Three decades ago, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum introduced people to a profound yet simple truth: Our earliest years are a behavioral blueprint that shapes our entire life—these childhood lessons, often unconsciously adopted, govern our behavior throughout adulthood. Fulghum encapsulated the essence of these teachings in words that still echo, "Most of the time, a kid doesn’t think about what he’s doing or why. This is the privilege of childhood." Against this backdrop, we here at Carey Group will delve into practical strategies to reduce challenging behaviors in adulthood, which are often birthed in the playgrounds of our childhood.
The Ripple Effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Unfortunately, for many, traumatic incidents from their childhood have obstructed their emotional and cognitive maturation, leaving deep imprints that manifest as challenging behaviors in adulthood. Between 1995-1997, Kaiser-Permanente embarked on a quest to understand the influence of such childhood experiences on adult behavior and health conditions. This pioneering study leveraged patient surveys, exploring their childhood experiences, encompassing child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, caregiver mental illness, and substance abuse, amongst others.
Identified as the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study, it has become a cornerstone for informing prevention practices, guidelines, and policies due to its profound insight into ACEs' long-term impacts on health and well-being.
ACEs are not uncommon. According to the CDC, “Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.” In 2020, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health released a report with findings of “consistent evidence that higher ACE scores are associated with greater risks of juvenile justice system contact in the United States.”
Justice reform efforts continue to be made nationwide, and special attention has been paid to youth who interface with the justice system. The Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: 2022 National Report, prepared by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, highlights the importance of concurrent actions by justice professionals: holding youth accountable while simultaneously enhancing their ability to live productive and responsible lives within their community.
Aging Out of Crime and Personality Development: A Review of the Research Examining the Role of Impulsiveness on Offending in Middle and Late Adulthood, published in May 2023, presents a variety of perspectives and studies on impulsivity and whether or not it decreases as one ages. The review proposes many considerations but does not identify a definitive increase in self-control in adulthood. Failing to consider the long-term consequences of our behavior can occur at any stage of life. Unfortunately, for some people—of all ages, the ability to pause and assess how current decisions and actions might impact future outcomes is not inherent. For many, it is inherent to repeat past choices or actions, despite harmful consequences because it is what one knows. If we are familiar with the action, we “know how to respond” whether the outcomes are negative or positive. That false perception of knowing how to pick up the pieces when everything falls apart, or at least knowing the consequences, may contribute to repeated harmful behaviors.
This is where justice professionals can step in and play an integral role in helping those stuck in a pattern of destructive behaviors to step up and out of a spiral of adverse outcomes. Being aware of ACEs and using evidence-based practices, justice professionals can better respond to challenging behaviors in a manner that motivates positive, lasting change. A few essential factors should be considered when responding to harmful behaviors:
- Level of risk
- Severity of behavior
- Criminogenic needs
Focus on Strengths
Another vital area of consideration should focus on the strengths of the individual. Failure is typically first known to the person experiencing it. As the idiom goes, pointing out failures is like “rubbing salt into a wound.” Instead, time should be taken to recognize their strengths and successes they have made prior to working on their challenging behaviors. For example, highlight their length of sobriety (even if they’ve had a relapse), recognize their ability to find and maintain employment, or call attention to their involvement in treatment and/or programs.
Focusing on what people have done well makes them more open to discussing and addressing how, what, and why they may need to improve in other areas. This type of response is frequent in early childhood development; however, it works on people throughout all stages and ages of life. Praising the behaviors we want to see, addressing the negative behavior, and providing skills and tools for improved “replacement” behavior is a strength-based approach to reducing challenging behaviors.
Solve Problems Together
Interrupting life-long behaviors and habits isn’t easy, even when one has support. To improve the odds that new solutions will prevail over old ways, involve the individual in the process of determining the best solution(s). Solving problems together, asking the person struggling to propose solutions, and genuinely considering/implementing their proposed solutions, when possible, will aid in the reduction of challenging behaviors.
This approach reminds the individual involved in the justice system that they still have agency while also building their ability to overcome future problems. Additionally, by collaborating on a solution, individuals will likely be more willing to share other concerns or struggles they’re experiencing proactively.
Connect with Resources
There are many resources proven to improve behavior and reduce the toxic stress that is common among people with multiple ACEs:
- Support groups
- Community groups
- Being outside
Connecting people struggling with resources that align with their level of risk, the severity of the behavior, and criminogenic needs will help reduce challenging behaviors. It is also essential to consider what health and well-being needs must first be met. If people are in poor health–mentally or physically--prioritizing those needs is vital to addressing challenging behavior. Tailoring the resources to meet a person’s multifaceted needs should improve their ability to fulfill any prescribed expectations and, ultimately, improve their behaviors.
Additionally, while not typically conditions of justice involvement, encouraging individuals to engage in exercise routinely and intentionally, meditation, recreation, and being outside can improve their health, well-being, and ability to recover from substance use disorder. These safe, alternative behaviors—some as simple as spending 10–20 minutes outside—contribute to lower heart rates and cortisol (primary stress hormone) levels. When people experience less stress and anxiety, their mood improves, behaviors are more positive, and their confidence is strengthened.
Various web-based tools exist to support justice professionals in their management of people’s behavior and involvement in the justice system. Effective and consistent responses are fundamental to reinforcing prosocial behaviors and to extinguishing noncompliant behaviors. Core features of an effective web-based system include:
- Ability for customization
- In-depth reporting
- Reinforcement of evidence-based practices
- Structured decision making
One such resource is the Supervisor’s EBP BriefCASE Supplemental Set: Trauma and Resilience Series. The 5-module series contains all the materials a supervisor need to guide staff through knowledge and skill development. The series covers a wide range of pivotal topics, such as Understanding the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma, Providing Trauma-Informed Care in a Justice Setting, and Working with Resistant Behavior.
Through the utilization of various evidence-based strategies and systems, justice professionals are in a better position to reduce challenging behaviors and empower positive outcomes.
Improve your leadership skills and ability to implement and maintain healthy, productive organizational strategies: contact a Carey Group consultant who can connect you with effective, research-based policies, practices, and leadership tools.
Decades of experience demonstrate that aligning justice systems around evidence-based policies and practices offers the most significant promise of success. Carey Group provides services and products for justice system professionals, from evidence-based consulting to interactive workbooks that help improve the mental health and lives of people involved in the justice system.
Carey Group’s evidence-based training and consulting services address the needs of the justice system and behavioral health professionals. Training is an essential tool for keeping staff, supervisors, leadership, and stakeholders up to date with emerging knowledge and expectations for improved outcomes. Carey Group offers in-person, online, and self-directed courses on evidence-based practices, motivational interviewing, core professional competencies, case planning and management, continuous quality improvement, coaching, and the use of behavior-change tools and supervisor resources.