Managing the milieu : the power of residential treatment

By John Stein

Date Posted: June 14th,2012

John Stein has been a gracious and generous contributor to our Journal and here again he has provided an extended article which gets right to the core of residential child care. He has worked in human services for all of his career. He has an M.Ed in Social Restoration, and he is a Certified Cognitive Behavioural Therapist but he has not allowed that to limit the possibilities of organic dynamism in his work. John directed programmes for both adults and children in corrections, residential treatment, and inpatient and outpatient mental health settings in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. He is the author of “Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues, Principles, and Techniques”, 1995, Nelson-Hall, Chicago. John retired some time ago, but has continued to present workshops for parents and professionals, has written several articles on children’s issues. He travels extensively,



Managing the milieu : the power of residential treatment

by John Stein


My first position in a residential setting was in the mid 1970’s as acting director in a small secure programme for the treatment of hard core juvenile offenders. We had just opened the programme. All of us were new to residential treatment. After a few months, they hired an executive director who brought in a psychologist to provide training for the staff. I had high expectations, having had an excellent counselling course with him in graduate school. After spending a few hours observing things on all three shifts, he offered his first session with the staff.

He began by asking the group to describe in a few words or a phrase the kids with whom we were working. Standing by the chalk board, he wrote down the responses, which came as fast as he could write.“Impulsive, lie, steal, can’t delay gratification (that was a big one in those days), aggressive,oppositional, disrespectful, curse, runaway, don’t accept responsibility…” The list was quite long and all negative. I held back to see where this was going, but I thought of many positives. We had kids who were talented, intelligent, clever, curious, competitive, loyal, honest (one returned my wallet tome, money intact, after I had left it where I had been making a repair), resourceful (one picked a lock to take a bike ride in the neighborhood during a staff meeting), and helpful, often volunteering to help in many ways. (One changed a tire for a staff member). Although some could be violent, others were non-violent. And we had boys with a great sense of humour.

When the list of negatives was quite long, he stopped, looked at us, and said, “No wonder you are all so depressed, being around kids like this all day.” He then devoted his training sessions to improving staff morale.

And if this is what the staff thought of the boys, what must the boys have thought of themselves?


Some twenty years later, in the mid 1990’s, I attended another training session for people working with kids in the community. The trainer advocated community placements with families instead of residential placements, arguing “Why would you expect that sending children who have problems to live with other children who have problems would result in anything good?” He argued that it was much better to provide intensive services to children in the community, either in their own families or with paid and specially trained foster families who would commit to raising the child. He talked about wrapping services around children, providing services that were as comprehensive as services provided inresidential treatment, including intensive therapy and one-on-one staff who accompanied children to school and to other community activities such as recreation. He had considerable success with his model. Our community did not.

However, in my opinion, both of these men missed the true potential of treatment in a well managed residential setting. While children can learn a great deal from adults, as they get older, they begin to learn more and more from each other – from their peers. Watching other children learn and grow and achieve can provide encouragement, support, hope. In a well managed residential programme, talented staff can control, or at the least influence or manage, virtually everything that happens in the lives of residents, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.


Managing the milieu for treatment

Most of what I learned about managing the milieu I learned from experience, based largely what I had learned from courses in sociology, social psychology, group dynamics, and child development that were part of my undergraduate curriculum in psychology. Much of my experience involved trial and error. My errors of course hurt the kids, and so I made changes. A little of my experience included what I learned from others. Here is some of what I learned.


It’s all about Relationships

Much of our behaviour is based on our feelings, beliefs, and values, both about the world in which we live but also about ourselves. People learn their beliefs and values from other people, people who are important to them, people whom they like or admire, people whom they want to like them or respect them, from groups in which they are members, or from groups in which they would like to beaccepted as members. Those beliefs and values have a lot to do with feelings, which have a lot to do with behaviour. For younger children, family members tend to be most important. As children become older, peers tend to become increasingly important. More, children tend to see themselves much as they think others see them. When children think of themselves as good, bad behaviour feels terribly out of place.When children think of themselves as bad, bad behaviour does not feel so out of place. Rather, good behaviour is likely to feel strange.

