Experience is the Best Teacher

By John Stein


Experience is the Best Teacher


I am pleased with my education. I studied psychology in the heyday of behaviourism in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s. It was also the heyday of group dynamics, and I had a graduate level course in that field. More, I had the privilege of studying personality under Theodore Millon, later to become renowned for his work and writings in that field. While I think I learned a lot, more was to come after graduation. My education prepared me to learn from experience.


I’m not as smart as I think I am 

My first job in human service was as a police officer. After my first year, I was assigned to work as the department’s first public relations officer, patrolling the city’s housing projects on foot in the evenings. I very quickly developed what I thought was a brilliant idea to help the people improve their image in the wider community. It fell flat.


Hiring staff

I left the police department after a little over two years and was anxious for a job. I was invited by a social worker, the executive director of a neighborhood center in one of the housing projects I had patrolled. He told me the kids were going to do the interviewing and make the selection. He said, “It’s their staff, not mine. They have to live with the decision, so they should make it.”

On the afternoon of the interviews, the first interviewee came out from his interview, a Japanese exchange student pursuing a master’s degree in business. I was feeling pretty good. I had a fairly good reputation with these kids, having stood up for them during some mass arrests. I could certainly prevail over a business major who was a ‘foreigner.’ The 20-some kids were tough in the interview. They asked serious, well thought out questions. The question that stumped me: “What would you do if you found out some of us were smoking marijuana?” I just wasn’t ready for that one. When I left the interview, I met the third candidate, a 40-year-old black man who had been a president of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He was personable and sharp. I knew I didn’t have a chance. (When the director called to tell me he got the job, he also told me that the Japanese business student had finished second, leaving me in third place.)

After a couple of months, the director of the poverty program called me and offered me a job directing their neighborhood centers in two other housing projects in the city. The director of the other neighborhood center became my mentor. He convinced me we needed a youth worker. I advertised and got three applicants. I talked to some kids about interviewing and scheduled the interviews. On the day of the interviews, none of the kids showed up; I had to go and round them up as the first applicant (the Japanese exchange student) waited. They took about 40 minutes with each applicant, after which I met with them. They were torn between the Japanese student (what was it about this guy?) and a young black man who had a girl friend in the neighborhood. They finally settled on the young black man, who did an outstanding job, helping the kids get use of a vacant room in the administration building of the housing authority as a teen center for activities and dances, and holding fund raisers to raise money for a pool table and dances at the center.

The next time I used this approach was in a secure treatment facility for hardcore juvenile offenders sentenced by the courts that I had just been hired to open, and gave me resumes of three people I could hire who were ready to start immediately. We were to take our first kids that Friday. I knew two of them and the third interviewed well. I hired them on Tuesday. We opened with two boys on Friday.

After a few weeks, we had more boys and it was time to hire another staff. I told the boys (all white) what my plans were. They said they didn’t want to interview, that I would hire whom I wanted no matter what they said. “Just don’t hire no N—–s” one said, and they all nodded in approval. I told them one of the applicants was black, and that I felt we should have some black staff, since we would eventually have some black residents. The only way they could have any input was if they interviewed. I assured them I would hire whomever they chose. But, I was a bit apprehensive. The white applicant had a degree in psychology, but he seemed to me likely to be easily manipulated by these kids. The black applicant was the young man who had been my youth worker in the project—I knew how well he worked with tough kids on the streets. They interviewed and hired the black guy! The exact same thing played out a few weeks later when we had a few more boys, still all white, and white applicants and one black. (Later, when the new executive director arrived, he wanted to hire staff himself. He hired the white guy who I thought would be too easily manipulated. After a few months, he got manipulated into doing something dumb on an outing with some of the boys and had to be dismissed.)

I used this approach in three other residential settings. It never disappointed me. It starts the relationship during the interview and gets the new staff off to a good start. They have some familiarity with the kids, as do the kids with their knew staff. Instead of trying to convince me that I made a mistake and run the staff off in the first week, they welcome their new staff and want them to succeed, and help them off to a good start. (I would always interview applicants, check references, and screen out any who did not meet the qualifications. Other than that, I left it up to the kids.)


