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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Toughlove for Kids at Risk

A positive alternative to detention and suspension, Toughlove meetings held at schools help troubled teens learn personal accountability.

“Mom, I'm afraid to come home. If I couldn't cut it in school before, what makes you think I can now?”
Sixteen-year-old David's anxious call home was placed from a long-term treatment facility for substance abuse, where he is learning about choices and consequences and being accountable for his actions—things he somehow failed to learn at home, at school, or in the community.
As a former educator, I am not unfamiliar with the problems our teens are facing. However, it was not until a problem showed up in my own family that I began to seriously pursue solutions. You see, the phone call was to me. David is my son, and he's in trouble. And he isn't the only one.
Gone are the days when a teacher's discipline problems included students cutting in line or dressing inappropriately. Teachers must now contend with issues of drug and alcohol abuse and violent crime. No one would deny that our teens are in trouble. The problems teens face do not take a leave of absence when they go to school in the morning—if they go to school. David and many other kids do not.
The usual response of teachers to students' skipping classes or an entire day has been to assign detention, in-school-suspension, or out-of-school suspension. Typically, these actions have not been deterrents, and students like David fall even farther behind in classes they are already failing or are close to failing. In addition, many teens spend their suspension unsupervised at home while parents work. Teachers, struggling to teach in spite of student absenteeism, feel frustrated by consequences that take a student out of the classroom.
Between skipping and suspensions, David was seldom in school. His teachers, his assistant principal, and his father and I had run out of answers. Lack of concern was not the problem—neither on our part, nor on the part of the school. For almost a year, the assistant principal and I talked on a daily basis about David's absences and behavior.
We were frustrated that there was no program in place that would force David to examine his choices and hold him accountable for them. That was when I first heard about Toughlove for Kids at Risk. Toughlove in the schools? At least in some places, yes, and it appears to be working.

A Network of Support Groups

Toughlove groups have been around since 1978. The first group was started by David and Phyllis York, two substance abuse counselors who were having problems with one of their own children. The Toughlove network currently includes more than 500 parent support groups in the U.S.
The groups, known for a firm, united stand, are made up of parents who are lay people rather than professionals. So what are they doing in the schools? Toughlove takes the solution directly to where the young person is having the most trouble, usually the school. When a student breaks a rule that would normally result in an out-of-school suspension or even an expulsion, the school communicates with the parent, and parent and student are offered an alternative: to attend a number of meetings equal to the number of days the student would have been suspended.
The student attends an ongoing “Kids Group” during school hours, led by a teacher or administrator who has been trained by a Toughlove representative. In those meetings—as few as one or as many as five a week—the students complete workbook exercises in a “peer-community” atmosphere, which encourages accountability. Activities include having students identify behaviors that are creating problems for them at home or at school. Once a student has acknowledged the behavior, he or she can begin to take steps to change it. Inappropriate behavior is confronted by other teens in the group, and young people find the support they need to make some very difficult changes. Often a student will continue attending the Kids Group after the suspension is completed. Continuing care is a necessity if kids like David are going to make it.
If our schools are going to salvage these kids, they need the support of parents. For this reason, at least one parent must agree to attend a number of meetings equal to the number attended by the student (usually three to five). At these school-based meetings, usually one night a week, the parents listen to a tape cassette program, “Beyond the Last Straw.” With the help of a facilitator, they learn how to do a Crisis Assessment, how to set limits, and how to gain support—important skills to have when dealing with a difficult teen.
When a young person is demonstrating inappropriate behavior at home, at school, and in the community, the parents are often devastated. I know we were, and so were the hundreds of other parents we have met through support groups over the last two years. Attending a regular group gives parents opportunities to talk with others who are experiencing similar problems with their own teens.

Personal Accountability Is Key

Family Discovery, a local organization that does free assessments on kids with substance abuse and/or behavior problems, refers only about 2 out of 10 teens for in-patient treatment, but virtually all these teens require some kind of structured program based on personal accountability. According to Director Jamie Huysman: Treatment gives teens the tools they need to make some changes. Ongoing care gives them a place to learn how to use those tools to make the changes that will help them succeed. Huysman supports programs like Toughlove that help teens makes changes in their lives. The changes don't happen in a day or a week, but they do happen. And they are positive.
Success stories for the program abound. A California school reported 67 percent fewer discipline referrals after only one month in the program. In Dayton, Ohio, schools reported consistent, impressive improvements in attendance and grades. At a school in Baton Rouge with two Toughlove Kids Groups, the youth were responsible for taking care of the participants at last year's Special Olympics. Each young person had to make sure that one person participated in his or her activities and was on time for meals—in short, being totally responsible for another person. Keep in mind that those were the “trouble-makers” from the previous school year, kids who could not even be responsible for themselves. I think that qualifies as a success story.
Toughlove for kids at risk? It is not a quick-fix to the problems we face with our teens. We need programs to reach those kids and caring adults to lend their support. We also need cooperation from the home, school, and community.
However, some of the responsibility must lie with the teens themselves. During a recent forum in Virginia on “Schools at Risk,” the Honorable Janice Brice Wellington, who sees kids in trouble on a daily basis in the Prince William County Juvenile Court, said that the answer to teenagers' problems “lies in the empowerment of the parents and the accountability of the young person.” Young people need to realize that privilege is a partner to responsibility. This will require change, and for any change to be individual and permanent, there must be a foundation of personal accountability. Toughlove may just provide that necessary foundation—or at least a beginning.

A Lifeline for Troubled Youth

David is one of the lucky ones, for today he is drug-free and in a safe place. Many teens will never realize their potential unless they learn to take ownership of their behavior. Some will end up in serious trouble with the law. Others will die. David reminded me of that when I asked permission to tell his story. I warned him that 200,000 educators would read about his problems with school and with drugs. His reply? “If 200,000 educators read it, how many kids could be affected? Write the article.”
My son will probably be home soon. I cannot say that he will make it this time. I hope so. The relapse rate among adolescents is a shocking 90 percent. The work he has done in extended care increases his odds to 50 percent. A program based on accountability would further increase his chances of success. He is bright and personable and has incredible potential that has yet to be realized. We cannot make his decisions for him, but we can implement a program that will help him to make the right decisions for himself.
End Notes

1 Encyclopedia of Associations, (1993), (Detroit: Gale Resch, Inc.), p. 1320.

2 J. Huysman, (May 5, 1993), personal interview.

3 T. Quinn, (March 3, 1993), telephone interview and follow-up letter.

4 J. Huysman, (May 5, 1993), personal interview.

Rita Roberts has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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