Summary: An approach to retrieval of the legion of unmoored kids on the periphery of our schools can be extracted from an innovative treatment model for incarcerated “callous and unemotional” kids.
Some public schools and some charters now embody a road map to skill development and future prospects for a significant percentage of low income urban youth of color. But this wary optimism applies only to those kids of poverty with a personal vision that their commitment to school will pay off in the longer run, and who are energized by the newly reformed schools they attend.
Personally, I am haunted by those still left behind in this more hopeful vision – the dropouts, the kids in the streets, those that hang on marginally to schools, but with poor attendance and little practical prospect of academic success in their lives. What, still, do we do for them, already so many steps toward chronic poverty, poor health, crime, and prison as they are?
Admittedly there is something quixotic about the question when we yet only haphazardly reach those kids that are ripe for progress but whose schools lack imagination, funding, and vitality.
Still. There is the moral that the quality of a society is measured by how we treat our least fortunate members. So how do we reach the more unreachable?
A similarly intractable population, “callous and unemotional” kids, a percentage of whom (but well short of all) will be labeled “psychopaths” as adults, is the subject of a recent Atlantic magazine article by Barbara Hagerty.
Psychopaths, and their progenitors, the “callous and unemotional” children, show a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt, are aggressive and can be cruel, display emotions without real depth, and do not respond with corrected behavior to punishment. It is believed the behavior can have a genetic basis that appears physiologically as an undersized or underactive amygdala — part of the brain’s emotional center — but can also form in an environment of neglect and abuse.
Adult psychopaths form a tiny percentage of the population, but by estimates may commit in the vicinity of half of all violent crimes.
The normal response of authority figures, whether parent or teacher, is to apply a consequence, but the sanction doesn’t affect the callous kid. To the contrary, they can report that their misbehavior, even into serious cruelty, gives them a feeling of pleasure. Of course, such kids continually run up against the rules of social interaction; conflict and a downward spiral ensue.
But where such kids are unresponsive to the pain of consequence, they are wired with an overactive reward system, primed to respond to incentive. On the street reward can consist of sex, drugs, violence.
But at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin, an alternate to normal incarceration, the staff has utilized this proclivity for reward to establish an elaborate system of incentives – privileges mostly – to shape behavior, with only a nominal wave at consequence (which doesn’t impact the callous kid, anyway).
Many of the callous inmates respond on arrival at Mendota with a wide and deep catalog of outrageous behavior, to which the staff (enriched by a three to one staff to kid ratio), no doubt in saintly garb, responds to with equanimity and patience. The treatment protocol seeks to slowly wear down the negativity, build tentative relationship, and gradually starts to build a mindset in each inmate that playing by the rules, in the treatment center and once on the outside, can make possible the various rewards in life the inmates desire.
Importantly, there is no illusion that empathy is constructed or that somehow troubled emotional life is healed. Instead, the goal is to engineer in the resident a cognitive pathway that helps him or her to see that one’s best interest can be served by existing within socially acceptable boundaries.
The ins and outs of psychopathy, callous kids, and the Mendota Center are clearly more complex than this thumbnail sketch, and skepticism about the treatment methodology is understandable. But in studies that compare outcomes for the psychopathic like Mendota inmates and those incarcerated in a traditional juvenile detention center (who were less psychopathic as a group), the Mendota kids were almost twice less likely to commit a violent crime on the outside, and have committed no murders to date. The comparison group from the parallel juvenile treatment center has committed sixteen murders in the same period of time. Something seems to be working at Mendota.
At least three themes from Mendota are instructive for the reclamation of kids schools have currently lost, the legion of them, that corps of uncertain but substantial size.
Despite their characterological weak connection to other humans, the kids at Mendota seem to respond to the faith and temperament of the staff along with the incentives of the behavioral modification system. Kids respond to adult attention, as we see in good parenting and in change making public school and charter alike, and so would be a principle at the heart of scholastic resuscitation of heretofore lost kids. As a subset, a well thought out behavior modification program is likely a crucial piece. Measured consequence for misbehavior is still on the table, though the insight from Mendota with chronic misbehavior is that positive intervention can be more productive. The restorative justice movement, which addresses recidivist misbehavior in schools around the country, is a related example.
A second characteristic, probably derivative of the first, but worth mentioning separately, is patience and a respect for the time it takes to shift human, in this case juvenile momentum. Though we are obsessed with grades and promotion, systems are needed that keep a lost kid engaged in school for the long run, and that recognize both academic remediation and psychic regeneration are first priorities. Remember, for example, that Head Start kids do not retain their gains in academic skills, but in later life are more likely to graduate, hold a job, and not stray in the eyes of the law. More on the importance of that long view in my next post.
The last lesson to draw from the detention treatment of callous kids is the construction of cognitive purposefulness, a sense of ego control, a mind map, an interior guide to the future. In the case of callous kids, it’s a tool that gives them incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, but for our scholastically marginal kids such a pathway leads from their psychic disarray toward a sense of personal power, giving hope that they have the resources to create for themselves a life trajectory. Again I return to Head Start and its lesson that the more profound benefit may be well down a road constructed from early hopeful experience.
It is a tragedy of our short sighted culture that we spend for incarceration but not the prevention of incarceration, which study after study has shown is cheaper in the long run, because the kids that end up criminals were mostly once on the margin in schools that served them. If Mendota can create change in kids whose psychopathy frightens us, perhaps we might muster the resources to rescue early the potential criminals that bedevil us, for their sake and our own.