Looked at in another context, imagine a fourth grader is struggling with class work. The teacher takes the child into the teacher's lounge (an unfamiliar, strictly-adult environment), gets up in his face and screams at him telling him all the horrible things that are going to happen if he doesn't complete his coursework. Now imagine this is done within the earshot of other adults and peers. Most educators and child mental health workers would agree this would not be an effective way of getting the child to do his work, and quite possible, would be harmful.
Some new scared straight programs state they include counseling for the children after the experience. Seriously? If the child needs to speak with a mental health worker after being exposed to an event to deal with the potential trauma created, professionals need to re-think the program. This is especially true considering many at-risk youth presenting with delinquent behavior already have a trauma history. Re-traumatizing them for the purpose of potential deterrence is unethical.
My Two Sons and Teenage Prefrontal Cortex
With all the discussion of what scared straight might mean to a new generation, I sat down with my 10 year old and 15 year old sons and watched the original Scared Straight! Having many at-risk factors in their lives, I asked for feedback on what they thought. Granted, they were not participants in the program. In typical teenage fashion, my oldest said if he were there he would never have taken it seriously, he knew it wasn't real, and, most important and similar to my own teenage thought process, It will never happen to me. This statement is poignant due to its reference to one of the current discussions in child brain science. Adolescents have immature prefrontal cortexes. Therefore, their cause and effect thinking is significantly impaired. How then, can a program designed to deter by creating fear of what will happen if they continue to behave as they have, be effective? Children just do not think that way.
I don't know how long as a society we will continue to support programs that don't work. A sentiment that seems pervasive in regards to scared straight programs, especially from exasperated, scared parents of acting-out kids is, "Well nothing else works," "What are we supposed to do?" and from other adults, "Somebody needs to yell at them." Within these statements exists frustration and desperation and good policy, especially prevention policy, historically does not rest on this type of foundation. What does work?
Instead of negative, fear-based shock tactics, programs utilizing positive, consistent modeling should be more effective. These programs, for example mentoring, follow evidence-based practices and have been supported quietly for decades. It's time we started listening to what really works even if it whispers instead of screams.