Negative Peer Pressure
I have been involved in doing some research on CYC practice with Kiaras Gharabaghi from Ryerson University. We were interested in how CYC teams influence an individual worker’s practice as one of several aspects of looking at residential CYC programs. The overall focus was on how workers attempt to create accountability in their interactions with the youth in care.
Simply put, we found that almost all the teams interviewed described using very basic behaviour modification techniques, with little awareness of developmental or relational approaches. This was surprising and distressing, but as we looked at our data there was an interesting aspect that we uncovered. Several workers in many groups described using relational and individually focussed approaches, but quickly shifted to a more basic behavioural explanation as their team mates, who were listening, added to the discussion. The focus on treatment changed into a focus on control of behaviour as the team members interacted with each other. CYC theory seemed to get lost as the team described needing youth to act like they were in the “real world” and that all behaviour needed to be addressed consistently by all staff to prevent any youth from getting away with irresponsible acts.
This is a quick summary of a more elaborate set of findings, which is soon to be published (see footnote), but it is an important piece for us to bring out into the open. It appears that when individual CYC practitioners are discussing their practice with the team, they minimize treatment decisions that are more relational and less controlling, and ignore developmental differences during team discussions about how to handle behaviour problems.
This is an issue which has been a persistent problem for trained CYC practitioners who are working with less skilled co-workers and supervisors, since they are advocating for a more complex analysis of the youth and his needs than untrained workers are capable of appreciating. Yet our study saw this phenomenon occurring even among well trained and experienced teams, with competent supervisors.
I had a personal experience of this, after a workshop where I was presenting this data, a worker who had attended came up to me and stated that he had been in one of the groups interviewed in this research. He was surprised by my conclusions, but said that in thinking about it, he often deliberately hid his interactions with youth which focussed more relationally without using external control approaches. He said that he expected to get criticized for being too easy by co-workers when he was less controlling and more understanding.
We have a real problem here. The peer pressure exerted by the CYC team, which has some very complex motivations which are often driven by agency policy and management’s avoidance of risk, has neutralized the significant theoretical and educational advances of the past thirty years. CYC teams seem to be using models that are obsolete and proven to be bad practice, not because of individual commitment to this model, but because of a simplifying group think process that is keeping everyone from doing what is clearly seen as competent CYC practice.
There is a need for every residential treatment program to examine this potentially destructive peer pressure dynamic to minimize its impact on creating useful treatment approaches. Individual CYC practitioners need to challenge themselves and the teams they work on to be aware of this tendency to minimize relational and developmental thinking in daily practice. This is an example of peer pressure that is a bit too close to home.
Gharibaghi, K., Phelan, M., and Phelan, J. (in press). Beyond control. Residential Treatment of Children and Youth.