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Taking a stand against the notion of 'acceptable losses': An education program servicing alienated students

Cecilia Netolicky
Edith Cowan University

In their Strategic Plan 1996-1998, the Education Department of Western Australia noted the need to develop "guidelines for schools to assist them in reviewing current arrangements and planning appropriate education options for students with troublesome behaviours and students alienated from school" (Strategic Plan 1996-1998 Education Department of Western Australia, p. 2). They suggest it has become necessary to review "the adequacy of existing alternative education initiatives for students alienated from school and implement improved educational strategies to meet the needs identified" (Strategic Plan 1996-1998 Education Department of Western Australia, p.2). This study intends to contribute to the body of knowledge on which such policy can be based.

I am researcher, program coordinator and paradigm designer. This involves both conflict of interest and advantage. The advantage of 'insider' research means there is minimal affect on the study subjects. However the conflict of interest inherent in role multiplicity makes sanitising the discussion of problematic incidents tempting.

The field study investigates the plight of at-risk year ten students, who have reached their final year of compulsory education, yet lack skills to access socially endorsed paths to success. The inquiry constitutes a critical study of Strike Four!, an educational paradigm to service this target group. The paradigm seeks to address the "three strikes and you're out" policy, that sees troublesome behaviour students excluded, thereby denying their right to a full education. The field study seeks to ascertain if nineteen week intensive programs can modify the modus operandi of these young people, or if this can only be achieved in early childhood.

The VIP Program implements the Strike Four! paradigm, whilst offering educational service to year 10 students classified 'category 3 alienated' (students with significant social and/or emotional difficulties and behavioural disorders). The program does not exclude young people from the classroom as a result of their behaviours. Crises and disruptions are dealt with as an integral part of literacy, numeracy and general curriculum. The emphasis is on developing skills to access legitimate success in the adult world, acceptance of responsibility for one's actions, acknowledging the repercussions of one's choices and developing strategies to manage one's socially unacceptable behaviours.

Previous programs employing the Strike Four! paradigm achieved 100% attendance and 100% successful placement of students in TAFE or the workplace. Many of these young people achieved employment on work experience, a type of external examination of their modified behaviours. In 1995 and 1996 students were still in their placements three months later. The program run in the first half of 1997 achieved similar attendance and all students were placed in work, apprenticeships, traineeships and TAFE.

The VIP Program has a slightly different agenda. The issue of youth truancy and crime was perceived to be a central problem to the district. This was identified in the District Action Plan. A solution to this crisis was sought through an inter-agency initiative between and the Community Policing and Crime Prevention Council, Perth South District Education Office, Family and Children's Services, Juvenile Justice and local government and senior high schools.

It was believed that encouraging truants back into education would diminish offending behaviours, such as petty crime, vandalism and graffiti often indulged in during absence from school. 70% of daytime break-ins are attributed to school truants. The VIP Program encourages the young people to review their ethical codes and become more responsible members of the community, aware of the repercussions of petty crime on individuals and the community. The program attempts to get these young people back into education, apprenticeships or the workplace with attitudes, ethics, body language and self-talk that will help them make better futures, both for themselves and their communities.

The VIP Program is a retentive educational program for troublesome behaviour students, where inappropriate behaviours are addressed in the classroom rather than through time-out, suspension and expulsion. Behaviour management policies relying on exclusion tend to result in troublesome students roaming the streets and getting into further conflict with the community. The program also aims to have a positive influence on friends, siblings and family members through modelling behaviour, thus contributing in the long term, toward breaking the cycle of unemployment and anti-social behaviours.

The VIP Program offers a relevant-to-the-target-group curriculum, centred around literacy, numeracy, ethics and lifeskills. The truancy initiative pivots on the notion that the immature way to handle boredom on the program is to not attend, the mature way is to come and negotiate for what you want. Student expected outcomes are dictated by the curriculum document, but the content and means of achieving these outcomes are negotiable. The VIP Program employs the CGEA (Certificate of General Education for Adults) curriculum.

The 15 young people currently on the VIP Program are attending regularly and inappropriate behaviours have decreased significantly. Many of these young people failed to attend school for up to two years, yet they are now attending on a daily basis. Many of these 'chronic truants' arrive 45 minutes early in the morning and have to be asked to leave when school finishes. Siblings, friends and parents with criminal records or poor educational backgrounds have requested assistance and been moved on to appropriate opportunities through the program.

The current program is in its thirteenth week. The value of trial programs servicing alienated students is diminished if successful strategies are not made available to others attempting to service the target group. This case study attempts to demonstrate how paradigm strategies are employed in practice. The case study deals with an issue that in many situations, would have resulted in exclusion of the student. Here, through creative contracting, the student is maintained on the program and the crisis is transformed into a golden teaching moment.

1. Mariah: A case study

1.1. Referral information

Year 9 issues: non-attendance, non-compliance, drug use.

