I spent a year and a half working with teenagers who were placed in a group home for various reasons. We had eight boys living with us at one time, and my husband and I spent all of our time trying to rewire their thought process by teaching them new life skills.
Some of the boys who lived with us were there as a placement between jail and home. Others were there because a psychiatric facility decided they were starting to look healthy enough to go home, but weren’t quite there, yet. Others, were there because they were waiting to age out of the system. They were foster kids/orphans who had no parents to go back to.
A very small number of the boys who stayed with us were there because their parents chose to put them in placement. This was either as a result of their child’s extreme behaviors or because their family lived in a city with dangerously high crime rates, which their parents wanted to shield them from.
All of these kids (except the very latter) were placed with us because of unsafe choices they continually made.
Now, I work with elementary-aged students for the exact same reason, but they don’t live with me. I work in a behavior program at their school where we can address their behaviors during regular school hours. They don’t have to be pulled from their homes and they don’t have to be submersed in it (though, that might be helpful for some).
The one major difference I’ve found between working with young children versus older children?
The younger they are, the easier it is for them to change.
There’s a reason people say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
You can, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult than teaching one that’s young and pliable.
At seven years old, for example, maybe the only thing you’ve ever been around is adults who manipulate others to get what they want. Developmentally, at this age you are able to recognize smaller forms of manipulation, such as yelling, hitting, or crying. You can see them and you can mimic them.
If a new adult steps in, builds a relationship with you, and tries to show you that there are other ways to get what you want, you might be able to learn new ways. You haven’t yet realized the depth of manipulation that you could use. You’ve only spent seven years doing things the old way, and really you’ve only learned a few of those manipulation skills in the past few years.
Less habits have been formed. The habits that are there have been used for fewer years.
You’ve been hurt by fewer adults and are still more able to trust the ones who say they’ll help you.
Not to mention, the adults who are trying to help/teach you are still smarter than you by a long shot. You’re less skilled at lying and hiding things, and they’re able to mold your thought process more easily.
By sixteen years old, however, if all you’ve ever seen is adults who manipulate and bully others to get what they want, you’ve had more than twice as much time to learn those skills. And the time that you have had has been the more intelligent years. You’re smarter. You pick things up more quickly.
You can see the intricacies of the manipulation now, and you have probably chosen friends who live the same lifestyle as you. You’ve got the same example at school now as what you used to only have at home.
The adults who are trying to teach you new life skills are no longer miles ahead of you in intelligence. You’re smart enough to lie to them without getting caught. You’re probably even intelligent enough to “fake it” for long enough periods of time that they’ll leave you alone.
You might have seen adults by now who don’t live as harshly as you/your family/community live, but you probably don’t trust them. You don’t believe that their way of life actually gets them what they want. Or you don’t believe that they want the same things as you, and you’re not interested in hearing why they feel differently.
You’re so deeply rooted in your family and personal community that you’ve shut everything else out.
You’re less scared of consequences. You’ve seen and known people who’ve experienced those consequences and you know that it’s possible to live through them.
You’re less scared of the adults you’re interacting with. You have hormones running amuck in your brain, causing you to make more impulsive choices than you ever would’ve before, and you probably get a feeling of empowerment every time you successfully make a “soft” adult feel inadequate.
It’s so much more difficult to teach you something new now than it was when you were in first grade.
It’s not impossible. Don’t hear that from my words.
IT. IS. POSSIBLE.
But it’s going to take a lot more effort, patience, and time on the adult’s part.
It’s going to take loving you when you hate me. When you’re no longer cute and huggable. When you scream the “C” word at me, even though I’ve literally never heard anyone say that word out loud, let alone call someone it. When you don’t apologize. When you call me fat. When you say my kids are spoiled brats. When you throw glass at me. When your family calls me four times a week to tell me I’m a worthless b****.
It takes so much more.
Catch them when they’re little, guys. Push your public schools to implement behavior programs that can be integrated into regular school days.
Because even if it doesn’t apply to your kids, it applies to our kids.
They are all our kids.
We are not allowed to sit back and say, “What is this world coming to?!” while rolling our eyes, when we refuse step in and help. If you can’t be the one to teach these kids new ways of life, then support those who are.
If your kids’ teachers are trying to behavior correction techniques in their classrooms, support them, even if it’s inconvenient for your kid. Encourage your kids to help others with their behavior. Talk to your kids about how behavior is as important to learn as academics are.
We are all responsible for the poor, the undereducated, the angry, the embittered, the powerless, the powerful, the thieves, the rapists, the inmates.
They were all once elementary-aged kids who made someone raise their eyebrows. Don’t turn away from it.