Treating kids like thieves

Years ago I was teaching at school that served youth who had been expelled from the traditional school setting. Most of the students I worked with had been expelled for things like poor attendance, getting caught repeatedly with drugs, getting into fights, or stealing. In the last years of my tenure as a teacher I had the opportunity to develop a program within the school system for students who were struggling with substance abuse. As the program was in formation I thought long about how create an environment that was truly supportive of young people who were facing the realities of their own drug abuse. In designing the school I recognized that if we were going to take away the tool (drugs and alcohol) that students were errantly using to meet a deeper need, we needed to offer an environment that met the underlying needs--for connectedness and a sense of community.

I made it a point not to lock anything up. I purposely brought personal possessions for class use, and I'd leave my IPOD on the desk of the classroom. These actions reflected the message that I sought to convey that, "Despite some of the actions you have taken before, I believe there is a part of you that wants to live in a community of trust." This was at a time when more and more systems of control were being established in the schools because students seemed to be heading further down the spectrum of being more distrustful, more out of control, and more angry and violent. I made a conscious decision within this atmosphere to create an environment where instead of reiterating a message that reinforced their belief that they weren't trustworthy, I played to the other more deeply hidden tendencies and desires that I saw in the students. I believed then (and continue to believe now) that one root of anti-social behaviors is a feeling of not belonging, a sense of not feeling respected. In not feeling respected, students' disrespectful behaviors towards others increased. This became a feedback loop in which a lack of respect on both sides led to further disrespect. As the loop fed itself greater control was needed on the side of the school staff to "keep order." It became obvious that in this environment no one was benefiting and what we needed was a way to step out from under this pattern and form a new way of relating.

Underneath the anti-social behaviors that we were witnessing from students I saw desire to live differently, to be trustworthy, and to operate in an environment based upon mutual respect. The sentiment amongst my colleges was one that encouraged me to take better precautions. The general feeling I was met with was that, “these kids have proven over and over again that they will betray your trust so why would you make yourself so vulnerable." I decided to adhere to the belief that if I saw these students as trustworthy then the likely hood of them acting that way would be greater. But, I also knew that it was valuable that I was acting from an authentic belief and not one that was feigned.

Over a two year period there was nothing stolen in this classroom. In our third year one of the student’s IPOD’s went missing. I called together the class and offered an appeal saying something to the effect of, “we’ve worked together over the past years to create an environment based upon trust and today somebody acted in a way that has the potential to harm that. It is normal at times that we will forget what we are working to create, because in some ways contrary to some conditioning that has been set up in each of us. Falling into old patterns of thinking and acting is, of course natural, but in need of correction if we wish to be together in an environment that we are inspired to be a part of each day. When we make mistakes there is always the possibly to change course. I am not interested in punishment, but in maintaining the safety and the sense of mutuality and respect that we have been able to create over the years together. By returning what was taken you will not become an outcast of this program, but be an example for how we all can shift the course of our choices by making another choice. The choice to return what was taken would be an act of courage that has the ability to not only re-establish the culture that we have created, but strengthen it in new ways."

In this situation the IPOD was returned. Even if it wasn’t, and I definitely wasn’t sure that it would be, I felt that by appealing to the parts of these kids that wanted to live in community of trust was a more powerful move than meeting force with force. If I acted from this place of seeking to punish the kid who did it then the culture was definitely being shifted.

This is not to say that we should always blindly trust those who have tendencies towards steeling or that we should leave things out that are important to us when it doesn't feel safe to do so. Sometimes it is prudent to lock things up. Clear boundaries are helpful and healthy and without them our young people can loose a sense of safety. Each person, based upon their understandings of the moment, must decide in each situation how to interface with the culture and the people who are present. When choosing how we will enact our boundaries it is important to maintain awareness around the messages that we send. What we reflect to teens is often internalized and becomes a piece of their very sense of self. Generally speaking people respond to the parts of them that we focus on. By appealing to the aspects of our young people that want to live n connection, mutual respect, a community of trust they have a greater tendency to live into those places. By believing in their underlying and inherent goodness more opportunity is created for our young people to be good.