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Lack of structure and rules

I am a youth care worker in a group home with at risk youth. Recently I have become frustrated with the lack of structure and rules within our center. It has created a feeling being useless as the house is a free for all and the kids have developed an "I don't care attitude". Our approach is a relationship based philosophy and does work well at times but when acting out behavior starts without rules and consequences it seems useless and I feel I could be replaced by a camera. Is there a need for Structure and Rules and is it too late to take back the "free for all" from the kids placed here? Any input would be appreciated.

Dave
...

Hi David

As an initial and too brief response, I would like to say that "structure" and "rules" are not the same at all. A facility can have a lot of rules, but if they are ignored and inconsistently enforced, there is no therapeutic structure. At the same time, a facility can have very few rules but have a lot of structure as staff use their relationships to guide children/youth into learning how to respect limits, operate within boundaries, etc. I know of NO theory that implies that having kids operate within a "free for all" is good for them, or is in any way helpful in teaching them how to live within a structured society. It is my belief that no child/teen feels safe when they are left to their own devices, since their immaturity renders them unable to solve complicated problems without guidance from more mature people. Sometimes what seems to be them "running amok" is actually a blatant display of anxiety based on insecurity caused by an environment without sufficient structure for them to feel safe. I never believe kids when they say they don't care. They may not know how to care, but all kids care about getting the safety and security they need from adults who are committed to keeping them safe - both physically and emotionally.

Lorraine Fox
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David

How do you demonstrate unconditional acceptance and love for children who have never recieved it? These are children who don't know what unconditional love is (otherwise they would be at home... behaviour problems and all), so they will act in a manner to get you to also reject them. By implementing something that seems like "no rules" you are creating an opportunity for these kids to learn to trust you. You cannot build a relationship with these kids if they don't trust you first, and it may take a long time to get there. You want them to be motivated to do things for themselves because they want to, not because they will lose privileges if they don't. Fear is no way to raise a child.

Lisa
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Dave,

I believe it is not too late to restructure and come up with some solid rules and routines that make the staff and the residents feel safe. I believe that even though the kids will not admit it, they feel a lot safer in a group home setting when there is a solid structure in place and the rules are clear and concise. You might receive some resistance at the beginning from the residents; however if everyone stays consistent in what you decide to put in place, in no time it will work. My favorite saying is "Discipline means love and understanding" Hope this helps.

Regards

Dave Zimmerman
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David, unfortunately this sounds all too familiar. The trouble comes from the top. The mandate needs to be established so that the frontline staff apply it. Once that part is done then it is up to the supervisors to ensure the frontline staff uphold the goals and agenda of the agency. If the problem is the frontline staff not doing their jobs, then again this matter should be addressed by the supervisors and reprimand should be done accordingly. If frontliners are not doing their part in maintaining the rules and regulations then the program will fall apart. I don't know if this will help but you need to voice your concerns at staff meetings.

Carl Faria
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Dear Dave,

Relationships and Structure and Rules

I feel for you, and with you, when you say that the social climate of your house feels like a 'free for all' and that your kids have developed an 'I don't care attitude' and that all this is creating a feeling that you and your colleagues are 'being useless'. I know how many times I have felt like this, but I do struggle with your idea that there is somehow a battle going on between a 'relationship philosophy' which you suggest does not work 'when acting out behaviour starts' and the need for 'structure and rules'. My view is that relationships are fundamental to our work - indeed they are our work - just as a healthy good enough attachment relationship between ourselves as infants/children/ adolescents and a parent figure is essential for the healthy development of each and every one of us. It is when a relationship breaks down such as when you describe yourself as feeling you 'could be replaced by a camera' that efforts to work on the relationship must become a paramount concern. In a circumstance such as you describe communication in all aspects of the running of the house may be so fraught that the relationships between adults and the young people - however problematic achieving this may seem - must as a priority be re-established and sustained.

This is not to say that relationships themselves should not have the boundaries of structures and rules - both formal and informal - but we should bear in mind that human relationships are dynamic in a complex way and there is a need for flexibility because we are engaged with unique individual youngsters. One size does not fit all. In addition we often work with youngsters who are troubled and we must accept that there will be many times in our work when we are working at the boundaries of what is or is not socially acceptable. When this happens it seems to me both staff and the youngsters can be emotionally affected but it would not be helpful for any youngsters if we withdraw from our relationship with them as a consequence of our despair at their behaviour and then demand that they obey rules we set for them. If they don't obey them what then? For then we will not have our relationships left to fall back on. No, it seems to me we should stick with the relationship even in the most troubled of times and also use our relationships with our colleagues while we are out working on the floor, in handover meetings, in supervision and in staff meetings to reflect on our own practice as well as the kids' behaviour and consider how we can further develop our relationships with the kids for therapeutic gain.