Interviewing staff

There were times when I could not allow the children to interview. I soon learned that staff who could only talk in their interview about how much they want to help kids were often a problem. They expected the kids to listen to their wisdom and learn and behave. When the kids didn’t, they became frustrated and dissatisfied, either blaming the kids or blaming the administration for failing to make the kids behave. Staff who could talk about how they like kids and the things they like to do with kids were more likely to do well. “What things do you like to do with kids?” became a standard question. The staff who are too obsessed with their need to help kids only like kids who readily accept their help to their satisfaction.



This lesson I had literally jammed down my throat by the executive director in my first days as director of a group home for twelve boys. The program had been out of control before I took over. The previous director had been somewhat lenient. The boys were used to going to his office after staff had made a decision and getting it overturned. I was explaining to my new boss my approach to discipline. For serious offenses, things that would be a crime anywhere, like theft, deliberate destruction of property, aggression, possession or use of a weapon, or substance abuse, I believed in restrictions of from one to two weeks from certain privileges, like TV, the pool table, going outside without supervision, and home passes. (I never used room restrictions or restricted kids from supervised activities in the program.) He replied that the boys could not handle a restriction of more than one day, to which I blurted out, “A one day restriction for hitting staff! That’s ridiculous!!” “Nevertheless,” he replied, (somewhat red in the face) “a day or two is all they can handle.” Thinking of the chaos the program was in, I knew I was in for a tough time. I expected to have to go back to hum to renegotiate for longer restrictions. But, at least I got two days.

Within a couple of months, with the help of really excellent staff and a superb program manager who supervised them, we had things under control. He was right. We didn’t need longer restrictions.

And so I had to do some thinking. Restrictions are punishment. People who are punished either feel they deserve the punishment, or feel that they do not deserve it. When they feel they deserve the punishment, it affects their self-image and motivation. Only bad people deserve punishment. Bad people are not motivated to do good things. People who do not feel they deserve punishment are angry and resentful and may be motivated for some sort of retaliation or rebellion. My experience has been that kids who are serving a long restriction often end up ‘earning’ another restriction before the first restriction is over, leading to a downward spiral.

We do not want kids feeling bad about themselves, we want them feeling good about themselves and motivated to do well. Nor do we want kids feeling angry and rebellious.

More, punishment is disrespectful. It conveys the message that we do not expect children to do the right thing unless we make them. We want children to know that we respect them and expect the best from them. We do not want children to meet our worst expectations but rather our best expectations.

While punishment may have little benefit for those who receive it, I believe it has some benefit for others in a group or social setting. I think of a time my wife and I were driving on the 300 mile (500k) interstate through Virginia. We wanted to get it done, but traffic was heavy and I was driving the speed limit (for a change). In my rearview mirror, I saw a Mustang weaving in and out of traffic passing cars right and left. She soon passed me, cut in front of me, and went on racing down the road changing lanes repeatedly. A few miles down the road, the Mustang was sitting on the side of the road with a police car behind, lights flashing. An officer was standing by her open window writing something down. We could tell by the expression on the pretty young woman’s face that it was not her telephone number he was writing. My wife said “Yes!” and did a fist pump in the air. And I sure felt good about driving the speed limit.

So, I still believe that in a residential setting, some form of sanction for serious (illegal) offenses is necessary and appropriate, especially to the extent that it reinforces the behaviour of others who refrain from temptation. A token restriction of a day, or maybe two, is sufficient. It provides rein forcement from others who refrain from serious misbehviour, but allows the offender to get back to feeling good and doing good fairly quickly.



Just like punishment, rewards are disrespectful, conveying that we do not expect kids to do the right thing unless we ‘make it worth their while.’ Rewards are in effect, bribes. People often do not like being manipulated even by ‘bribes’ and become resentful and rebellious.

I have found one exception, spontaneous rewards. An unexpected reward given spontaneously rather than offered in advance conveys approval and appreciation, and can be a powerful reinforcement for behaviour.

