How do you get "eyes on the back of your head"?
August 14, 2012 3:02 PM   Subscribe

How to have eyes on the back of your head and stop a teenager in their tracks when bullshitting and breaking the rules?

I work with 60 teenagers in supported lodgings and I'd like to know the tips and tricks mefies know as to how to catch teenagers out when they're doing something they shouldn't. I'm pretty good at it, I've been working with adolecents for a long time- and a combination movements, and clues seem to come together and I "just know" to go check something out. I "just know" how to cut through excuses and say no.

But I'm training some young newbies and want to give them some tools.

The main rule breaks are: lying to avoid appointments with us, smoking weed in the building blatantly in party mode, swarming new staff.

So can you guys help me come up with some wisdom on how to:

Have eyes on the back of your head.

Create the impression that you know what's going on and nothing gets past you.

identify when someone is "up to no good".

And how do you make them wither and mend their sorry ways when you've caught them?

Veteran teachers, librarians, probation officers, psychic nans, help me!
posted by misspony to Human Relations (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have had the "pleasure" of raising 5 teens, one of whom is psychotic. All you can do is teach them to do the right things and then hold them accountable when they screw up. That last point - accountability - is very important. They don't even get that you are there catching them when they fall - to them, it's the END OF THE EFFING UNIVERSE when they can't use their internet or cell phone for a weekend. Make sure they celebrate their successes and SUFFER the consequences of their actions. Nothing else seems to work.
posted by brownrd at 3:16 PM on August 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

Create the impression that you know what's going on and nothing gets past you.

Unless you actually do know what's going on and nothing does get past you, it's best to not even try to affect that impression. Teens will sniff-out the fraud immediately and will eat you alive with disrespect and mistrust.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:22 PM on August 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

The best way to deal with adolescents is to build a trusting relationship with them. Being a "cop" is not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone.

The best ways to avoid the rule breaking is to staff at a level that allows for solid supervision, if that isn't happening, you're fighting a losing battle. Make it very difficult to make the wrong choice.

(perspective is from over 30 years of working with at-risk adolescents in a variety of settings from drug detox wards to psych wards to alternative education)
posted by HuronBob at 3:53 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just to give some perspective... we have a 60 resident house that's had negative and damaging staff turnover for the last 3 years.... (I came in after the tail end of it) and after living on agency for 6 months we've finally got an energetic staff, who know nothing about the horrors of staff past.

Unfortunately, the residents have seen it all and have every reason not to believe that this new start is real. But I intend to really change things up. We're in England, but I'm from LA and have experience with "resident life" in dorms, and "small learning communities" in schools. I know that things can change- big time... and that large residences filled with young people who are actively learning about: meaningful use of time, finance, health and well being, housing... ARE HAPPENING and across the world. It's not a miracle.... it just needs a working model.

My hope is that we take these ideas and turn this into a vibrant community (and leave behind the hostel/travel lodge vibe where we shout at them to attend workshops they haven't bought in to) We're splitting up the building into "villages"... luckily the building works that way, and a staff member can be in charge of a floor and start programming accordingly.

That's just an FYI to give an idea about where this question is coming from.
posted by misspony at 4:07 PM on August 14, 2012

Well, be a good idea to NOT go in thinking "nothing is going to get passed me", because it creates a confrontational dynamic right from the start.

Instead, assume that the kids are on your side and will respond to leadership.

Leadership means a lot of things, but in this case the number one thing to do is to learn their names, and use their names. Interact with them, and show interest.

Also, be prepared. Troubleshoot. Try to figure out where bottlenecks or roadblocks may occur, because confusion and sudden changes in pace (eg, slowing down) are the root of all horseplay.

Also, learn when to ignore stuff and look the other way.

But kids are basically good, and want to be good.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:10 PM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

But I want my new staff to have the best advice in the world in how to deal with teens...
posted by misspony at 4:11 PM on August 14, 2012

I think the "having eyes on the back of your head" thing can only come with experience, after understanding what makes things work well, and what does not work well.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:11 PM on August 14, 2012

I'm going to stop threadsitting now! But thank you all for helping me challenge some of my own terminology... and ideas. Anything that would help someone green start dealing with challenging young people helps... what about "how to get through the feeling that you need to have nothing pass you"?