Much is made of the importance of the relationships that staff have with the children. We neglect the importance of the relationships children have with their peers at our peril, and consequently, at the children’s peril.


It starts in the very beginning

I first learned this lesson in hiring staff, only later realizing that it also applies to the children. When hiring staff, I quickly learned that the expectations I set in the initial jobinterview played a significant role in how staff did their jobs. For example, when I talked a lot about helping children, then that’s what staff expected to do above all else. Chores and activities and reports tended to have a lower priority than whatever ‘helping children’ means. When staff found out after starting the job that something more or different was expected, they tended to have some difficulties with making adjustments, often becoming dissatisfied. When I set the expectations accurately, they tended to do their jobs well. More, whatever I emphasized in the initial interview tended to be the strengths they brought to the programme. I quickly learned to emphasize areas where I felt we needed improvement–activities, neatness of the rooms, reports and records.

It’s the same with children. When people bring children to a placement, they tell the children something about what to expect. They have a tendency to make the placement look as attractive as possible to decrease children’s apprehension or resistance. More, in pre-placement interviews, I found that I and my staff tended to do some of the same things, showing off the game room and basketball court and talking about activities. I think of Gary, who wanted very much to come to our group home, then rarely was able to enjoy the privileges he expected. Gary had come to play instead of to participate in treatment.

It is important to set expectations accurately. Children come into placement because of problems and, consequently, to work on those problems. (I know it’s extremely important to talk about strengths. More on that later – this is not the time.) There are times when they will be in a therapy session while other children are enjoying free time. There will be school and study hall. There will be chores and responsibilities. It is much better for children to be pleasantly surprised to discover the programme’s positive aspects after they arrive than to be surprised with finding out that the programme involves more than fun activities.

Some workers liked to bring children to a pre-placement interview with their bags all packed and ready to be admitted immediately after the interview. I much prefer letting children have a day or two todigest what they learned in the interview. No matter how carefully expectations are set in thepreplacement interview, when children are admitted immediately after the interview, they do not havesufficient time for their expectations to change.

I have worked in programs where I did not have the luxury of conducting pre-placementinterviews. Many children got off to a rough start. A few were unable to make a healthy adjustment.



Children coming into a new placement are vulnerable. They are anxious to form relationships with anyone, perhaps even desperate. It is a critical time.

Admit children early in the week

Children tend to form their first relationships with whomever they meet during the admission process, administrators, supervisors, social workers – people who tend to have weekends off. When children are admitted early in the week, these people are available to the children for any problems they might have in making adjustments and developing other relationships. When children are admitted late in the week, they tend to go into the weekend without having begun other relationships. They are especially vulnerable. They have no one they trust should they experience any problems during the weekend, and they so often do, perhaps with homesickness, loneliness, or anxiety, perhaps with rules or with other children. More, they are vulnerable to any other children who are having problems with relationships in the program, either with staff or peers. Such children may also be looking for someone with whom they can develop a relationship and seek out the new kid who is so ready to welcome any relationship. That relationship might not be healthy.

Do not admit two children to the same unit in the same week.

Two children entering a unit at the same time have a common bond – they are both new kids on the block. They have a tendency to bond with each other before forming relationships with staff or other children. When one or both are oppositional, they tend to support each other in opposition to the programme, hindering the adjustment of both. It can be a tough bond to overcome. One week makes a difference. After one week, new children have begun to form relationships and adjust to the programme. To a child admitted only a week later, the child admitted in the prior week is indistinguishable from other residents – the common bond no longer exists.<.p>


Pay attention to everything

I do not believe children are entitled to privacy except when alone in the bathroom or whenmeeting with their workers and at times their parents. It is important to monitor activities and interactions among peers at all times. Robert Armstrong, a talented child and youth care worker, was excellent at this. He once told me he didn’t mind when his boys got loud. Children are supposed to be loud sometimes. He said he would just look at their faces. He could tell from their expressions whether it was good noise or bad noise. When it was good noise, he let them have their fun. When their expressions told him it was bad noise, he stepped in.

