by David Jones
Fifteen-year-old Keith was a physically intimidating kid who had a history of disruptive behaviour and physical violence towards staff and other young people in his previous placements. His risk assessment also reported that he played by his own rules and had no respect for boundaries.
Indeed, during his first week with us he had to be restrained twice and went missing overnight on four occasions. Over the next few months he began ringing the home in the early hours, demanding that the sleeping-in staff get up and drive him back to the home, which they did. On his return, he would help himself to food in the kitchen before going to his room.
The other kids began to resent this, reasoning that we were affording Keith special treatment, and some of the staff agreed. However, our manager’s rationale was that we were keeping a very difficult young person safe and that his behaviour might start to improve by ‘indulging’ him in this way.
But we now realised that we faced a dilemma in trying to contain Keith in this way, as the dynamic of a happy home was changing.
Because he could become violent in seconds (and many staff were actually scared of him) were there any other workable options? Keith was also an intelligent and articulate kid with good manners when in an agreeable mood. A devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass every week, on one occasion I thought to ask him if his attitude might not contradict his faith. He replied that he saw no connection between the two and didn’t think his behaviour warranted concern.
In numerous staff meetings, the opinion was voiced that we were sending out the wrong message to the other young people and that Keith was “taking the mick”. And when we tried to explain the reasons behind our approach to the other kids, some of them did understand, but even then their resentment was evident.
Just five months short of his 16th birthday, Keith knew he could be moved out to the YMCA if his poor behaviour continued, and a number of staff didn’t want this to happen. In the end this didn’t become an issue as his mother returned from Poland (she’d abandoned him as a child and he’d never known his father) and he was thrilled that she wanted him to live with her.
However, had Keith been younger, could we have maintained this behaviour plan with him? There seem to be two distinct schools of thought here. One recommends that staff cater to such a young person’s needs in order to avoid the risk of violent confrontation and unsettling the kid emotionally. This way a gradual introduction of rules might be possible, which could also allow for the building of better relationships between the young person and staff and the other kids.
Alternatively, staff could adopt a more disciplined approach, but with the attendant behavioural issues this would create.
What isn’t in doubt however, is choosing what might be regarded as the ‘easier’ option is more often than not more productive in terms of fostering a young person’s emotional, physical and educational wellbeing. When a child has returned from a difficult contact with a parent and is clearly upset, agreeing to let him have tomorrow off school is the compassionate way to deal with this. Some staff will always prioritise education over the child’s mood, but surely it’s a question of perspective and appreciating the bigger picture?
I’ve followed kids with a colleague and seen them approach strangers asking for a cigarette, or observed them picking up nubs in the street and smoking them. In such circumstances I’ve witnessed staff who smoke give the kid a cigarette, while emphasising the dangers of approaching members of the public. This might strike some staff as an easy option but I beg to differ. It’s a judgement call and the right one. Rules are in place because they are necessary, but they don’t always allow for common sense to be applied when dealing with a troubled and upset kid.
Teaching young people to be independent is one thing, but when a very distressed girl, Mary, rang me asking if I’d pick her up from school because she couldn’t face catching the bus, I had no hesitation in agreeing to her request. I also reasoned that on the journey back, we could discuss why she’d had such a dreadful day.
Extremely agitated about starting at a new school the next day, Steven asked me if he could stay up later with me and watch the last hour of a film. For certain staff this simply wouldn’t be an option, and they’d explain to the kid that a good night’s sleep is essential on a school night. However, I knew that Steven would struggle to sleep had I turned the television off, and that he’d go to his room in a much more settled mood an hour later. He even voiced more of his concerns with me about the next day before the film finished, and when he bid me goodnight he was clearly feeling less anxious.
With Keith I think that the route we took, while involving compromises on our part which we didn’t afford the other young people, did work in that it nullified the risk of violence, but it remained a dilemma. And there’s no doubt that my professional and personal practice did need to be tailored, as I constantly found myself reassessing whether I was doing the right thing. It certainly required professional patience on my part.
I also kept thinking that had we taken a tougher line, it would have demonstrated to the other kids that they were all equal in the eyes of the staff and that rules and boundaries need to be observed.
The bottom line wasn’t to make our lives easier (although a number of staff did claim this was the case) but to accommodate Keith as safely as possible. That’s how I tried to square these two issues, but it wasn’t easy.
David Jones is pseudonym. He is a residential children’s home worker.