Night night.
posted by misspony at 4:18 PM on August 14, 2012

Forget about extra eyes and focus on imposing some consequences.
posted by rhizome at 4:27 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok NYC teacher here! What is important first is to have a good fun dynamic with the staff. That way they will hang out with each other and tell stories like 'can you believe jimmy let the guinea pig out yest, haha' and then when a diff teacher speaks to jimmy saying 'yeah, you seem to have a rep as an animal freedom fighter' or something then the student is shocked, like ' do you know that?'.

Also the main thing is to have a friendly but stern relationship with the students. I'm always suspicious and can see many things occurring or about to occur. However, sometimes I'm wrong and you have to be able to be easy and joke about it. 'Okay jimmy, this time it wasn't you who poured soda down the radiator, that's true! Sorry dude! That kareem is one crazy kid!'.

Something like that. And consequences of course. But the main thing to do to win over disgruntled teens is to like them, be curious and build up a positive relationship of concern etc 'how's that leg/your mom/sandwich doing kiddo?' Etc BEFORE the more negative disciplinary stuff has to come in to play.

That way they know that you like THEM as a person, but that you really don't like what they are doing behavior-wise.

Sorry for phone typing...
It's tough. We have a 50 percent young/new staff attrition rate in NYC, or at least we did before the economy worsened. Teens are tough. Try to build morale top to bottom. Friendly and fun...if at all possible. The staff has to be happy and engaged before the teens are, that's a main point too.
posted by bquarters at 4:27 PM on August 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

But I want my new staff to have the best advice in the world in how to deal with teens...

Learn to listen, instead of talking. That's how you'll eventually know most of what is going on, because some kids will trust you and open up.

Enforce the rules, sure, but learn to listen whenever you can, which also means having patience and taking the long view. Ideally, the staff is thinking of 3 to 6 months from now, where the kids realize some stable walls are in place and they realize the staff aren't assholes.

The kids are always going to get something past you. ALWAYS. So let go of the idea that you or they can be know everything. Otherwise you're fighting a potentially ruinous battle as the kids work harder to hide things and the staff is busy trying to sniff out anything.

One technique used by an old friend is setting up an arbitrary rule, say no one is allowed in X room after Y time, when being in there really doesn't matter. The kids then break that rule and get to feel as though they're in control of something and giving the staff the finger, while the staff knows where the kids are "hiding" and doesn't care. Occasionally bug the kids to knock it off or shoo them out, but otherwise let it go. It can become a sort of neutral ground.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:30 PM on August 14, 2012

I used to teach in an urban high-poverty school. I had a lot of kids with various emotional, psychological, and cognitive issues. What worked for me (super-short geeky white chick) was being:

1) Fair
2) Consistent
3) Competent
4) Compassionate and

Once I had those five things in place, my classroom management issues decreased dramatically. They didn't go away because I had a lot of traumatized students who were dealing with a lot, but I sent a lot fewer kids to the office than many of the other teachers. With kids in this situation, there's just going to have to be staff around and alert everywhere. These kids are generally desperate for any kind of attention, and they're not used to positive attention--which is usually socially unacceptable. Brandon Blatcher raises an excellent point about listening: a veteran teacher once shared with me the awesome tip of every week, choose the kid who gives you the most gruff and talk to them for 3-5 minutes a day about anything other than the stuff you usually butt heads over. It builds a relationship and makes them more likely to really engage in dialogue with you when you have to talk about issues. Works like a charm.

Also: have FUN and INTERESTING things to do. Keep them so busy with cool stuff that most of them won't have time to go smoke spliffs.
posted by smirkette at 4:34 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think the most important thing in this context is to never give up on anyone, while also defining and enforcing boundaries. Given the size of the group, there are going to be at least two people who are "bad apples" and test the boundaries, and generally try to cause problems. Unless they are doing something illegal, never give up on them.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:36 PM on August 14, 2012

In short, no one can watch the kids 24/7 except the kids. You have to be enough of a non-antagonistic bad ass that the kids THINK you're going to catch them, resulting in them watching themselves.
posted by smirkette at 4:36 PM on August 14, 2012

My advice is to talk to a respected high school assistant principal. They've seen it all and, in many cases, have successfully dealt with it despite all odds. These folks rock!
posted by summerstorm at 4:58 PM on August 14, 2012

I don't have a lot of experience dealing with teenagers (other than university students), so take this with a grain of salt, but I suspect that the way you grow eyes in the back of your head is by having lots of active, affirming interactions with your charges at times when they are not misbehaving. You'll know when something is amiss because you'll be tuned in to the teens' usual patterns.