It’s the same with quiet conversations. As all parents know, when it gets too quiet,that’s not the time to relax and read the newspaper. It’s time to check on things. Often times, peers have healthy conversations among themselves. At other times, conversations can drift into unhealthy subjects. Again, staff can tell a lot from observing expressions. Teenage discussions about sex and the opposite sex can be problematic, as when their values and beliefs are, well, they just may not be exactly the healthiest. Regarding women as objects rather than respecting them as people is all too common among boys in placement. Other problems can come from ‘war stories,’ as when someone begins to recount prior escapades. For many children, some of their proudest successes have had to do with running away, stealing, challenging authority, or aggression. Staff who have comfortable relationships with children can step in, join the conversation, question unhealthy ideas, and guide the discussion to a healthy conclusion. These are opportunities for therapy in the moment.


Pay special attention to status

Some children thrive on praise and acceptance from adults. They crave the status that approval from adults gives them. Other children seem immune to praise from adults, perhaps because they have not been good at attaining it. Yet a few others seem to disdain praise from adults. Children who do not seek acceptance and approval from adults are likely to seek or thrive on acceptance and approval from their peers. They derive their status from their peers. (The best situation is when children are able to enjoy acceptance and approval from both peers and adults).

Seeking peer approval can be a good or a challenging thing, depending the types of peers from whom children seek approval. When they seek approval from positive peers, that leads to positive behaviours and the feelings and beliefs and values that are consistent with those behaviours. If they crave approval from negative peers, often because they don’t know how to get it from positive peers,then they will engage in negative behaviours and the feelings and values and beliefs that go along with negative behaviours.

When staff recognize each child’s needs for acceptance and approval and the resultant status, they can manage the milieu in such a way that children get their needs met in the best possible way. When they need approval from staff, staff can readily provide it. On the other hand, when children need approval from peers, things become more challenging. Rather than complimenting children for things of which adults approve, such as completing their homework and chores, staff have to find things that thesechildren do well that will help them to gain approval, acceptance, and status from their peers. It could be sports, helping another child, contributing to the group…anything at which the child might be good and that might help in gaining approval and acceptance from peers.

I would make a brief note about ‘discipline’ which for most people seems to mean ‘punishment’. I believe in restrictions for serious misbehaviour such as violence and theft – things that would be illegal anywhere. But I do not believe in restricting children from supervised activities. Rather, I believe that only those privileges that are in short supply and high demand, for example, the pool table and perhaps electronic games, and the telephone – those things that need to be rationed in some way, should be subject to being earned or considered for restriction. After all, what programmmes provide enough pool tables and telephones for everyone to have unlimited access? These are ‘high status’ privileges.Cards and television and board games and such…no need to have those subject to restriction.


Emphasize the positives

Residential treatment is about problems. Problems are why the children come into treatment.‘Fixing’ problems is what lets them leave treatment. But all of the children have strengths. The‘worst’ children I knew on their worst days probably did more good things than bad. Yet the tendency is to focus on the negatives.

When we talk about their strengths and accomplishments, we build their self esteem and their self confidence and hold them up as models for other kids. Then we have to talk about the strengths andaccomplishments of the other kids, too. How many of these children can remember anyone ever saying anything good about them? Ask their parents to describe their children and you tend to get a list of negatives. The same with their teachers. Residential staff have to do better. After all, we like these kids, don’t we? Why else are we here? What do we like about them? The list is much longer than their problems if we take the time to think about it. The opinions of others have a lot to do with how children think of themselves.

Make a list of all the good things they did in the day before you talk to them about the problem they just had.

Talk about their strengths and good qualities and accomplishments in front of their peers. And talk about the strengths of their peers. It’s the best way I know to get more of their strengths than their problems. And then we help them to learn from each other.


Make accomplishments and good qualities permeate the milieu

These kids are helpful (although they have a lot of trouble helping themselves, they sometimes seem all too willing to help others), intelligent, resourceful, creative, funny, at times honest,forgiving, and thoughtful. The list is endless. In any group of children in residential treatment, you can find all the qualities you would like to find in your own kids. These kids learn from each other.Residential staff can guide that process.