As an aside, I think too that if there is a general consensus that everything is going well in a children's home in the sense that all behaviours of the children - and staff - are socially acceptable and commendable then there is something seriously wrong or seriously right going on and we should either be very alarmed or we should all voluntarily admit ourselves to residential care. I am persuaded that committed, informed, tenacious, insightful and well-resourced residential child care can help many troubled youngsters by providing them the kind of relationships they need with adults, but I am also persuaded to expect and accept that our work is by its very nature problematic.

I apologise if I have seemed to sermonise, but I do believe in the power of healthy (and by healthy I certainly do not mean problem-free) adult/child relationships and I also think that your implied wish not to be just a camera suggests to me that you are concerned to be in good relationships with the kids you are looking after. In all humility I commend that.

Best wishes,

Charles Sharpe
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Very interesting situation Dave, thank you for sharing your frustrations.

Of course it is ideal to have a perfect balance of relationship/rapport-building, independence, freedom, choice, etc. and rules & boundaries. How we strike that balance should be based on the needs and goals of the youth we are supporting. My suggestion would be to have a house meeting. Staff could express their observations about some of the problems occurring in the home and ask the youth for their perspective. Then ask the youth for their suggestions on how to restore order in the home. Ask them to suggest their own rules and expectations of each other and see how that goes. You may be surprised with how insightful they are; most do not want to live in chaos and will have some idea of how they would like the house to run. Youth are also held accountable much more easily when they have contributed to their own house expectations. Try to keep the meeting positive, with a focus on their goals for how they want to live in the house with as little staff input as possible. When staff do need to help or make suggestions for rules, try to keep them as realistic as possible, and as real-life as possible. Think about skills and rules for living that they will need to follow when they are old enough to live independently that will help them behave appropriately in society.

Where I currently work we have a relationship-focused philosophy too, however there are still rules to follow and consequences for breaking the rules. It's not perfect, but it seems to work well most of the time, and we are forever adjusting as needs change and as our knowledge grows. On the flip-side, I once worked in a very restrictive home, where every single moment of the youths' lives were controlled by staff and program rules. There were so many rules and consequences that the youth became discouraged and gave up and rebelled. They had so many consequences piled up that there was no way to get back on track and they felt helpless. It was not realistic for preparing them for the "real world", nor was it conducive to supporting them to lead healthier and more positive lives. It is important not to overdo it too. We have such a desire to protect vulnerable and at-risk youth that we sometimes go overboard and forget that they are still ordinary youth in many ways and deserve the opportunity to make their own mistakes and learn the "hard" way just as most of us did in our own lives.

Sorry if this seems like a rant, I am passionate about this subject :) I recently moved from Ontario to Manitoba, where we have the Vulnerable Persons Act (VPA) http://web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/v090e.php  that I think should be implemented everywhere. I have seen how controlling people in care can be so harmful and how building relationships and allowing independence can be so liberating and helpful.

Good luck and please keep us updated on your progress.

Sincerely,

Jillian Enright, CYW
Winnipeg, Manitoba
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Hi Dave

I don't think that it is in the best interests of children that they should have no structure and rules. Rules are to ensure safety that leads to a set of expected behaviour. It is not to late for you to start setting rules and creating structure. As you state that the situation is now a free for all, this can be turned around. You should start by asking the boys as to what kind of rules they would like to live by that are acceptable to all and consistent with accepted norms in their society or community. The rules should also have consequences that are age appropriate for the boys and linked to their own development. Then you should have a platform where the rules can be discussed on a regular basis. I would also advise that you use one of the boys with strong leadership abilities to orientate the new boys regarding the rules. This will foster a sense of ownership amongst that boys and put the responsibility on them to live by the rules.

Regards

Alfred Harris
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Check out the recent edition of the Reclaiming Youth at Risk Journal. There are some good articles on the need and how to build structure in agencies. No structure is structure, just what are you teaching? Sounds like it might be time to get a new job or try something out. But be sure to get management's approval for any changes because if they are not on board they can sabotage your efforts and make your experience feel more personal than it already is.