I really like smirkette's tip about spending some time talking with "the kid who gives you the most gruff" about other things.

Based on my own experience with classroom management—although in a much less challenging environment—I would also suggest giving these teens lots of small, easy opportunities to succeed, and acknowledging their successes. They know that you don't want them lying to staff and smoking weed in the building, but they may honestly not know very well how to live an interesting and self-sufficient life otherwise. Thank them and praise them every time they show up for an appointment, do a kind act, cooperate with a group activity, etc. I think it will help them get a feel for the standards you expect and help them with the self-policing smirkette talks about above. If they know that you notice them when they're doing everything right, they're more convinced that you'll notice them when they try to get away with something.
posted by Orinda at 6:12 PM on August 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

My old primary school teacher had a nifty trick.

When you were caught doing something he would ask you to explain yourself. He would then gently ask why. When you gave your response, which inevitably had some more bull in it, he would ask "why" again. Even as an 8 year old, it forced you to come to terms with what you were doing and what you were hoping to achieve. As a technique, like standard coaching techniques, the key here is to ask open questions briefly and then sit back and wait for the answers. Don't be afraid of silence and resist the urge to talk too much. It not only makes it look like you know more than you do, but the natural instinct for the person being questioned is to keep talking.

A second teacher perfected the thousand yard stare, which meant 300 or so kids all thought he was looking at them. He was quite short sighted as it turned out. But because he commanded respect, being called out by him held no honour or kudos.

The key to managing a group of kids (or adults for that matter) - and teachers - is to adjust expectations of what your culture is. You can't just tell people what your culture is. You need to sit down with the teachers and establish some firm ground rules on interactions and behaviour. That includes the teachers too as they will need to lead by example. You have a supervisory network that, if managed properly can not only work together but also communicate to the kids what your culture is and your expectations within that. Kids have a strong sense for weakness - new teachers, weak teachers, dead spots where you can't see them.

So, if you're going to lay down some ground rules and expectations, you need to go hard and consistent at them early on and enforce them, and only become more lenient once you feel comfortable that the culture you want is in place. Extreme versions of this are boot camps, of course. You probably won't want to be that extreme, but you set the bar high early on so that slipping down from it is a privilege, rather than setting it low and trying to get people to reach up to it. Do this actively and consciously, though, and remember that you need to work on the teachers' buy in as much as the kids'. Positive reinforcement is key: not "don't do this" but "I prefer it when you..".

For your really bad apples: attention, negative or positive, is a reward and is addictive. If you're copping shit off someone, remove them from the group temporarily to starve their oxygen. Then work out what positive attention looks like for these kids and how they can get it.

Finally, because you can't be everywhere. If you have problems with kids smoking and whatnot, bear in mind that they are spending a lot of time trying to work out the system. Break your routines. Don't be predictable. It drives up the risk of being caught.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:22 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

negative and damaging staff turnover for the last 3 years.... Unfortunately, the residents have seen it all and have every reason not to believe that this new start is real. But I intend to really change things up.

You sound very earnest and it's great that the new staff are enthusiastic but the residents don't know you, they don't trust you, and they are going to test you. As long as you are trying to control them ("eyes in the back of your head") they will push back hard against you. Don't try to be their friend, don't try to be all-knowing. Be dispassionate, steady, unflappable, and reliable. Apply rules and consequences fairly and without negotiation. Let them know that what you say and what you do to them today will be the same thing you say and do to someone else tomorrow. The only thing that will win over wary young people is trust, and that takes time.
posted by headnsouth at 5:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have worked at a middle school for 3 years that had a lot of behavior problems and I think one of the most important things for staff to do is to get on the same page about rules and consequences. Consistency is the most important thing with adolescents and they know when there is not a united force among staff and they use all opportunities to exploit the inconsistencies. There are all sorts of methods out there- but find one and stick with it.
posted by momochan at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2012

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