And when you talk with their parents about their strengths, their good qualities, and their accomplishments, as when parents come for a visit or to pick their children up for a pass, you can often see the parents look surprised. Sometimes jaws drop. And at the same time, you see the children light up with a glow. Wow! Parents are so used to hearing complaints about these children from teachers and others that they, too, lose sight of the great qualities that their kids have. They have come to expect the worst. And too often, that has been what they get. Residential staff can begin to change that. For the children whose parents are not in the picture, you can do the same thing with their workers or their judge.


Make sure they experience success

I think this is the power of residential treatment. I suspect that for many children in residential treatment, the successes they feel are mostly negative – successful thefts, successful runaways, success at getting removed from a placement they did not like, success at getting even with someone. How about success at avoiding consequences(i.e., punishment)? Some children seem to be experts at ‘lawyering.’ With care, residential staff can manage things so that they begin to experience more and more positive successes. It is important to make sure that treatment goals are not so lofty that they seem out of reach.For example, for a child who has major temper outbursts, having prohibitions against violence and property damage and throwing things and slamming doors and cursing and yelling…well that is just too much all at once. The competing behaviour is telling someone calmly why you are angry. Working on the physical aggression first is a good start. Punching walls instead of people is a beginning rather than a problem. It is a success. Next comes smashing things. Cursing instead of smashing things can be a success for some children. Then yelling instead of cursing. These are successive approximations to telling someone calmly why you are angry instead of busting the place up. These behaviours need to receive some reinforcement rather than punishment. Some children have to work very hard to get to only this point before they can move on to the next.

The key is to provide children with lots of things at which they can be successful. With certain card games and board games, it is easy to allow children to achieve success. The challenge is not to allow it to be too easy or obvious. My favourite is on the basketball court. With carefully chosen teams and a skilful staff member on each team, it is possible to make sure that a kid who has had a terrible day can not only experience a successful play or two but also be on the winning team and possibly even score the winning goal.

There are countless ways to ensure that children who need to experience success do so. It is important.



Punishment works best when it happens to someone else. Discipline in a group setting poses some interesting challenges. Psychology tells us pretty convincingly that punishment is not an effective way of changing behaviour. It is much better to teach competing behaviours that interfere with misbehaviour and make sure that the competing behaviours receive reinforcement. However, social psychology tells us that people learn from watching each other, including seeing others receiving sanctions in the group for misbehaviour. Consequently, while sanctions may not bethe best way of changing behaviour for the person being sanctioned, sanctions can have a significant effect on the behaviour of other members of the group. In my experience, the solution for this dilemma is to provide sanctions for individual misconduct, but to make sure that the sanctions are not substantial enough to provide too much of a negative impact on the person being sanctioned.

Paul Bussell convinced me of this in the mid 1980’s. He had just hired me to direct a group home for twelve boys. The group home had been experiencing some problems. In fact, it was a bit out-of-control. I discussed some of my plans with my new boss. At the time, I believed in restrictions of a week or two for major misconduct, such as assault, wielding weapons, theft, and substance abuse. The list was not long. Paul said, “These kids can’t handle a restriction of more than a day or two.” I thought that a restriction of a day or two for assaulting staff with a pool cue was ridiculous and told him so most bluntly. He got red in the face (scary – he was a big man and my new boss) and said,“Nevertheless, that’s all they can handle.” And so that’s all I had to try to get this programme under control. I prepared to gather my evidence and revisit this ridiculous limitation later. In three months, I reviewed things, preparing to make my case. I didn’t have a case. The programme had become remarkably calm. Other changes the staff and I had made were beginning to take effect. In fact,the programme had far less violence and other serious misbehaviours than other programmes I had directed. Hmmmm. It seemed we didn’t need longer restrictions. I finally had to admit that the longer restrictions I had used in the past were part of the problem with children who failed to do well. While kids are serving a restriction, it is more difficult(impossible) for them to behave well and more difficult to provide reinforcement for their behaviour if they do something positive. Many children earned additional restrictions before completing a previous restriction, spending weeks or longer on restriction, one after another. Children cannot feel good about themselves while they are serving a punishment. They become discouraged. We want children feeling good and trying to do good, not serving punishments.

