A lesson learned in our early days as a family-teaching couple

Sarah and I have survived a week running our own home as a family-teaching couple. We only have two girls right now, but we’ve already been learning a lot and getting used to our new normal.

The youth come to Boys Town from all sorts of backgrounds. Some are court mandated to be here and are on probation, while others are private placement. All the youth come in with a certain number of skills that have helped them get through life to this point. Usually their toolbox of skills is lacking a few key areas that will help them do well in our society and culture, so as family teachers we help them learn those skills so that when they eventually leave Boys Town they’ll be better equipped to do well no matter the environment they’ll be in, whether it be their home, at college, or in the workplace.

We focus on the positives here. For every negative interaction we have with a youth, we try and have at least four positive interactions. For most of the youth, this is much different than anything they’ve experienced before coming to Boys Town.

We shape behavior. So if we know a girl has a hard time following instructions and we give her the instruction to go pick up her sweater off of the couch and put it in her room and then she whines and kind of mopes around on her way to get the sweater, but she still gets the sweater and puts it away in her room, we’ll say something like, “Hey good job putting your sweater in your room! I asked you to pick it up off the couch and take it to your room and you did that. Next time let’s make sure that you look at me, say okay, do the task right away, and then check back with me.”

We highlight the behavior we want to see, and then shape and reframe what we are expecting to see from them. We almost always use rationales for the social skills we are teaching them, trying to generalize beyond Boys Town as often as possible.

“When you look at the person it shows you are paying attention. When you say ‘okay’ it lets the person know you understand. When you do what you’ve been asked to do right away you are more likely to remember exactly what you’re supposed to do. And when you check back it lets the person know that you have followed the instruction.”

Rationales help the youth understand that the skills we are expecting from them aren’t just skills that will help them here at Boys Town, but in all sorts of real world situations. And when they understand that, their buy-in to learning the skills goes much easier.

We have a motivational system here at Boys Town that we use. It’s a point system, and we give positive and negative points based solely on the behaviors they are exhibiting. And we have a book of 183 social skills that they (and we) are learning. Basic skills such as “following instructions” and “accepting ‘no’ for an answer” to more advanced skills such as “resolving conflicts” and “interviewing for a job.”

Sarah and I are constantly teaching these girls. We are to have about fifteen intentional teaching interactions with each girl every day. Some girls are working on the most basic of skills, while others are working on more advanced skills. But we remain consistent with how we teach the girls and how often.

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Ultimately, Sarah and my goal is to set these girls up for success in everything they do. We don’t avoid teaching to negative behaviors when we notice them because they won’t just go away on their own. If we notice a girl give a snarky comment to another girl at dinner, to shrug it off is not setting these girls up for success because later during chore time that comment is likely to be brought up again or retaliated against. And the next thing we know there’s an argument going on and bickering and lots of negative behavior that could have been prevented by simply teaching to the behavior that happened at dinner.

It’s not very fun to teach to negative behavior. It’s draining, the girls are unpredictable in how they will respond (please just say ‘ok,’ please just say ‘ok’), and sometimes it seems a little nit-picky. But if you don’t address it right away, you end up regretting it, and you realize that you ultimately did not set the girls up for success.

So constantly at the forefront of my mind is the thought, How am I going to set these girls up for success in this situation? That means we are frequently pre-teaching social skills before we go to events or have interactions with others. So we may say, “So tonight we are going to the football game. What are some social skills you think you might be using tonight?” And they may answer “Introducing ourselves, participating with others, contributing to conversations, using appropriate humor, accepting decision, and following instructions.” If anyone struggles with some of these skills, Sarah and I will make sure to go over those skills with them so that they are prepared to do them well. It’s all part of setting them up for success.

It’s also something I’m explaining to the girls as a way of framing the behaviors we are expecting from them.

Yesterday, a girl forgot to set her alarm and come out of her room in time to get things done and ready for school. Things sort of snowballed and she ended up getting a number of negative points for things that didn’t get done. She was disappointed in herself. Later that night she told me that she felt ashamed for not doing well that day and that she wished she could do better. She was focused on all the negative points she earned and was really kind of bummed out because of them.

So I framed it in a way that didn’t focus on all the negative points, but focused on how a simple thing like setting her alarm for an appropriate time and getting up when it goes off in the morning sets her up for success for that morning. She doesn’t have to rush. She gets the things done that are expected of her in the mornings. And therefore she doesn’t earn negative points.

We didn’t need to focus on ALL the things she didn’t do yesterday morning, and therefore she didn’t need to feel ashamed for them. When she saw all the negative points, things seemed overwhelming. But when she was able to see how simply setting her alarm and getting up sets her up for success, everything seemed more manageable and optimistic.

She was up right on time this morning.

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