Professor’s Behavior Intervention Techniques Yield Positive Results

Salekin Uses Technology, Science to Treat Troubled Youth

From the October 2013 Desktop News Troubled youth in the custody of the Alabama Department of Youth Services have been given a second chance at success thanks to the work of Dr. Randy Salekin, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and his team of graduate students. Salekin’s mix of technology, science education, and positive psychology is impacting the behavior of more than 70 boys with serious behavioral or criminal issues.

Salekin and his team have developed a system that he says has been more effective at reaching troubled youth at the facility than typical methods, like empathy training or strict discipline. The treatments were tested at UA’s Disruptive Behavior Clinic in advance of Salekin’s partnership with DYS.

The teens and pre-teens Salekin and his staff treat have a variety of behavioral problems,  like oppositional defiance or conduct disorder. Some of the children are in gangs and have experienced traumatic incidents at home. Some have committed crimes.

“These kids come into the system, and they’re having tough times, but they seem to look really hopeful and full of excitement when the treatment starts,” Salekin said. “I think they make significant gains in the facility, based on our reports from staff once they are in treatment.”

Salekin’s first approach is to pique the children’s interest in learning about themselves and specifically about their brains, lessening the initial focus on what they’re doing wrong and why they shouldn’t do it again, but scientifically explaining the mechanics of the brain that lead them to act impulsively and irrationally. Salekin uses a laptop computer and LCD player to explain brain plasticity and how they can help regulate emotions while their brain continues to develop.

Similar training was given to the staff, which went through a five-day workshop where biological explanations were given for oppositionality and lack of maturity. The staff was encouraged to reinforce positive behaviors and to be less punitive about minor issues.

Once the biology aspect is covered, children are encouraged to form a five-component plan aimed at improving relationships with friends and loved ones. Other components are aimed at education, career, and athletics, with the common thread being to improve.

Salekin and his staff anticipated positive results in Birmingham after implementing similar methods in the Disruptive Behavior/Disorder Clinic, part of UA’s Psychology Clinic.  The on-campus clinic, which takes community and court referrals for children as young as four and as old as 17, adapted methods created after consultations with other psychologists in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

“People are applying positive interventions to adults, college kids, and depressed patients, but, to our knowledge, no one has ever done this with oppositional defiant kids or kids with conduct disorder with callous unemotional traits,” Salekin said.