A restriction of a day or two from a few high status privileges (the pool table, electronic games, going outside without supervision) while welcoming children into supervised activities seems to me to be a good compromise. Other children see a misbehaving member receiving a sanction, but the restriction is not so much as to be too harmful to the child being restricted.


The importance of stories

I remember reading a story as a child one day that I found in an old book from the 1920’s when I was sick in bed and desperate for something to do. It seems a king (back in the days when kings were capricious), curious to see what his subjects would do, had a large boulder placed on a narrow road.Travellers in wagons or carriages could not easily go around the boulder–on one side there was a steep drop into a ravine below and on the other side was a soggy marsh. Traveller after traveller struggled through the marsh with great difficulty. One day, a young man riding on horseback could easily pass by the boulder. Nevertheless, he saw the problem. He got off his steed, cut a small tree, and laboured mightily until he finally toppled the boulder off the road and into the ravine. Under the boulder, the capricious king had buried a treasure. The young man became wealthy and eventually married the king’s daughter, becoming a prince.

The story about someone getting an unexpected reward for doing something noble stuck with me. To this day, so many years later, when I see a tyre hazard such as a nail or a screw in a street or parking area, I stop to pick it up. I don’t imagine such a little thing is noble, and of course I don’texpect to find treasure beneath it. Rather, I have to be wary of traffic. But if I walk past it, it bothers me. Sometimes I go back and pick it up. It just makes me feel good about myself. It has become part of who I am.

Children can learn a lot from people in stories, whether in a book, on TV, in a movie, or hearing someone tell a story about someone else. Choose these things carefully. One of the things I learned from this was how just reading about someone else getting a reward affected me. Perhaps at times I thought about a reward, but I don’t remember ever expecting one. I simply knew what the right thing to do was and learned to feel good about myself when I did it.


Establishing routines with spontaneous rewards

Offering children ‘rewards’ for doing good things–well it’s not really a reward. It’s a bribe. It might work on occasion, but when used too often, it can become problematic,resulting in children who will only do good when they are offered an incentive. Spontaneous rewards, on the other hand, are not bribes. Rather, they can be a strong expression of appreciation for a job well done. They make the recipient feel good and teach a lesson to others who passed on the opportunity to do the same thing.

Here are two examples from my experience.

Fire drills

In a group home for twelve boys, we were having trouble getting the boys to respond promptly and correctly to fire drills. One or two would always lag behind, taking their time. One or two others would go somewhere other than the designated area. I was quite concerned. The programme was housed in a frame building with wood panelled walls. It was quite spacious and comfortable, but I had once seen such a building burn. It was gone in 15 minutes.

I explained to the boys the importance of responding appropriately andthat if staff could not readily account for all the boys in the event of a real fire, they would go back into the burning building to search for missing children. It was to no avail. One summer day, I decided I was going to hold fire drills throughout the day until they all got it right. After supper, on the third drill, they all responded promptly and reported to the designated area. I thanked them for their cooperation,re-emphasizing the importance of safety in the event of a real fire. Then, on impulse, I took out my wallet, handed the staff a $20 bill and told him to take everyone for snowballs, even the ones on restriction. Snowballs are a special summer treat in Louisiana – shaved ice with a choice from perhaps thirty flavoured syrups. The only problem with fire drills in the five years after that – the boys responded so promptly any time of the day or night, running so quickly from the building – was that I was concerned that someone might fall in the rush.

