Recently, I attended a community workshop. Over the lunch hour I happened to sit with a very interesting lady. After a few minutes, our conversation turned to what we did for a living and I explained that I was a teacher. She told me that she worked for the Ministry of Social Services, a government agency. Her job was to take some of the most severely disturbed teens of our community into her home for approximately six weeks at a time, with the goal of readying them for foster care.
She expressed with some regret that the Ministry wouldn’t consider allowing her to take on the role of a regular foster parent, instead of what she does now. She explained that now that she was 55 and nearing the end of her working career, she really wanted to change the occupational focus that she’d held for many years. Instead of taking in a series of teenagers for short periods of times–to stabilize them–she wanted instead to be able to have just one teen stay with her for an extended period of time.
Although she knew that her specialized job was important, she wanted the opportunity to have what she felt would be a more personally satisfying experience. She wanted to be able to get to know one child well, by way of a more permanent and long term relationship.
When I asked her why the Ministry wouldn’t allow her to do this, she said that it was because they had so few people who were able to do the work that she does. Her job is to settle these difficult teens down, enabling them to function in a regular foster family situation. She said she is very successful at what she does and the Ministry is desperate for her to continue her work with these extremely challenged youths.
Intrigued, I asked her to tell me her secret. What was it about her method of working and living with these difficult youths that seemed to work miracles? She said that many people have asked her this same question and that over the years, the best way that she had found to describe her approach was as follows:
She said that in her mind, she chooses to think of these disturbed young people as “aliens” who have come from another planet. She pictures them as beings newly arrived on earth—with no idea of how this world works. She treats them as she would treat any foreign visitor to her home.
She holds no preconceived notions that they should know anything at all about “Earth culture and customs”—after all they’ve just arrived here! She treats them with great respect and extreme politeness, realizing that they know nothing of her culture and are sure to make some social errors while visiting.
She never raises her voice and is never critical—she doesn’t want to offend her special guests. If they make a mistake, she simply and patiently excuses their faux pas and then calmly explains to them what it is they should do if the same situation comes up again in the future. She takes great care to neither offend or embarrass them. She considers it her job to patiently educate them about things that we do here on Earth so that they can learn to live successfully in a culture where the customs are so entirely unfamiliar to them.
As an example, she told me about the young girl who is currently living with her. The girl arrived home one day–just after my friend had washed the kitchen floor. The girl didn’t take her dirty shoes off at the door and instead tramped mud right across the entire kitchen floor on her way to the fridge. My friend didn’t get mad. She simply described the situation as she had observed it and noted the resulting consequences of the girl’s actions:
“When people walk across the floor in muddy shoes, it means that I must rewash the floor and that’s going to take me a bit of time. Perhaps, the next time you come in from outdoors, you might try to remember to leave your shoes at the door. That would really help me a lot.” Then she said that she had smiled but said nothing more. She simply went to the closet, brought out the bucket again and rewashed the muddy floor.
She told me that if she treats EVERY SINGLE INCIDENT of misbehavior, in this calm and very respectful way, she has found that her teenage foster children soon begin to act appropriately–all of their own accord. Rather than complaining, showing anger or meting out punishments, she just explains to her “alien visitors” what would be the right or helpful “Earthling way” to handle a similar situation in the future.
All I could think was “Wow!” This calm lady has it all figured out! I thought that her approach to working with young people was very much like the philosophy of Discipline without Stress. She instinctively knows that the most effective way to work with misbehavior is to view it as “an opportunity to teach and to learn.” This lady showed me the power of a calm, patient and positive approach to misbehavior.