Transformational vs. Incremental Change

There has been much written on the process of transformational change in the business sector over the past few decades, but very little has been done in applying these proven principles to working with challenging young people. Instead, many in the human services field are focused on incremental behavior change that focuses on adapting one’s behavior to fit within a particular system, but does little to get at deeper character change.

Transformational change involves being more than doing. It is defined as “becoming something new, that has never before existed.” It occurs in the context of how one thinks about what is happening. In other words, if I continue to think as I’ve always thought, I will act as I have always acted, and get what I have always gotten. Or, as the Chinese proverb declares “If I don’t change my direction, I will likely end up where I’m headed.” When it comes to kids, the transformational change of the direction happens not so much in the altering of circumstances or environments, but in helping them to change the way they think about what is happening to and around them.

When we focus on changing behavior through reward or punishment we are working with the most primitive area of the brain, the survival brain. This area of the brain cannot think, it only reacts. And while traumatized or abused youth may learn how to shift their behavior to survive a residential placement or school system, those behaviors rarely translate back into their “real world.”

For true transformation to occur, two key elements are needed. The first is a relationship with a trusted adult who can walk alongside them in normal daily routines, using the conflicts and crises that arise as opportunities to look at how one is engaging them currently as well as other ways to looking at those same things that could create a different outcome. This, of course, engages the higher pre-frontal cortex of the logical brain requiring one to consider how he or she thinks, not merely focusing on the reacting of the survival brain.

The second factor necessary is a dream or vision for a different and desired future. A vision that’s big enough to take a young person through the often painful process of character transformation.

Of course, the very systems that “care” for young people are in need of the same sort of transformation. Jerome Miller, the pioneer who de-institutionalized the Massachusetts training school system in the early 1970s was recently reflecting upon those days saying, “Incremental change doesn’t yield anything. It’s only when you change the script, the very way by which you look at the problem, that transformation can begin to happen.”

To read about other transformational principles for working with troubled youth, [click here].

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By Starr Commonwealth

About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission to lead with courage to create positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact or call 800-837-5591.