Seat belts in the van

In the same programme, staff were having trouble getting children to fasten their seatbelts in the van. Not wearing seatbelts was a big thing in Louisiana in those days. Many of the roads ran along water–bayous or lakes or canals. Even adults resisted wearing seatbelts, arguing that if their car went into the water, they might be trapped, unable to get out of their seatbelt. Ridiculous of course – anyone can unfasten a seatbelt just as easily as opening a door to get out of the car unless you have been knocked unconscious because you did not have your seatbelt on. We explained all this to the boys, to no avail. (Although safety in the event of a crash was a legitimate concern, I must confess that our real concern was that wearing seatbelts cut down on a lot of horseplay in the van).

Every once in a while, the staff taking the boys to school in the morning would stop the van at the end of the driveway and tell the boys to put their hands on the ceiling. Then he would walk through and make a note of all the boys who did not have their seatbelts properly fastened. When he returned to the group home, he would make an entry on their point sheets for not following instructions. It cost them five points when they returned from school, which amounted to a slap on the wrist with a wet noodle. It cost them no privileges, unless they had some other problems that day. Nevertheless, it was a sanction and it was having no effect.

We decided to try something different. One day, the driver walked through the van and instead of writing down the names of the boys who did not have their belts properly fastened, he wrote down the names of the six boys who did. When he picked the boys up after school, the driver had six crisp $1 bills and handed them to the six boys who had had their seatbelts properly fastened without saying a word. The boys knew immediately what was going on. Two claimed to have had their belts buckled. They did, but they were not fastened properly, not pulled tight or the shoulder harness unfastened. Still, no comment from the driver. The next day, the driver reported that he heard twelve clicks as each boy buckled up promptly and securely. A few days later, the driver was armed with twelve $1 bills. At the end of the driveway, he again did his hands on the ceiling thing. When he got to the rear of the van, after seeing that each boy had his belt properly fastened, he passed out the twelve bills so that each boy received a dollar before school, where he could use it for an extra snack or treat. It’s not just the dollar and what it could buy, it’s the status that having money bestows. (When using this approach, I think it is extremely important to make sure that each person receives the unannounced reward within a few days).

We all had fun with this, both the staff and the boys. Staff looked forward to doing it again the next time seatbelts became a problem. Somehow, we never got the chance – wearing seatbelts had become a firmly established routine – a norm, passed on from kid to kid down through the years.

Just as with punishment, rewards seem to work best when they happen to someone else, especially if you get a chance later and get the reward.


Teach instead of controlling

When children have problems, teach them what was wrong with their behaviour and help them figure out what they could have done differently. Don’t worry so much about providing consequences. Teach them individually in the privacy of an office. Teach them collectively in the living group. Let other children tell them how they feel about their behaviour. These are the real consequences of their behaviour. These are so much more powerful than any consequences adults might arrange. Teach them to think about these consequences instead of the ones someone might impose. These consequences always occur.There’s no avoiding them.


When it is time to take control – misguided values in the milieu

When unhealthy, anti-social, or deviant values are operating in the milieu, little treatment can take place. I’ve had several experiences with this. Two involved theft from other children in the program and another involved boys encouraging retaliatory aggression.

Theft in the program

In a unit for 30 adolescent boys, children were stealing from other children–radios,jewellery, clothing and other prized possessions from children who had little to call their own. Staff would shut everything down and conduct a thorough and time consuming search, never finding the missing items, which were never seen again. There were too many places to hide things on the unit, with drop ceilings and other spaces. More, boys were free to leave the unit during the day so that things could be hidden anywhere on the large campus. It seemed apparent that stolen items were being smuggled home during weekend passes.

There were several problems with this. First, it was taking a whole lot of staff time and energy from other things. Second, staff were feeling powerless to protect vulnerable children and were becoming discouraged. Third, some boys were beginning to make statements about what they would do to someone they caught stealing from them. Most importantly, however, was that some children did not feel safe – they felt vulnerable and victimized. It was interfering with treatment and everything else.

It was obvious that some of the boys knew what was going on and which boys were responsible for the thefts. However, prohibitions against ratting prohibited anyone from doing anything about it. In effect, the boys were condoning the theft, so long as it wasn’t from them.