In that group home for 12 boys, we had problems getting the boys to wear their seatbelts in the van. It was a cultural thing in that community; there was lots of water along the roads. There was a belief that if your vehicle went into the water, you would be trapped if you were wearing a seatbelt. Ridiculous. Seatbelts are easy to open if you are conscious and uninjured. Meanwhile, doors are difficult to open if you are injured or unconscious because you were not wearing a seatbelt. But the logic did not sway oppositional children.

One day, the driver stopped the van at the end of the driveway and had the boys put their hands on the ceiling. Then, he went through the van and wrote down some names. The boys thought he was writing down the names of those who didn’t have their seatbelts properly fastened, but he was not. He was writing the names of those who did have them fastened. After dropping the boys at school, he stopped and the bank and got six crisp new one dollar bills. (It was a long time ago. Today it would have to be $5 bills.) When he picked up the boys at their schools at the end of the day, he passed out the bills as the boys got on the van. Everyone knew what was going on. The next morning, all twelve seatbelts were securely fastened, After school that day, he passed out twelve $1 bills. We looked forward to doing this again in a few months. In four years, it was never again necessary, even though residents had turned over completely during that time. Wearing seatbelts had become a habit, at least in the agency van.

We did something similar with fire drills. There were always one or two boys who didn’t respond. When they all finally got one right, the director took out a $20 bill and handed to the staff, instructing him to take the boys for snowballs, a special summer treat in Louisiana. There was never another problem with fire drills.

It is a shame that ‘reward’ and ‘reinforcement’have come to be used synonymously in behaviourism. They are not. Reinforcements are something that strengthens a behaviour in some way. A reward is only a reinforcement if it strengthens the target behaviour. But once the reward is received, the behaviour is often no longer repeated, and hence, not strengthened.

What strengthened the behaviour in the above examples was,I think, not the reward itself, but the appreciation and approval for which the reward was but a symbol. The rewards were not offered in advance as bribes, but came as a surprise and genuine expression of appreciation.

On the other hand, I have witnessed punishment reinforce behaviour. For example, when angry kids seek to retaliate and make adults angry (parents, teachers, or staff), they do things for which they know they will be punished, things such as cursing, smashing things, or even hitting adults. They keep it up as angry adults heap on punishment after punishment until the adult is totally enraged. (That’s it! You’re grounded for the rest of the month!!) Then the behaviour stops. The adult thinks the punishment finally worked. All it did was let the kid know how angry the adult had become. Once adults are angry enough, as evidenced by the maximum punishment, the kids stop, satisfied. They realized their goal, to make the adults as angry as they are feeling. And they know what to do the next time they want to make adults angry.


Behaviours that are punished

Psychology teaches that the behaviour immediately preceding the punishment is the one that is punished. That behaviour is often not the one we wish to change. Consider shoplifting. The behaviour that immediately precedes the punishment may not be the shoplifting but rather the behaviour that led to getting caught–failing to notice the security camera, or the clerk behind you in the aisle. It’s the same when I got caught for speeding a few times. I know how to watch for police with radar. When I get caught, it’s not because I was speeding, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention and watching for the radar.


Consequences that do change behaviour 

Teaching children about the real consequences of their behaviour, the consequences that occur naturally, works. Having serious discussions with them, helping them to perceive and think about these consequences, can be most effective. “How do you think Johnnie felt when you said that to him?” “What do you think he thinks of you now?” “What did you hope to accomplish with that behaviour?” “What did you accomplish?” “What else could you have done?” “ What do you think would happened if instead you had …?” “How do you think the man who owns that store feels about someone stealing from his store—from him?” “How do you feel when someone steals from you?”

These consequences occur whether or not children get caught by adults, but they can only be effective when children perceive and understand them, and learn to anticipate them. This is where relationships become most important. It is only through relationships that we can teach these things.

(Natural consequences are not effective in all cases. The real consequences of speeding are increasing the chance of an accident and making injuries more serious, even fatal. Those consequences do have some effect on my speeding. I do not speed unless I am sure it is safe, like late at night when the are no other vehicles on the road. I slow down when I approach another car or truck, then resume my speeding when the highway is clear (carefully watching for radar)).



 Our education may be excellent, but there is always more to learn, if we are open to it.



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