Program teaches decision making based on ‘higher-level reasoning’
The Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition and Coffee County Drug Court are working in tandem with the county school system to help at-risk kids improve moral reasoning.
A cognitive-behavioral program called Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) is being implemented at the Koss Center alternative school on McMinnville Highway in Manchester with good results, according to Mike Lewis, director of drug courts.
“When the principal at the alternative school is pleased and (treatment specialist) Marilyn Woods-Robinson comes in saying that she’s seeing a change, that’s our measure of success,” said Lewis.
MRT combines elements from a variety of psychological traditions to address behavioral growth. It was first designed as a criminal justice-based drug treatment method, but after adult criminal offenders were seen to have significantly lower rates of re-arrest or re-incarceration after participation, the program was adapted to include individualized programs for juvenile offenders.
“The school provided the opportunity, we provided the staff necessary to facilitate the program, and the Anti-Drug Coalition took the lead on finding the materials,” said Lewis.
“We met last spring and everybody was on board, but it was too near the end of the school year. We’re not even a semester into the program now, but if it goes well we’ll continue it,” said Lewis.
“It’s been exciting. From the top down, people have been encouraging. It’s well received and a great example of community resources coming together to meet a need.”
Prior to the 1930s when common usage in the field of psychology switched to the word “ego,” the word “conation” was used to describe the conscious process of decision-making and purposeful behavior. Because the program is intended to take those decision-making skills to higher-level reasoning, the term “moral reconation” was chosen for the program.
“It’s classical conditioning. Students are rewarded for behavior we want to see,” said Robinson. “We’re in week four and it’s working.”
One way that students are rewarded is with a “token economy,” a therapeutic maneuver in which students earn plastic “tokens” as positive reinforcement for good behaviors. Those behaviors can be anything from showing up on time and sitting down quietly, to sitting up straight or waiting for a turn to speak.
“Each child gets a cup. I drop a token in their cup and say ‘Thank You’,” said Robinson. “When it hits, it makes a noise. They make an association and anchor themselves to it. It’s Pavlovian. And verbal. I train them to respond to verbal reinforcement: ‘I see you working hard, thank you.’ All their lives and in the justice system these kids learn negative consequences and that’s what they respond to. I make eye contact and only give them positive reinforcement so they’ll learn to appreciate a ‘thank you.’”
With the tokens they earn, students can “buy” items from the token-based economy.
The plan, which depends on donations from the community, is to make family-friendly rewards available to them, such as dinner at a local restaurant or tickets to the movie theatre. Once donations have been collected, students will play a large part in determining the worth — the “cost” in tokens — of the donations within their economy.
The Manchester Recreation Department, Chick-fil-A, Sonic, and the Tennessee National Guard have already made donations, but the program is seeking more. Suggestions include coupons or gift cards for sports equipment, sporting or arts events and activities, or discounts on school supplies or personal services like haircuts or manicures. Anyone interested in donating to the program is asked to call Kristina Clark at 247-4542.
“The thing about teens is that they like to please,” said Robinson. “They like to be liked. They want attention, but they are only reinforced when they don’t behave. Attention is attention, whether it’s positive or negative.”
“I train them in goals and goal achievement,” said Robinson. “I believe in the law of attraction. What you do brings things to you. Act a certain way and stay focused, and nothing can stop you. It’s all about what you want and what’s next.”