As an educator, I frequently find myself involved in training others to become educative - in the fields of both education and human services. This causes me to reflect on what I know or what I think I know. (One tends to forget in exponential blocks in direct proportion to the number of years you do something!) The philosophy of Positive Approaches has changed the way I approach problem solving and support. Perhaps my musings can be of benefit to others making the journey.
It is the very essence of Positive Approaches that distinguishes this concept from other structures that support the delivery of statewide services. Most processes or ideas are a composite of techniques, procedures or skills and we come to think of the way we offer our "help" in those terms. However, Positive Approaches is not a thing, a skill, a technique or a process; it is, rather, a framework that augments one's approach to issues that concern individuals and their lives. Positive Approaches also frames the skills, techniques, or procedures that might benefit those individuals and their supporters. When I think of supports, the only comparable framework is in the area of Assistive Technology. Accommodation is the name of the game, and people who work in this field are adept at manipulating technology equipment of all kinds to meet the extremely individualized needs of each person they support. The knowledge of technology is their foundation, and the ability to tailor that knowledge reflects their sensitivity to the uniqueness of each person.
While training is delivered as packages on such topics as utilizing McGill Action Planning system (MAPS), Person-Centered Planning, functional analysis, classroom management, and shared leadership, these processes/skill areas cannot stand alone. These are tools that should be used as supports. As such, the tools need to be acquired, refined, and implemented in thoughtful, considerate, and personalized ways. The technical support, which requires sharing information or encouraging skill development, is the first step toward the immediate goal of training. However, once training has been instituted, the larger goal-making a real difference by tailoring the special knowledge or training to the recipient (the hallmark of the philosophy of Positive Approaches) becomes the focus. This is where the heart work begins. A well-developed value system is incumbent on the supporters in order for their skills to be utilized in the most personal and collaborative manner. It is slow and often frustrating work for supporters as well as for those receiving support. However, it can be deeply rewarding and worthwhile. It can ultimately lead us and the people being supported to unprecedented and sustained levels of satisfaction.
This is not just about adapting a lesson or implementing a behavior program or meeting guidelines for transition or training staff to use a Dynavox. For supporters, those are certainly essential components to building capacity. But capacity building can only be described as "early days" in the journey-like studying a driver's manual before ever putting your hands on the steering wheel! The real journey begins when you take what you know and put it together creatively in ways that are defined by the needs of a single person.
Some of the underlying principles may seem obvious or uncomplicated (this is the part that can be taught in a training component-functional analysis, person-centered planning), the actual use of the strategies of support are different for each person and are often imperfect and complicated. (We are dealing with real life and real people.) And we are talking about supports, not therapies or programs.
When we begin looking at circumstances and difficulties that might arise in a person's life, we find no manual or set of steps we can follow to achieve resolution. "Human beings," as Ed Cole reminds us, "are very complex. Solutions to problems and the implementation of those solutions are not always easy."
When supporters find themselves struggling to be effective, the difficulty can frequently be ascribed to the fact that education and human service workers have historically been encouraged to approach their jobs from a "program" perspective. (We offer a day program, community-based vocational program, emotional support class, etc.) Unfortunately, this is in direct conflict with the philosophy of Positive Approaches and often creates a personal dilemma for those who are trying to provide supports. Working with individuals who are perceived by supporters to be diverse (in any way) seems to generate a comparable perception of a need to homogenize or somehow make consumers "fit into" the program that is being offered. Rather than approaching resolution by figuring out how to directly address an individual's problems, our traditional approach has been to assume that in order to benefit from the program or approach, one will meet certain standards of performance or behavior. If this is not forthcoming, the individual is perceived to be unable to benefit from the offered program, so we try another program or placement. The more unique the individual is perceived to be, the more effort is put into creating increasingly structured (homogenized) programs with schedules, forms, routines, kits, curricula, etc. These homogenizing tactics are frequently viewed as supports and are increasingly routinized based on the degree to which an individual might deviate from the norm. The focus becomes teaching people to "adapt" to the offering (program, classroom, training) instead of adapting offerings to people and their needs.
