How do programs create a safe student culture?

Teens entering residential care are often impulsive, angry, guarded and anxious. Of course when they arrive they are now living among other teens with similar feelings and at varying stages of development. Verbalizing their fears in healthy ways is often beyond their ability for at least a few weeks. Any questions regarding their behaviors early on in treatment seems to only intensify feelings of guilt and shame and initiate defensiveness. It often feels like any attempts at therapeutic interventions at this stage will be inadequate and even counterproductive. Earlier on, teens tend to be highly resistant to developing relationships with staff and peers and are hyper vigilant in blocking any type of approach.

The only way to break through the tough veneer is to demonstrate a deep level of integrity. If properly demonstrated, integrity is able to exhibit reliability and honesty. The very presence of staff creates an impression that the main focus is on helping the teen, not on benefitting the adults. The culture of the entire program must show this posture of integrity in order for the teen to begin the process of lowering his or her guard.

Only a positive environment will give opportunity for change as well as reduce the risks associated with teen care during the journey. Of course, any program that is able to bring lasting solutions to troubled teens’ problems is also exposed to the potential of incidents. A positive culture will reduce risk and, in turn, increase the positive outcomes for youth.

In order to create a positive culture, there are many known factors that influence success. Here are a few of the most critical elements in any top-notch therapeutic program:

Structure

In order for students to gain new directions in their lives, the program must provide structure with constructive guidelines. Teens often feel out of control and anxiety only builds as fears of the unknown remain. A structured and consistent program allows parents and teens to have realistic expectations. But the program also needs to be flexible – too much structure can be as detrimental as too little. Choices must never be negated by routine and order, for it is through choices that learning may occur. Even though most students arrive reluctant and resistant to counseling and the prospect of change, they must sense that the program is capable of helping them change. To be motivated to change, one must at least believe personal change is possible within the environment.

Staff development

Staff skill development plays an important role in any quality program. Barbara F. Okun noted in Effective Helping (1982) that there are five characteristics that caregivers on any level should possess: self-awareness, honesty, congruence, ability to communicate, and the knowledge of how to establish rapport and build a positive relationship. These are skills that staff in every position of the treatment facility should possess in order to establish a deep connection with teens. Effective nonverbal and verbal communication is the path to establishing rapport. Seeing the world from the student’s point of view might only be the first step, but it is critical. This understanding must be communicated; then trust that develops through feeling safe can be established. Staff and youth alike must have a sense of belonging, value, being treated with respect, dignity and acceptance. There must be freedom to make mistakes, to forget, and to ask for help.

Relationship building

Relationship-building skills in residential treatment programs most often start with managing conflict. Conflict is inevitable in therapeutic programs that work with struggling teens. Well-trained staff is able to avoid power struggles and turn conflict into a meaningful growth experiences. Quality staff knows how to stop, listen, identify the problem and allow the teen to develop solutions. They actually hunt for win-win solutions by involving the youth in decisions and exploring some choices and consequences.

We expect our staff to be firm but friendly, definitely not aggressive and most importantly, to separate the behavior from the youth. Staff skills must include the ability to control negative emotions (especially their own) and avoid escalating the situation whenever possible.

Effective communication is not only a method of disclosure, but also a path to discovery. Effective listening will broaden a youth’s view of himself and the world around him. This type of really engaged ‘active’ listening requires strict attention and the ability to be objective in situations that will often evoke strong opinions and judgment. Listening at this level demonstrates a true willingness to be part of a meaningful exchange and instead of just confront. According to Bowman (et al., 1998) good active listening is being able to encourage, clarify, restate, reflect, summarize and validate.

Summary

Good quality therapeutic programs understand how to create a positive culture. In spite of working with resistant students, Shelterwood has always found a way to help their students lower their walls and open themselves up to their great potential. The teens we get to work with have tremendous gifts and abilities that often lay dormant under the heavy weight of self-doubt and fear. Helping our teens uncover their true identity is a truly rewarding experience for us all.

In Memory of Richard Beach

“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” -1Thess. 2:8

There is a profound difference between being around someone and being with someone. The “I see you” connection from Avatar is vastly different from the surface connection of a Facebook friend. Kids today are no different than kids of yesterday. They long for connection with others, especially their parents. Take the time to truly connect with your kids.

We are packing up to make that long, flat drive across Kansas to say goodbye to our dear friend, mentor, example and boss, Richard Beach. He passed away a few days ago after a truly courageous 16-year battle with cancer. I know Rich is at peace, healed and loving being in the presence of the Lord. He impacted so many people for Christ during his 65 years on this earth. I’m sure the memorial service will be huge.

I‘ve been reflecting on what made Rich so unique. He had an amazing ability to make everyone feel comfortable in his presence. He didn’t have a graduate degree in anything and he never wrote a book (though we tried to get him to write one many, many times)!

So, how was Rich able to touch so many people’s lives, from the stewardess to the bank president? I think the secret lied in his ability and willingness to connect. Sure, he was an extrovert, but the “connection ingredient” isn’t about temperament, but about love.

Rich simply made the choice to love. His willingness to love the unlovely sometimes got him into trouble too. Much like Jesus sharing with the adulteress woman, Rich sometimes embarrassed those closest to him. But his heart of love simply had no choice.

Kids are asking, no, they are begging, for us as parents to provide that kind of connection and love. Not the cheap “I love you because you’re my child” love, but the thick kind of love that jumps in all the way. Rich invested into every life he encountered, whether that person was lovable are not.

Rich was simply a reflection of the love of Jesus who loved unconditionally. Many claim that kind of love, but Rich lived it out with every person he encountered along the way. There’s not one of us who had the privilege of working closely with him who wasn’t embarrassed by one of his encounters at some point. Sitting at a restaurant, Rich would joke with the grouchy waiter and minutes later be sharing Christ with her. No matter the result of their conversation, they would part with a hug and a smile.

The legacy Rich leaves behind for his family and for thousands of teenagers and mentors is that love is an action verb not a passive noun. If God is on my heart, I have no choice other than to impart my life to everyone I encounter.

Parents, squeeze every drop out of every encounter with your teenager. Impart your life. Love. Give. Sacrifice.

Rich, have a blast as you encounter Christ Himself. Enjoy the time together. You deserve it!

This is What Real Mentor Relationships Look Like

tough guys 225x300 This is What Real Mentor Relationships Look LikeBrad Paynter (Mentor, 2002-2003) reflections on a mentor relationship with a student, that’s lasted over 12 years.  At Shelterwood Academy we have fostered hundreds of these type of committed mentor relationship and believe that your teen would benefit from this type of life long support.

Zach had been on the Shelterwood campus for a number of months before I arrived in the fall of 2002. The friendship was immediate. We shared a very similar history: both from Iowa, both soccer players, both raised in military families. In addition, both our fathers were physicians who knew each other through their respective careers despite the distance between our cities.

But the providence of our encounter extended beyond the regular kind of mentor relationship that is wonderfully typical of staff and students.  Soon after I my role as a mentor in 2003, I invited my parents to Zach’s graduation party in central Iowa.  What developed was truly a display of God’s provision for community among believers. On more than one occasion our families have been a blessing to each other in ways that can only be understood by our similar histories. When my father retired from the National Guard, the Websters helped us find a spot for the reception after the ceremony, and then helped with the preparations.

Zach and I have continued our friendship through the years. We have commented at times that being at Shelterwood seemed like an entirely different life—in a weird but wonderful place. What a blessed life.