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Innovative program working at Waterford Country School

Waterford — Staff members at Waterford Country School were more than a little skeptical a decade ago when a researcher at Cornell University came to them with a simple idea: Be allies with the troubled youths they were in charge of, rather than punishing their outbursts.

"We thought it was crazy," said Darryl Miles of Middletown, an assistant program director who has been at the school for 29 years. "We thought it wasn't going to work."

"We used a point system (to reward good behavior); that's all we knew," added Radhames Echavarria of New London, a campus supervisor who has been at the site for 15 years. "We were all apprehensive."

But the new program, called Children and Residential Experiences (CARE), worked, substantially reducing how often the staff needed to restrain clients, cutting the need for prescription drugs to control behaviors and even lessening runaways and campus property damage.

"It changed our lives," said Bill Martin, the school's executive director.

And Waterford Country School, in turn, has helped change the lives of hundreds of other troubled youths by inviting visitors to see the CARE program in person, as well as documenting the progress they've seen by carefully recording data and being part of scientific studies.

So on Oct. 24, the school was honored by being named the first CARE Academy in the country, recognizing the staff's successful implementation of the revolutionary program first dreamed up by Cornell's Martha Holden, director of the Residential Childcare Project.

Holden said in an interview before the CARE Academy designation was bestowed that Waterford Country School was one of the first residential facilities in the country to be introduced to the model. But the school didn't just implement the CARE model in just a couple of programs; it is now integrated into all nine that it runs, including foster care, residential treatment and its school, involving about 300 children and their families.

"They were very brave," Holden said. "It was not a model that was tested."

Traditionally, residential facilities for people with emotional or behavioral problems had used behaviorist models based on rewards and consequences. Holden wanted to use a more relational approach, understanding kids needed support, not punishment, when they lashed out.

Rather than fighting the youths, workers began asking questions like "What do you need right now to be OK?"

The idea was to look at what kids were good at, rather than focusing on their problems. Under the new model, kids were being defined by their successes rather than their struggles.

"The change was remarkable," said Martin, the school's executive director.

Ted Olinciw, vice chairman of the school's board of directors, said in a speech accepting the CARE Academy designation that employees had been frustrated by their inability to get through to kids, so seven leaders piled into a van a decade ago to visit Holden and talk about her new model. The idea made sense, and they decided to take a chance on it.

Staff members said the key to improving relationships has been ditching the need to always control youths who are lashing out, often because of a history of abuse and neglect that sometimes leads to post traumatic stress disorder and poor impulse control.

"We would punish kids who were just having feelings," said Echavarria, the campus supervisor.

"We look at kids in a different way (now)," said Miles, the assistant program director. "Not as troubled kids but as kids who have pain."

Holden said the CARE model is now on four continents with the latest addition of Australia. A lot of those implementing the idea have swung through Waterford before deciding whether it makes sense.

"People are here to see what it looks like," she said.

The school, she said, has about two decades of data on behavioral incidents — long stretches both before and after implementation of CARE — so it's easy to track how much progress has been made under the program. It helps, she added, that the school has such a stable leadership team (averaging 19 years), but director Martin said the stability is partly because life is much better for staff using the more gentle approach.

One of the old approaches scrapped under CARE was the idea of having assigned seats for kids. Now, it is the staff that gets assigned seats, and the kids can sit wherever.

"The quality of interactions is so much more positive," Martin said. "We try to be allies, not managers."

During the ceremony, Holden praised the strong leadership team at WCS that helped shepherd the program from its early stages.

"I often get calls from parents: 'Where's a good place to place my child?'" said Holden. "And for a few years I honestly couldn't think of anywhere. But I would place my child here at Waterford Country School and know that you do such good work here."





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