One Thursday evening, a boy reported his radio was missing. The search of course failed to recover it. On Friday, the programme director announced that we were going to have a treatment weekend. We were all in this together. We simply were not going to tolerate theft on the unit and we were going to continue with the treatment activities until he was satisfied that the matter was resolved. All weekend activities would be suspended. All passes would be postponed – NOT cancelled. It is important that the treatment weekend not be perceived as punishment. All boys who had a pass scheduled would be able to take their passes at any time of their choice after the matter was resolved, regardless of points or restrictions.

The director scheduled the supervisors and social workers to come in on Saturday and met with them to discuss plans and goals. We would each meet with a group of four or five boys to discuss the matter. The goal was to have each boy state publicly in front of the other boys in the group that he would no longer tolerate theft on the unit. We would discuss issues around theft and living together and feeling safe and so forth. We would not discuss the rightness or wrongness of theft in other settings,we were only concerned about theft from each other on the unit. We would give them choices.They could either report the theft to staff or confront the thief directly without ratting him out if they chose. We would have smoke breaks (we allowed smokers to smoke in those days) and a good lunch. We would take a break to help the boys repair lockers that had been broken into. We would continue the groups until each worker was able to report that each boy in his or her group had me the objective, stating unequivocally that he would not tolerate theft on the unit.

By mid afternoon, all the workers were able to state that all boys in their groups were on board, stating that they would no longer tolerate theft on the unit. The programme director then met with all the boys, thanked them for their cooperation, and announced that normal activities would be resumed. Although we did not ask for the return of the radio, it appeared in a social worker’s office later that afternoon. We did not have a problem with theft on the unit for about six months. Then, after another theft, we had another treatment weekend. That laid the matter to rest permanently.

Norms for retaliatory aggression

One day, in a group home for twelve boys, a boy with no history of violence blind sided another boy, punching him in the face without warning. It seemed to be a matter for individual treatment with his social worker. A few weeks later, on a Thursday evening, he struck another boy in the face, knocking off his glasses and causing a cut near his eye. It seems the boy had said something about his bad breath. (Both boys he struck were younger and smaller and in the category of those who‘deliberately annoy others’). Then, one of the other boys said, “Good for you. He finally got what he deserved.” It was no longer a matter for individual treatment. The boys were not just condoning violence in retaliation for a verbal slight, they were encouraging it.

The next day, a Friday, the programme director came to work early and announced that the boys would not be going to school that day. Instead, we were going to have a special treatment day to discuss violence. He called the schools to explain that we were having a special treatment activity for all the boys and that they would not be coming to school. After breakfast, the programme director met with all the boys. He discussed the legal differences between self-defence and retaliatory aggression. He talked about living together and feeling safe. He talked about how no matter how tough you were, there was always someone tougher, so that aggression was not a comfortable way to manage one’s affairs. He encouraged discussion. (It really didn’t matter what he said – all that mattered was that the boys would decidethatthey would no longer tolerate violence in their home). A few were attentive and participated constructively. Others were not and were a bit flippant. The programme director did not challenge them. He took a break in the morning, then resumed, with little progress. He had the cook prepare an extra special lunch. Just before lunch, he told the boys he was not satisfied and was prepared to continue the discussions after lunch and into the evening (that meant no Friday night outing) and on Saturday if necessary (that meant no passes). There was considerable grumbling, but he insisted that we were not going to stop until he was satisfied that everyone understood no one would encourage or condone violence in the programme.

The afternoon session after lunch was suddenly very productive. In less than two hours, all the boys were able to make statements in front of the other boys about not condoning violence or aggression in the programme.The peer pressure was tangible.

There are two principles in all this. The first involves creating teamwork – giving the group a challenge while at the same time becoming a part of the team implying, “We are not going forward until we resolve this problem. We’re all in this together and we are going to see it through. The second principle is that when people make public statements about their behaviour, they tend to bring their private behaviour into compliance.

Most importantly, no treatment can occur when such values are operating in the peer group. You have to do something. You have to do whatever it takes.



