists the youth in a search for solutions (Long, Wood & Fecser, 2001). Here we highlight the rationale and research foundation for each stage of LSCI:

Stage 1. De-escalating Crisis
Kids in conflict suspend operations in the problem-solving part of their brains, shifting down to a more reptilian, survival mode. In times of threat or crisis, the amygdala ó the brainís danger detector ó takes charge and activates fight or flight programs. When fear or anger is extreme, the amygdala is kindled and regions of the brain which handle reasoning and positive emotions shut down (LeDoux & Phelps, 2000). Such a youth is not ready to solve problems.

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
Staff next encourage the student to share his or her perception of the problem. This begins the process of involving the student in problem solving. Humans attribute personal meanings to events; we are the stories we tell (Meichenbaum & Fong, 1993). The young personís account provides additional data for understanding the problem and how the youth thinks, feels, and behaves.

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
Once the crisis has been defused (Stage I) and a time line of the event has been developed (Stage 2), the next task is to identify the central issue (Stage 3). Sometimes a problem turns out to be a simple conflict or rule infraction that can be routinely managed. At this juncture, the staff may choose to end this intervention, having provided what Redl called "emotional first aid."

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
Once the adult identifies a pattern, the next step is to help the youth gain understanding and accountability. Otherwise, the student will continue this "no win" pattern of behavior. This is not depth psychology but a concrete recognition of how this behavior hurts others and how coping strategies lead to self-defeating outcomes. Youth need to learn that dangers that once threatened them no longer exist, and there are better ways of coping and achieving their goals (Edelstien, 1990). Past patterns persisted because of some payoff, if only in the childís private logic. A person who recognizes the self-defeating nature of behavior is motivated for change.

Stage 5. Acquiring New Skills
Good intentions are not sufficient; therefore, students need to acquire specific behavioral skills to overcome problems. A youth victimized by peers may need to develop assertiveness. An anti-social youth who enjoys bullying others needs to experience appropriate guilt and empathy; this might involve victim-awareness training and participation in pro-social helping activities. A youth who feels guilty and worthless needs support and encouragement to develop self-control.

Stage 6. Transfer of Training
Effective treatment must generalize to the classroom, family, and community. The greatest frustration with all models of intervention has been the lack of transfer after external controls and reinforcement are withdrawn. Goldstein and Martens (2000) suggest that earlier notions of "train and hope" are not viable. They review methods to generalize training to the natural setting. Programs that teach self-efficacy and problem-solving enhance intrinsic learning and transfer. In Redlís terms, the ultimate success is to develop controls from within.

Redl and Wineman planted a novel idea in the field of child treatment: use problems of children as teaching opportunities. They believed that defiance and rebellion should be viewed as misdirected strengths of young persons who are struggling to cope with a toxic world. Decades before the resilience movement, Redl joked that somebody should write a book titled "The Virtues of Delinquent Children," except he expected a publisher would not be found (Redl, 1957). Today, research has finally caught up with this clinical wisdom.

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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This feature: Larry K. Brendtro and Nicholas J. Long (2002) Controls from Within: The Enduring Challenge. Reclaiming Children and Youth Vol. 11 No. 1 Spring 2002 pp. 5-9