Arts Programming

IV. The Problem

Problem definition is a way of explicating the assumptions being made when the intervention program is being designed. In this sense, in order to understand the rationale in utilizing arts as an intervention strategy, it is important to define the problem one is trying to solve.

The history of dealing with “juvenile delinquents” is far too complex to discuss in any detail here; however, several generalizations will be made in an effort to develop a problem definition. Approaches to dealing with juvenile delinquent behaviors have changed over time and involve assumptions about environment and individual choice when looking at the perpetrator and about tolerance for behavior, or desire for retribution, when seen from the vantage of the victim or society. There appears to be one of two assumptions operating when punishment is offered as the solution to the problem behaviors: Either (1) the youth is consciously choosing to be involved in criminal activity or, in a behaviorist framework, (2) there is sufficient reward for being involved in criminal activity and the behavior is reinforced. Either way, the punishment of locking up a youth is viewed as a method to interrupt those processes. When this view coincides with a low community tolerance for youth criminal activity, the approach can loosely be called a “lock ’em up” or “teach ’em a lesson” approach.

A second approach is evident in the rehabilitative movement or the utilization of a medical model. The youth have issues that need fixing in a manner analogous to having a chronic infection. However, these issues may be internal (developmental, mental or emotional capacity) or external. The latter refers to an environment that shapes and rewards negative behavior, which may include dysfunctional relationships with family, peers, and authority figures. In this model, youth are treated through therapeutic intervention. This is typically in the form of talk therapy. When viewed from the deficit model, this approach requires a focus on problems in the youth’s life and then actively determining ways to manage those problems.

Art as an intervention strategy is more aligned with the rehabilitative approach than with the punishment method of addressing youth crime. As such, it shares the assumption that the individual can be treated. However, it diverges from typical therapeutic intervention in two respects. First, the focus is not on the problems but on building the youth’s ability to make good choices. This is a way of building the individual’s assets. The assumption from this approach is the following: Given the skill sets needed to be able to evaluate situations and make good choices, people will generally do so. This eliminates the need for any in-depth diagnostic process to determine what is wrong with the youth. The focus is not on what is wrong but on the skills, knowledge, and experiences people need to manage life more effectively. In medical terms, it is a wellness approach instead of a disease-based approach to health.

Arts may offer therapeutic value similar to that of counseling, but without the counseling—and at a lower cost. The art environment, if managed effectively, has characteristics of traditional therapy in that self-exploration is a part of the process. Coupled with the building of the social skills, youth will have the capacity to make good decisions, which includes resisting criminal activity, in vivo, or in the present, rather than in reflection.

With that background, the problem statement could be phrased the following way:

In given environments, many youth engage in criminal activity for reasons that include the lack of skill sets needed to make good choices. With the right skills, youth can learn how to make good choices and will likely make them given the (structured) opportunity to explore their own place in the world and their sense of self. Therefore, the question becomes the following: how can we teach the skills in a framework that provides youth with productive self exploration in a manner that produces positive and constructive behaviors for the youth?

This is a very different problem definition than one that asks, “What is wrong with these kids? Or their families? Or their communities?” It also differs from a statement that asks “How can we make the streets safer?” The former is a typical rehabilitative approach, and the latter is associated with a desire for punishment.

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