By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
A split second, even a minute, can make such a difference in life. Did you make the right split-second decision? Are you able to slow down in the heat of the moment and consider the big picture? Can you envision the outcome of your next move and stop to regulate the emotional response rising within you?
These are considerations for everyone, especially young people, such as those at TJJD, who are learning to temper their reactions and make better decisions.
It is not necessarily easy. Youth who’ve experienced multiple and complex childhood trauma typically have difficulty regulating their emotions. Raised in uncertainty, often against a background of neglect and abuse, their fight-or-flight responses took over. They needed to survive.
How does one step out of that hypervigilance to adapt to regular life? Like many in the juvenile justice/mental health fields, Ellen Stacy, a master’s candidate at Texas State University and intern at Ayres Halfway House, thought that meditation and mindful practices could be part of the answer.
She proposed that young people could lower their stress levels and moderate their responses to challenges by learning meditation techniques. But unlike other programs that take can take hours to explain and learn, Stacy developed a set of flexible practices that juvenile offenders could adopt on the spot.
She felt strongly that the program needed to be portable and “something very simple that doesn’t take any understanding of science or psychology to understand and it’s tailored specifically to their needs.”
Ayres House in San Antonio was the testing ground. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning for several weeks this spring, Stacy led two separate groups of youth into a field behind Ayres House. The site is within clear view, just a few yards from the basketball court and picnic tables, but relatively quiet save for the chirping of birds and the occasional hum of planes flying overhead.
As a group they would do a few short sets of deep breathing followed by a cadenced walk -- a routine the youth could use later, wherever and whenever they needed to step out of a difficult situation to calm themselves.
Stacy discussed the concepts with them and explained that mindfulness is a state of being they can access at any time. Indeed, they already know what it is, she told the boys. Think of making a free throw in basketball, “you are highly focused and in the moment” -- that is how you’re able to hit the basket, she said.
“You can learn to do the same in life.”
At the end of her study in May, Stacy collected the “before” and “after” comments from the boys and assessed the trial run. She concluded that the youth would be receptive to an ongoing mindfulness program, whether it was led by staff or volunteers, and that they’d like to learn even more mindfulness techniques.
“I think it could be successful because there is already a lot of research showing positive improvements in stress management, emotional awareness, and impulse control for youth in various settings,” she said. “There is not much research yet that shows the same or lasting effects in youth offending populations, but I believe with the right modifications that make mindfulness simpler and easier to do once released, youth in TJJD care can share these benefits and hopefully have better outcomes/lower recidivism rates.”
We hope you’ve enjoyed meeting a small cross-section of TJJD’s many dedicated staff members during this National Correctional Officers Week. We wrap up today with a spotlight on Youth Development Coach Kelli Hall of the Mart campus.
Campus Shift Administrator, Mart campus
When asked to describe her job as the morning Campus Shift Administrator at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, in Mart, Kelli Hall keeps it simple. “I make sure the campus is covered as far as staff goes. If there are incidents of any kind, I respond to them and report them. My main job is to make sure that the campus is running smoothly every day. I make sure everybody stays safe.”
Hall graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Purdue University after growing up in small-town Texas and is in her third year working for TJJD. She hopes to eventually earn her Ph.D. in psychology and use that to work within the correctional system to help staff members process the things they experience on the job.
She says the best part of her role is seeing the kids get to go home. “All of us want to make sure that the kids can go home in a timely manner and that they go home safe. A lot of people overlook that aspect of corrections, but somebody has to be there to make sure that everybody gets to go home.”
That comes with a lot of challenges, and though Hall makes it look easy day in and day out, there is one thing she would change if she could. “I wish the public understood the depths of the job and the work that’s being done here,” she says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about correctional officers. It can be a very hard job and a very stressful job. I think it can be a very underappreciated job—but it’s a great job.”
- John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Today we're spotlighting Michelle Hawkins of the Gainesville State School, in our continuing shout out to TJJD staff during National Correctional Officers Week 2021.
Supervisor IIP Dorm, Gainesville State School
As the Supervisor of the Intensive Intervention Program (IIP) dorm at Gainesville State School, Michelle Hawkins works with youth who are having the most difficulty getting along with others.
And she loves it.
That’s because Hawkins sees these kids who’ve been acting out toward others as simply needing extra care and close attention, and after 16 years working in juvenile corrections she feels well equipped to help.
“I have a good way with kids and I can talk them down sometimes,” she said. “You can say I’m the mediator.”
Hawkins, a native of Mexia who attended East Texas Baptist University and has four kids of her own, believes there’s a teachable moment in almost any situation and she finds it tremendously rewarding to help young people see it.
Every day at the IIP dorm, Hawkins works closely with staff and youth, collaborating on concrete steps the young men can take to regulate their emotions, stay cool and think through challenges. The coaches continuously engage with the youth, creating activities to teach coping skills and practice positive behaviors. For example, they recently play-acted appropriate dating behaviors, such as pulling out a chair for a date and asking about that person’s needs.
All this is possible because reforms underway at TJJD have created a kinder, calmer, trauma-informed environment, Hawkins said. She considers the reforms, collectively called the Texas Model, to be the best thing to happen at the agency since she joined the Texas Youth Commission in 2005 as a Juvenile Correctional Officer (JCO).
“It’s a great change, it’s more about seeing the problem behind the behavior. It makes you look at situations and incidents totally differently,” she said. “Whereas when I first started it was all about enforcement. We didn’t say to youth, ‘Why are you feeling this way?’”
Asking that key question – and following the Model’s guidance to “See the Need Behind the Behavior” – makes a world of sense to Hawkins. With these concepts front of mind, staff are considering a young person’s background and motivations, enabling them to better assist that child as they strive to improve their behavior.
“It’s less of a battle over who’s right and who’s wrong,” Hawkins said. “It’s more about compromising and problem solving . . . and it works!” She and her colleagues can see it working bit by bit, day by day, and their greatest joy is when youth complete their individual plans at the IIP dorm and return to their regular dorms more emotionally resilient and able to deal with life’s ups and downs.
“I think I’m doing a good deed for the world, and also for that kid who’s benefiting from it.”
- Barbara Kessler, Communications