Out of school and home since mid 1996. Living on the street.
Developed drug problem but currently not using.

At present motivated and goal oriented.

1.2. Initial interview

Mariah came to the interview displaying extremely withdrawn body language. Wouldn't look me in the eye. Arms closed across her chest. Squirming in her seat. Played too shy to answer questions. I decided on a fi rm approach.

I made it clear that if we offered her a place on the program she would have to participate in all activities. She expressed a reluctance to participate in sport. I explained she didn't have to ice skate or scale cliffs if she chose not to, but she had to work out how she could contribute to these activities. Lecturers were not responsible for finding meaningful ways for her to contribute to organised activities if she chose not to participate in the planned activity. She must find meaningful ways to contribute. This may involve taking photographs, helping other students get boots and gear on or off, scoring, refereeing or purchasing or preparing the food and drinks for people involved in the activity.

I laid the responsibility on her. She appeared to look at me differently after that. I believe the victim role had suited her in most social situations. I made it clear that it wouldn't work here. I explained that with my disability I could justifiably do nothing but watch TV all day. Rather than perceive her problem as "I'm no good at sport, I won't do it", she should look at it as a problem solving exercise. Instead of looking for an excuse for exemption, begin to look for solutions. How you can participate, enjoy the activity and contribute to the group.

1.3. The first weeks

Mariah's first weeks on the program were trying for us all. We put in considerable effort to motivate her. I had pre-tested her, so I was certain she had the ability to cope with the curriculum. She was choosing not to. She was non-compliant and often abusive.

1.4. After term break

Mariah came back from the term break a different person. She was enthusiastic. She had a new hairstyle and was dressing differently. This seemed to give her confidence. We all praised her daily and she responded well. She started volunteering for a variety of tasks. She began attempting to win over the students and staff. I believe over the holidays she realised that she wanted to be here.

This made it easier to shape her behaviour. If students want to be on the program we have an excellent shaping tool. Alternative programs need to establish non-hostile environments, where peer group social interaction is the coinage of appeal. Classroom situations need to facilitate this. On the program we foster friendships between students. We encourage working together. Chatting is okay as long as work is proceeding. We see the constant noise level as a privacy tool, enabling individual counselling and coaching without embarrassment for the student.

Mariah began to cultivate a relationship with me. She used me as a type of mentor. I began to trust her and give her a bit more freedom. She seemed to admire the way I dressed and appeared to covet some of my jewellery. I gave her one of my pieces and she wore it with pride. It wasn't until after the crisis that I realised that her new way of dressing was inspired by my style.

1.5. The crisis

For a week I had been letting Mariah go down to the local shop. The last few days she had returned with chocolate which she generously offered to share with students and staff. She was building a circle of friends and I saw this as a positive development. The girls were gathering round her and she was demonstrating good social skills and leadership qualities. I was pleased at the positive changes in her. She no longer seemed withdrawn and socially isolated. She was no longer non-compliant or abusive to staff.

On Friday I had an appointment with a prospective student. She asked to go to the shop to buy some ham for the Independent Living project. I couldn't leave as I was in the middle of an appointment and the lecturer on duty was teaching. I let her go. She returned shortly claiming the ham was too expensive.

Moments later the shopkeeper stormed in. He was furious. He said Mariah had been caught stealing chocolate from his shop. He wanted to make sure none of our other students came into his shop. I called Mariah in. I was determined that she confront the shopkeeper's anger. She didn't seem particular disturbed by his wrath, but she was upset that the other students were now banned from the shop. She felt this was unfair. This was the shopkeeper's decision. I was comfortable with his decision, as I believe the students need to see that their actions and choices, during program hours, have repercussions for the whole group. The whole group gets read as a problem because of an individual's choices.

Mariah's most extreme reaction to the crisis was in regard to my chastisement. It demonstrated how important my approval was to her. Her eyes filled with tears when I talked about how she had defied my trust and let me down. When filling out the Conflict Resolution Form she suggested it was best if she left the program. I had interpreted this as her typical reaction to loss of face. I decided she had to remain on the program and wear the repercussions of her actions.

Suddenly Clarey started shouting and swearing. He was really angry. He couldn't see why they should all be banned from the shops because of Mariah's actions. I explained that the behaviour he had just exhibited may mean we are once again banned from sitting behind Job Club. They won't tolerate swearing as it upsets their clients. This reinforced the notion that an individual's actions affect the way the whole group is seen by the community.

I contacted Mariah's carer. I needed to make sure that she did not use this as an excuse to leave the program. She may choose to tell them that she was unhappy here and wanted to return to mainstream. In this way she could avoid my wrath, the wrath of her peers and the community service I had imposed on her. I felt she needed to understand that she had two choices: to be charged with stealing, or to return and try and win back our friendship and trust. I emphasised that this was not to be done with gifts and bribes. I explained to her carer that I don't hold anger. I'm willing to trust Mariah again, but she must make the effort to win back my trust. The same is true of her relationship with the students. They'll realise they have all done similar things that have affected group freedom. But she needs to be here through this process in order to learn from the experience.

