What im learning

Instead of describing what happened today i felt like sharing random things i have been learning.

  • When people are forced to live in an environment that they cannot control one of two things happen. You either lose hope or learn how to change your reaction to things. Interestingly i think this applies to both the Bigs and Littles in the house. A lot of the new kids have a hard time adjusting to the restrictive lifestyle that Shelterwood provides. All of the restrictions leave them feeling like they aren’t in control of their environment and subsequently lose hope and or become more depressed. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Most kids start accepting the reality of their situation and begin to change their reaction after a couple months. Even though the staff is supposed to be in charge and running this facility control is often an illusion, especially for the bigs who are on the front line. This has been especially true the last week. Its hard to feel in control of your environment when every time you seek to correct a little he lashes back and continues to do whatever he was doing with no regard for the consequences. Or when a group of kids run back and forth barricading themselves in rooms. If our only means of control is derived from the ability to give consequences then what happens when the kids don’t care about the consequences? I have had to learn to change my reaction to situations that i can’t control because if i don’t, i lose hope, and thats not an option. This leads me to my next point.
  • Don’t own kids mistakes– I have been learning how to detach myself from the kids choices. Being an empathetic person it is easy to take on or carry kids mistakes. This is a costly endeavor and after even a couple hours can wear me down to the point of being completely ineffective. I am trying to learn how to love and be compassionate to the kids but detach myself from their choices. This can also be analogous to the saying “Love the sinner but hate the sin”.
  • Don’t let them see you sweat– A lot of these kids do things just to get a reaction which leaves me in a precarious position because if i react and give them a consequence (as im supposed to do) this may actually be a positive reinforcer for them because it gives them jollies to see me upset. On the other hand, if i don’t react and do nothing i am breaking the other rule of “What you tolerate you validate”. I am trying to learn how to address bad behavior without accidentally reinforcing it. To do this i am trying to learn how to master my emotions, or at least the physical manifestations of them. These kids are extremely perceptive and probably know that i am upset before i do. I can tell that older bigs have more control over their physical posturing when in escalated situations, and this helps to keep the kids from getting even more escalated.
  • Walk away– If your escalated and trying to give consequences to a little, just walk away and do it later. It is better to delay the consequences than to risk further escalation of a little. There have been a couple of situations where i had to tap out and pass the responsibility over to a different big because i was so upset/escalated that i probably would have done something i would have regretted if i had to continue to manage what was going on.
  • Positive reinforcement– (i already knew this from my psychology classes) when shaping behavior positive reinforcement is always more powerful than negative consequences. Even though i already knew that, there are kids that are really really hard to reward. Sometimes because they are acting out so much there really isn’t much to reward them for… Oh hey jimmy, so i know you punched him in the face but i wanted to thank you for not breaking his nose because i know you could have. Other times i honestly just don’t want to reward them for anything because they have pissed me off so much that day. i know that sounds cold and pretty un-christian but i don’t care who you are, its hard to look for good behavior in a kid who cusses you out daily and ignores almost every instruction you give him. With that said, its God will to repay hatred with love and it also just so happens to be my job now, and it actually works. Today i worked on rewarding any good behavior that i saw in the most delinquent, frustrating kids and while there was still enough defiance for everyone to have seconds (supposed to be a joke) they wern’t running around barricading themselves in rooms like they were last night so im going to go ahead and call that improvement. Turns out even the most crazy, “Thug life”, “I ain’t your B*tch” kind of kids are just insecure, scared little boys who want to be loved but don’t know how.
The times they are a changing- Big things are about to happen at shelterwood the next week. We are transitioning from a system that pretty much only provides consequences in the from of work hours for bad behavior to a token economy that uses points. Currently the system is if a kid does something against the rules he/she earns a consequence (generally a predetermined amount of hours they have to work) and if they follow the rules and or do something good they get a pat on the back and some kudos. There are two significant problems with this current system. First, as i discussed earlier, positive reinforcement is the most effective way to shape behavior and this system doesn’t really allow us to do much of that. Second, it teaches the kids that work is a punishment instead of something that you can enjoy doing.
We are still being trained on how this token economy will work but it sounds exciting and i think it will hard making the transition but well worth the difficulty. Basically kids have to earn 10,000 point each day to have privledges the following day. Kids can earn points throughout the day by doing their regularly scheduled things. For example, the kids can earn 1000 points for doing their chores, 1000 points for going to school/study hall. On any weekday if a kid does all the things there supposed to do they can earn up to 6 or 7 thousand points. The kids will loose points for bad behavior (swearing, disobedience, disrespect etc) but can gain points back by accepting no, showing remourse etc. We have a whole new procedure for how to handle disipling and i will try to remember as much of it as i can but my notes are downstairs and im doing night watch and i can’t leave to get them. We are supposed to
1) start with an initial positive (Hey i noticed you did a really good job on your chores earlier
2) Describe the Behavior ( I just saw you flip another kid off)
3) provide relevance (i know you want to get a job once you graduate the program and it will hard for that to happen if your flipping every off who upsets you)
4) ask them to acknowledge ( do you know what im talking about)
5) Consequence ( your going to lose 1500 points for that)
6) another positive (but your a fast learner so im sure you won’t make the same mistake twice)
While we are giving the consequence we allow them to earn point back for good behavior during this process. for example once we get to step 5 we can say so you lost 1500 point for swearing but maintained your composure and your doing a good job of accepting the consequence so you i will give you back 500 points for each of those so you will only lose 500 points. This simultaneously provides a consequence for the negative behavior (swearing) that we wish to extinguish and reinforces good behavior (accepting consequences, maintaining composure) that we want to see more of. In this form of interaction the kid receives 4 complements/rewards for every consequence they earn.
The best part of this is that it allows us to catch the kids doing good things and reward them for it. If we see a kid modeling appropriate behavior or showing growth in an area of struggle we can reward that with points to hopefully reinforce it and see more of it.
Next week two big things are happening. First, we are making the switch to the token economy and second, we are canceling school and working all day. As you have probably come to know from reading my Blogs things have been a little out of control. We are undergoing some major transitions and are short staffed. As a result, a lot of the rules have not been enforced out of sheer necessity (when kids are stealing drugs, stealing vans, fighting its hard to remember to make sure they ask to go to the bathroom). Additionally some of the kids have racked up so many work hours that they become non compliant and we basically have no leverage. Consequently we are going cancel school and have the kids work until everyone becomes compliant. One of the best motivators we have for these kids in their peers. Even though some of the guys “don’t give an F about work hours” anymore if all of the girls and all of their friends hate them because they had to work all day because they are non compliant they suddenly start caring.
I will be in Colorado tuesday night till saturday morning for a wedding so i hope to see some of you while i am back.
And a big thank you to Hannah B for the encouraging letter that i recieved this morning, it was exactly what i needed. If any of you guys are interesting in sending things my address is 3205 N Twyman Rd Independence MO, 64058
Love you all,
Brian Ferguson

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