Don’t be too hasty to discharge children who are doing well, who have ‘met their treatment objectives.’ It takes time for newly learned feelings, values and beliefs, along with new skills and behaviours, to become firmly established. Transition them out gradually, with some passes during weekdays when their families are in their workday modes, when there is competition for bathroom time in getting ready for work and school, when there are chores and other responsibilities to share.

When children go home for typical weekend passes, there is little pressure, few demands for chores and such, since the children didn’t contribute to the laundry or the house needing cleaning and trash needing to be handled. And there is no need to get the children off to school. Weekends are like a vacation for kids who have endured the rigours of residential treatment, and parents are happy to see them, especially when they are in a pleasant mood.

Weekdays are different. There’s more stress on everyone. When weekend passes are going well, we think everything will be fine and the child is ready to return home. Then the child is suddenly faced with the weekday pressures. Too often, things return to a prior ‘normal’ and no one is prepared for it.

More, keeping kids who are doing well a little bit longer allows them to serve as role models for newer children. It’s their chance to give back, as it were.


Hiring staff

This is one I learned from Dick Cass, a social worker who ran a neighborhood center in a poor community in the early 1970’s. He let the kids interview and choose their own youth worker. He argued that they had to live with the decision, so they should make it. He pre-screened the applicants and didn’t let them interview anyone who was not qualified. After that, he hired whomever they selected.

I interviewed with his kids for the position. I knew Dick and some of the kids from a previous job and felt pretty confident. He had assembled about twenty kids from the neighborhood to interview the three applicants. They interviewed me first. The kids gave a very intense interview. They knew what they needed. The other two applicants were better. I finished last. I couldn’t hold a candle to the one they chose.

I have used this process in four residential programs and one community program. It starts the relationship early. When managers hire the staff, the kids have to get to know the new staff. This results in a lot of testing behaviour. When I was not able to use the process, I sometimes had kids tell me of a new staff, “We’ll run him off in a week.” It seems they liked to show us that we had made a mistake. When the kids choose their staff, they have an investment in showing that they made a good decision. They help the new staff, for the first few days or weeks anyway. And they have had a formal opportunity to get to know the new staff person. They don’t have to test, they get to ask questions. They can tell whether applicants respect them by the way they respond to them and to their questions. The children begin to get a feeling as to whether they can trust the staff. Isn’t trust the foundation of relationships? And what a lift for new staff, knowing the kids chose them.

The first time I used this process, the kids were hesitant, telling me I would hire whom I wanted anyway and they would just be wasting their time. “Just don’t hire no niggers,” they told me. I replied that I was very likely to hire a black because I felt we needed some black people on our staff. (We didn’t have any black staff or black residents at the time.) Nevertheless, I was willing to abide by their decision, but only if they interviewed the applicants.

I had some strong reservations because one of the white applicants, although qualified on paper,seemed to me to be someone the kids could easily manipulate, and I was afraid these manipulative kids might hire someone of whom they could readily take advantage. More, the best applicant was a blackman – a tough street worker who had worked for me previously. They finally agreed to interview the three applicants. They took almost an hour with each. They chose the black guy! What would have happened had I chosen him without their input. Especially after they had told me ‘no niggers.’ He remained our strongest and most respected staff. (A few months later, a new executive director wanted to hire his own staff. He hired the guy I was afraid the kids would too easily manipulate. The kids indeed manipulated him into a situation that created problems for the agency and resulted in his dismissal).

Staff of course know that they are responsible to their supervisors, but there is also an undercurrent feeling that they have some responsibility to the children in addition to being only responsible for them. It’s an interesting dynamic.

All I can say in support of this process is that I have never, ever known it to fail to provide the best of the available applicants and get them off to a good start in relating with the kids. I have seen other processes fail repeatedly.

But then, I have never been disappointed with anything when I have trusted the kids with a responsibility they willingly accepted. (Coercing children to accept a responsibility is different, as when we ‘negotiate’ contracts with them or try coerce them with incentives).



I love residential treatment. It is an awesome power. I love being part of a therapeutic environment that has the potential to provide each child with what he or she needs. It is indeed achallenge and I most certainly have not always been successful. I remember failures, but I remember many more successes.