A typical exclusion policy would fail to address Mariah's behaviour. Mariah would comfortably accept exclusion and having to begin again with a new group. This has been the pattern of her past. She needs to learn from this. This was a critical event where she could learn both about herself and others. She needs to realise that our liking her had nothing to do with her gifts, that trust should be valued and is not a commodity to be manipulated, that friends are earned and should be valued and that trust can be re-established with effort. Excluding or expelling Mariah from the program would have failed to achieve any significant learning from this experience. Real learning can now occur both for her, and the other students by making this experience part of the curriculum to be covered in class. This was achieved using relevant stories from The Teenage Survival Guides (Netolicky, 1996 and 1996a) and related learning activities. We see these issues or crises as golden teaching moments, times when real learning can occur, when the modus operandi of these young people can be positively influenced and socially acceptable behaviour encouraged.

This case study demonstrates, the calling into play in the shaping process, of two strategies vital to the program. The first is the use of naturally occurring social mechanisms to shape behaviour. The second is reinforcement through creative contractual agreements.

2. Social mechanisms

2.1 Peer Group Pressure

Peer group pressure is a powerful tool. It is generally believed that it influences young people's choices and actions. Here peer group pressure was harnessed as a positive force to shape Mariah's behaviour. We wanted to help her realise the repercussions of her actions on the whole group. If she had been excluded due to her behaviours, this powerful shaping tool would have been rendered ineffective. Here she had to face the wrath of her peers, and if she chose to, she could begin attempting to re-establish their trust.

2.2 Mentor disapproval

Mentor disapproval is also a powerful tool. We encourage the young people on the program to see staff and youth workers as mentors and role models. Mariah had come to value my approval. The shopkeeper's wrath meant nothing to her. His disapproval was 'like water off a duck's back'. My disapproval however had shaping value. This coinage only has value if the young person is aware that 'mistakes' can be forgiven and trust can be regained.

2.3 Creative contracting as a shaping tool

It was explained to Mariah that The Ethos Document we signed at enrolment accepted her as she was. However, in this same document she had declared she would attempt to improve academically, socially and behaviourally to retain her place on the program. Hence we accept her mistake, but she must learn from it. Through a new contract she must acknowledge the repercussions of her actions, the fact that her actions had repercussions for others and make an attempt to make things up through community service to the program.

I believe community service is the least significant shaping tool employed here. It is used on the program as a way of extending memory of the inappropriate action, rather than as a logical consequence. The really effective shaping tools are peer group pressure and mentor disapproval. Community service merely helps hold the issue in the students' minds for an extended period of time, compounding the lesson.

The VIP Program is committed to maintaining the young people in the learning environment whilst addressing anti-social behaviours that will limit accessing legitimate success in the adult world. This does not mean imposing middle class morality, manners and behaviour management skills on the young people. The program recognises that their future contexts will not necessarily require middle class English or manners. Our concern is with job-getting and job-keeping skills necessary for their chosen path.

The VIP Program has funding until mid December. The previous programs employing the Strike Four! paradigm have no further funding despite high success rates. The value of running these trial programs will be lost if studies are not undertaken whilst these programs are running.

The VIP Program operates on the notion that every young person deserves an opportunity to access legitimate success. There are no 'acceptable losses'. Many of these young people view school as a hostile environment. As stated by Tevlin, citing Axelson the teacher of an alternative program at Minneapolis State High School, statistics "show that at-risk kids can succeed only if in a warm, comfortable place" (Tevlin, 1994, p. 2). Appropriate, inviting opportunities need to be made available for young people traditionally excluded from education due to their behaviours. Every young person has the right to a full and appropriate education. Successful programs servicing alienated students need to be studied, as many have short-lived funding. It took us ten months of continued effort to get the funding to run a nineteen week program. If these young people can be redirected toward accessing legitimate socially endorsed paths to success, they can become contributing, rather than draining members of the community.


Netolicky, C. (1996) The Teenage Survival Guide, Australia: Australian ArtMarx.

Netolicky, C. (1996a) The Teenage Survival Guide II, Australia: Australian ArtMarx.

Education Department of Western Australia. Strategic Plan 1996-1998.
http://www.edudept.wa.edu.au/centoff/strplan/ (28 Mar 1997)
http://www.eddept.wa.edu.au/centoff/gse95/stratpl.htm (10 Aug 1999; not found 1 June 2006)

Tevlin, J. (1994, September). Fast Times, Good Times at South High. Minnesota Monthly 28(9).
http://gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~annalise/south.html (1997)

Please cite as: Netolicky, C. (1997). Taking a stand against the notion of 'acceptable losses': An education program servicing alienated students. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/netolicky.html

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