Part of the work of Positive Approaches is trying to enlarge and shift our vision of those who may need additional supports in their life-and that could be any one of us at any time. The work comes in redefining our view and seeing not clients or consumers or patients or students, but individuals. Not individual as in "separate"-that is, one from the other-but individual as in "one of a kind" (like all human beings) with very defined needs: people who operate on the same principals as everyone else. That means that these individuals (children and adults) have families (sometimes functional, sometimes not); they have (or don't have) a peer group; they have interests, skills, and strengths (some obvious, some not); they have fears; they get bored and frustrated; they may or may not feel as though they belong; they are loved and give love in return; they have areas in their lives which need support; they can support others. Really acknowledging these things means that supporters have to seriously consider letting go of or at least slackening the reins on the notions of homogenizing and programming and one-size-fits-all therapies.
There is a second layer to traditional thinking regarding providing supports that frequently confounds the efforts of well-intentioned people. A commonly encountered theme is, "We can only worry about what happens between certain hours" (during the day program, or the residential segment, or school hours, or the vocational training component). In other words, "This is my piece of the person. I'll work with this part (behavior, skill development, goals, social skills) and the rest of it is somebody else's problem. I can only do so much!" This reflects people working in isolation on isolated problems, as though pieces of people can be fixed or rearranged in a more suitable fashion to satisfy arbitrary rules of conduct or performance.
For at least a decade, science, then medicine, and then human services/education have acknowledged the need for holistic research, problem solving, and delivery services. Traditional approaches to "helping" people have come from a fix-it mentality-where you take a particular "piece," fix it, slap it back together again, and expect that it will work and be whole. Theoretically, we don't do things like that any more. The reality is different. As we go through shifts in our collective thinking, from piecemeal to holistic, it creates a lot of discomfort. Questions in training reflect supporters' frustration and a desire to just do something "to" the person so that they might be relieved of the problems or issues-fix "this" (behavior, skill, attitude) so I can get back to delivering services (community living, teaching the subject). That statement alone reveals that people are not the focus of services or programs after all-the real objectives are providing services (covering material in schools, "homogenizing" the group, whatever or whoever the group might be, completing goals on IPPs and IEPs). We are still changing and rethinking, and when push comes to shove we regress to old ways of thinking and doing.
In addition to these socially determined pressures which supporters contend with, they must also cope with an onslaught of peddled solutions from companies, entrepreneurs, and various other schemes that promote the notion that without a particular "formula" (kits, programs, systems, etc.), staff cannot possibly be effective. Having the "formula" has perhaps improved the ability of supporters to know about what is available and/or possible, but it has simultaneously reduced how comfortable they are in actually supporting people in meaningful human, direct and personalized ways.
The ultimate task then becomes to help people acquire skills-to prompt and support them to use more holistic ways of interweaving who they are and what they know into the fabric of the lives of the people they support. This goes far beyond programs and processes: It goes deeper into the real meaning of support, which is to nurture and sustain.
There can be a reluctance to embrace this perspective, however, because it frequently translates into intense levels of personal involvement (which is often perceived to be a threat to personal safety and stability). I think this is a myth of modern society. While becoming "involved" does require more in terms of time and effort and a sense of immediacy and connection, the levels of satisfaction and enjoyment far surpass those we reap from shallow engagement. It is living life more fully and richly, even "on the edge," if you will. It does create periods of intense happiness as well as periods of equally intense angst and concern. What you do for a living comes to look and feel more and more like the rest of your life. Ultimately, there is no longer a separation.it flows. There are no more arbitrary boundaries between segments of your life.
So, for all supporters, I think that the concept of Positive Approaches provides a basis for us to:
It's a lot of listening, talking, modeling, guiding, hand-holding, resource sharing, story-telling, crying, and celebrating. It's frequently maddening, sometimes thrilling, usually draining, but never boring.
The Pennsylvania Journal on Positive Approaches is published by the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Retardation (OMR) Statewide Training Initiative through Temple University, Institute on Disabilities, University Affiliated Program and Contract Consultants, Inc., 105 Old York Road, New Cumberland, PA 17070. For subscription information, please contact Contract Consultants, Inc. at  774 - 5455. Copyright © 1998 OMR/CCI. All rights reserved.
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