OYA’s “Fundamental Practices” Program is improving OYA living units — and giving youth skills for success in life
A.M. doesn’t even need to look at a calendar to know what day of the week it is — he can tell from the way everyone is acting in his living unit at Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility.
Mondays are when the youth have their first Fundamental Practice 5 group session of the week, teaching them how to regulate emotions, solve problems, and resolve conflicts. On Monday mornings, everyone seems tense, A.M. says, until they go to group.
“Then, after group, it’s super relaxed and calm through the week. It starts getting tense again right before we have the next group session,” A.M. says. “People do complain right before group, but once they’re in group, the atmosphere changes, and it goes to them actively participating. The group is really good for the unit. It’s changed a lot of people here.”
Fundamental Practice 5, or FP5, is the latest step in a multi-year implementation of positive youth development practices for those living in Oregon Youth Authority facilities.
Positive youth development is a national, research-based model for working with youth that emphasizes creating positive and safe environments where youth can develop their skills and talents. At OYA, it’s known as positive human development (PHD) because it incorporates both youth and employees. That semantic difference is not a small one: early in the implementation process, agency leaders intentionally decided to include both youth and employees after realizing the principles of positive youth development also reflected the way employees wished to be treated.
The Fundamental Practices (there are five total— see below) are meant to bring the larger ideas behind PHD into better focus for facility staff. Each practice contains concrete guidelines, training, and curricula showing staff what a facility living unit would look like if everyone follows the PHD approach.
FP5, titled Safe Community Skill Development, teaches youth important skills to help them transition successfully to adulthood and a life without crime, say the members of the OYA team who developed it.
“These are the skills we all need, every day,” says Hayley Tews, an implementation manager on OYA’s Development Services team.
Tews and her team first implemented FP5 last year at the Eastern Oregon facility in Burns. They started rolling it out at Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility and Camp Tillamook at the end of 2021, and plan to introduce it at other facilities soon.
“Those three skills that are the focus of FP5 — emotional regulation, problem solving, and conflict resolution — are connected to almost all of our problems in facilities and in residential placements,” says Heber Bray, an operations and policy analyst with Facility Services who also helped lead the FP5 implementation.
“If youth are better able to handle emotions and they don’t get triggered as easily, or if they know some things to do to keep their head on straight when they do get triggered, they can avoid a lot of behavior issues. Youth are getting a set of coping skills that they can go to when they’re stressed, which will help them even after they leave our custody.”
The Eastern facility already appears to be seeing positive results. The number of youth fights and assaults each month at Eastern dropped 50% in the year after they implemented FP5. The facility’s monthly instances of isolation use for youth who are being violent or threatening violence was also cut in half in the past year.
Brent York, a case coordinator at Eastern, said he definitely has noticed fewer physical fights in his living unit in recent months.
“When new youth come into the facility, the youth that are already here are kind of bringing them in like part of the community, instead of doing the standoffish thing we used to see,” York says. “It’s really peaceful compared to what it used to be like.”
Before the staff at Eastern could implement FP5, OYA had to create a curriculum to use with youth. The curriculum includes 24 lesson plans, each providing different ideas for ways to develop the key skills.
Angelo Worley, who was leading A.M.’s group at Eastern before recently transitioning to OYA’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, says one of his favorite lessons is called “Anchors.”
In this lesson, youth learn to come up with specific ideas of things that can keep them steady when they’re triggered — positive things to “anchor” them when their emotions are high, whether it’s in the OYA facility or when they are back out in the community.
“I feel like that’s been the most successful tool that I use when I have to help out a youth that’s in crisis or that’s going to blow up,” Worley says. “I tell them, ‘Think of your anchors and what’s going to help you do better in life, whatever motivates you to be a better person.’”
Worley also has enjoyed the opportunity to run more groups for youth. Many living unit staff had never or rarely led a treatment group before, so they also have been learning along the way.
“It’s been a huge learning experience for everyone,” Worley says. “A lot of people that are introverts have to get outside of their comfort zone. But I believe that is good because that’s the way you’re going to grow. There’s a couple of staff here who are sometimes real quiet and standoffish, but ever since we started FP5, they’ve been really engaging in more conversations with the youth and everyone else.”
York, the case coordinator, has also noticed a change in some staff at the facility.
“We have some staff here who are just starting to think about some of these things carefully for the first time,” York says. “Their quality of life is improving, and they’re getting better at doing the groups. When we focus on developing the staff, the kids get better development because the staff are better. Once the staff are as sharp as they can be, the whole program is really going to flow.”
A.M. credits Worley, his group facilitator, with having the biggest impact on him. A.M. says he has been in and out of OYA facilities multiple times in the last four years due to issues with anger and impulsivity.
When he first started attending the FP5 group, he did it only because it was required.
“But, as we started, Worley pulled me aside and said, ‘This could help you change in the long run.’ I started to engage in group and try to find a greater meaning in it,” A.M. says. “After Worley and I worked together, I’m a platinum tag now (the highest privilege level, which youth can reach if they have long-term good behavior) and I’m going to college.
“Since we started the group, I’ve had less anger issues overall. It really taught me how to control my anger and how to be a better person in general.”
A.M.’s growth is the perfect example of what Bray and Tews hope will happen with FP5 and all treatment groups for youth in custody: youth have a safe space to learn and practice new skills so they can master them before they’re back out in the community.
“I want kids to get upset. I want kids to get challenged,” Bray says. “If a kid doesn’t ever run into a stressful situation, we can’t help them manage stress. The only way to really learn a skill is to use it in the moment.”