Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Extreme Teen Reform

A lot of teachers and parents complain that some children are completely incorrigible and intractable to all efforts to change behavior, that no reward or punishment techniques work at all. "You just have to see these kids," they'll say, "Nothing I do could ever change them."

From their perspective, they're right. Of course, in reality, they're almost certainly wrong as an absolute proposition on behavior modification. If someone were literally unresponsive to all rewards and punishments they wouldn't likely survive very long. It would only be a matter of time before they stopped eating and drinking, put their hands into fire or a meat grinder. Not because they wanted to , but simply because nothing would stop them from doing so. All of these are "natural" reinforcers (for purposes of this post, I'll use reinforcers to refer to both reinforcers and punishers), but there's nothing special about them in quality over artificial reinforcers. Their advantages over artificial reinforcers are primarily in their consistency and the limitations of some dangers of resentment at punishment (though note that theists frequently invent a devil-figure to resent for natural punishers). This consistency tends to make them enormously powerful. Indeed, horror stories such as Steven King's Thinner work off of toying with these basic assumptions.

The real problem for the typical teacher or parent, then, isn't that the child is completely unresponsive, it's that they cannot identify or apply the reinforcer that results in the behavior desired.

The techniques and places where this can be done do exist, however. Places like Tranquility Bay, a "specialty boarding school" in Jamaica with a strict behavioral program. Looking at the overall program, to my eye it does appear designed to produce results. Apparently the kids are put on a stepped hierarchy, with each step indicating greater privileges. Those on step 1 are not allowed to stand up, sit down, move, or talk without permission. At step 3 they gain the right to a supervised phone call home. At higher levels they gain the right and responsibility to enforce rules on lower-levelled students.

There are other interventions as well. The "Observation Position" (or OP, as they term it) is lying, restrained, face-down until one admits their contrition. Once an hour the student gets a 10-minute break, and at night they sleep in the hall. An article describes this as potentially lasting months. Former students indicate it's "degrading, painful experience".

Clearly, even if one agrees with the necessity of the methods, opportunities are rife for mistakes and abuse. OP sounds as though it's not intended to be positive punishment (that is, it's not supposed to be painful except in the removal of all other privileges), but students' descriptions of it include being wrestled to the ground and having one's limbs twisted. I have a hard time believing the staff are trained sufficiently (turnover numbers would be telling) to be aware of the appropriate limits.

Humiliative punishment and tightly controlled rewards can be used in one setting: when one is trying to brainwash the subject. It involves breaking down all sense of self and self-worth and re-forming it, only allowing the subject to derive worth from the administrator. And that's exactly what these places are attempting. Parents who put their children in these expensive schools are putting them through brainwashing techniques worthy of cults and para-military establishments.

It still might be worth it, if a parent is convinced the child is headed on a course towards complete self-destruction. The Observer article suggests that for many of the kids, this isn't the case. Some of the drug and alcohol problems cited seem relatively minor, and one girl is noted as having been headed for Harvard, a straight-A high school graduate, before she made an "inappropriate choice of boyfriend." Family pressures keep her in even at 19, when she could legally leave without her parent's consent.

So yes, behavioral techniques can work, even for the hardened cases. A more difficult question to answer may be to what lengths we're willing to go to get them to work.

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Anonymous redkudu said...

I'm always fascinated when I have some time in the summers to watch afternoon television - all the talk shows - and they all have a stock "Boot Camp" episode where they send a bunch of teens off to boot camp, or to a prison to be yelled at by prisoners in order to shape up.

Yet nothing is ever done for the parents, and we're talking about people who are up on a stage calling their children "sluts" and "losers." I know they're looking to produce sensationalism, but I'm always wary of programs that insist a child's spirit must be broken in order to show them the proper way to behave - yet no one else in their life has to examine their own behavior toward the child.

I believe that in some extreme cases programs with consistent and rigorous discipline are needed - if nothing more than to show kids who come from chaotic environments how to set higher goals for themselves. But this idea of breaking their spirit (and then sending them home to the same environment) is...saddening.

3:43 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Excellent point: when the environment shapes behavior, sending the kids back from this extreme environment could easily result in almost no lasting change.

The case where I'd think these camps were warranted would have to be truly extreme. Most of the time, letting the kid suffer the consequences of their choices would be better, IMHO.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

A lot of teachers and parents complain that some children are completely incorrigible and intractable to all efforts to change behavior, that no reward or punishment techniques work at all. "You just have to see these kids," they'll say, "Nothing I do could ever change them."

From their perspective, they're right. Of course, in reality, they're almost certainly wrong as an absolute proposition on behavior modification.

Crypticlife, one of the problems I see with this is that teachers are very limited in what we can do as far as punishments. For the most disruptive kids, scolding, detention, suspension, or loss of class participation points just don't do it. We also might lack the positive reinforcements that they are interested in. Another limitation is the fact that we are dealing with about 30 other kids while we are trying to figure out how to react to the student who is causing the problems. It really gets complicated when you put three, four, or five of these kids together, because they are giving each other reinforcement that we probably won't be able to match.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CrypticLife and friends--it's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

I've been following the "therapeutic school" segment of the education sphere for a number of years.

There are a few effective therapeutic schools around. None use the types of modifiers and reinforcers of the Tranquillity Bay type.

"Tranquillity Bay" is the most punitive of the programs having financial ties to Robert Browning Lichfield. He's gone from a penniless high school graduate to a very wealthy man by running these programs. They were known as the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools and Programs (or WWASPS) but Lichfield claims that association has been closed.

Lichfield and his associates are the subject of at least two class-action litigations. The general one is being handled by the Turley law firm, and is called "The Wood Complaint".

Children were allegedly forced to eat their vomit, beaten, thrown, slammed to the ground, tied at the wrists and ankles, and more

Salt Lake City, UT (October 15, 2006) – On August 25, 2006, William Chase Wood and his parents, Tammy and Gregory Wood, filed a lawsuit against the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) and their associates, alleging Child Abuse, Fraud, Breach of Contract, Conspiracy, Gross Negligence, RICO Violations, False Imprisonment, Assault, Battery, and More.

Twenty-five new plaintiffs have joined in the Wood lawsuit and filed an Amended Complaint in the Utah Federal Court on October 13, 2006. Families from California, Texas, Maryland, Kentucky, Lousiana, Florida, Minnesota, and Michigan have decided to fight back against this corporate giant.

The second suit has similar defendants, but the plaintiffs are limited to those families that had children enrolled at the Academy at Ivy Ridge. The firm, Hancock & Estabrook, LLP of Syracuse are the attorneys.

A third program, the Academy at Royal Gorge, also has legal problems.
Spring Creek Lodge Experience is a blog by a young person who was an inmate at a related facility.

7:07 AM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

This is a really intriguing idea. I have to wonder how effective it is long-term. I can see how it would produce immediate results, but with that kind of negative reinforcement, can it last?

6:09 PM  

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