Peter De Long
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Dear Lorraine

What a good reflection on the subject you have offered there!

I remember researching the question some years ago. Result: institutions which use very structured and rigid rules fail to achieve treatment results, and institutions being very laissez-faire and unstructured also fail! Those who combine clear and simple structure with a high degree of flexibility and dialogue have very fine results.

Rule of thumb: The level of staff satisfaction with colleagues, leader and the organization decides the outcome of treatment for the clients.

I have worked as a consultant for organizational development for many years, and this is the essence of my experience. Have a look at the global orphanage education project, just for fun:

www.globalorphanage.net

med venlig hilsen/ Cordially/ Cordialmente/ Votre/ Ihre

Niels Peter Rygaard
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To understand what Lorraine is saying, go rent "Lord of the Flies"!

Alfonso Ramirez, Jr.
ORR Program Director
Tumbleweed-Devereux Collaborative
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Hi Dave,

I think that most would agree that "structure" is an essential component for a child to heal and grow in a residential center, but it also entails many traps for workers and programs. To be effective structures should be simple and clear and be built to allow for maximum flexibility regarding an individual's child needs. One important guideline I would suggest is for every program to do a regular review of all the structures/rules and make an honest assessment of "who is the structure here for"? If the answer leans too heavily "for staff benefit" instead of for benefit of the kids then the structure should be changed because it is likely destined to fail anyway.

An example I have experienced around this involved bedtime when I first became director of our girls' group home in our agency. The girls ranged in age from 13 to 18 years and bedtime was 10:15 across the board. Obviously it doesn't make much sense developmentally for a girl who is 13 to go to bed the same time as an 18 year old so we quickly concluded that was a structure in place for staff convenience (which is not necessarily horribly wrong all the time, there are realities) and changed the structure to individual bedtimes based on treatment plan for each girl. We had the predictable "it is not fair" struggles at first, and some staff resistance to the extra work, but soon it settled and led to a much more conducive atmosphere to meet the girls' individual needs.

A second example involves a program structure. In our center in New York we ran a very successful grandparents' program where seniors from a local center visited weekly with our 8 year old group to play board games, talk, etc. On a trip to California a colleague in an agency similar to ours indicated they had a similar program, but it was having many problems and he wanted some advice. As I talked with the workers there about their program I was having trouble seeing why there was so much difficulty as it was structured so similar to ours. Then, I asked an innocent question "what time does the program take place?" They answered "3:15 to 5pm" on Wednesdays. Now the problem seemed evident (after a full day of school 8 year olds will want to eat snacks, run and play to burn off the pent up energy and not play checkers with a grandparent figure!) and I asked why that time. They replied "it is the only time the van is available at the senior center to drive them here". So, again, a structure set up for the adults needs as opposed the kids' needs has predictable difficulty.

As you go forward I suggest you build in these self assessment reviews into the program.

Frank Delano
Hawthorne, New York
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I'm enjoying this conversation, and the one on wages/professional recognition, and see some links between them. I had the good fortune to work on the same inpatient unit, with the same clinical director, and the same core of staff for 15 years. I learned first-hand what I believe to be some of the pearls of this field.

In working with adolescents it is vital to learn fluidity, and a balance between firmness and flexibility. Rules are best thought of as guidelines, they had best be clear, concise, and as much as possible youth should be aware of, and involved in the process by which they come into being. Consequences need to be fair, and applied in a timely fashion, and adults should not expect to be thanked or embraced for them. None of us like hearing "no", even when it's the right answer.

Equally important is the notion that those involved in the endeavour of being with or treating or caring for young people need to feel respect and concern towards each other, and the people who lead them, and administrate the circumstance. Cliche as it may sound, shit really does roll down hill. When we don't care for and respect each other, and the people who lead and administer, the youth suffer. (I just saw the film "Doubt" with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and this demonstrates this clearly). Experience teaches me that when this respect and care is lost, a knee-jerk reaction is to "rewrite" or "tighten up" on rules, and get in the face of the youth.

This said, wages and working conditions are often a clear expression of the respect and care offered to the individuals working with the youth. Another perhaps more important is regular constructive supervision. Experience teaches me that it is a challenge to find and maintain all of these conditions in one place of employment.

Michael Wattie, CYC, cert
Intake Worker, MHPSU

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