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‘Thinking for a Change’ program helps offenders improve social skills

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    How a person responds to a traumatic experience varies. But if left unaddressed, the experience can sometimes lead to the individual engaging in destructive behaviors.

    “Some of the newest information is that so many actions are due to trauma that people have experienced in life. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who has had zero trauma in their life,” said Nicole Kern, director at Morrison County Community Corrections.

    One of the programs at Morrison County Community Corrections offers to medium-high and high risk offenders and to those who are involved in Drug Court is “Thinking for a Change” (T4C).

    Initially, each person is screened to determine what kind of trauma they have experienced. It is also important to keep in mind that what one person may consider trauma, another may not recognize as trauma as it is something that occurs often.

‘Thinking for a Change’ program helps offenders improve social skills

Thinking for a Change facilitator Kevin Sowada, left, and director Nicole Kern at Morrison County Community Corrections, role play different scenarios for participants to identify the thoughts and emotions behind the action.

    Kern said one example is children who live in an area where there is a high suicide rate, such as the Red Lake Reservation.

    “A kid who grows up in an area who deals with a lot of suicides and losses can become numb to it, so if you ask them if they are currently experiencing any trauma, they may say no,” she said.

    On the other hand, a kid whose mother says no to something may consider that a trauma. It all varies from person to person, Kern said.

    “Trauma really becomes relevant to the person and it takes a lot to go through those layers when it is constant trauma because to them, it is just life,” she said.

    Through the T4C program the participants learn to identify why they behave or react a certain way to various triggers and situations. They also learn new technique to deal with them more effectively.

    One way that is done is through role playing. At first, facilitator and career agent Kevin Sowada role plays with a co-worker, including Kern.

    Kern said she usually sits in the room during the first or second class. At one point, Sowada then asks her politely if she can go make copies of a document.

    However, Kern’s response to Sowada’s request is usually demeaning and rude. She also questions why he isn’t prepared and while she agrees to make the copies, she leaves as if she is angry.

    At this point, the participants are unaware they are just role playing and that the situation is not real.

    Shortly after she has left the room, Kern said she re-enters and the participants are informed it was just role play.

    From there, a discussion ensues about what thoughts and feelings both Sowada and Kern may have been experiencing in the situation had it been real.

    “It’s hard as a professional standing up in front of all these people you have a different relationship with and act like that. But it also opens them up to see I am human and have struggles too. Everyone has struggles,” she said.

The participants are also asked how witnessing the encounter affected them. It’s also a good reminder about how their actions may affect someone else, including children in the home.

    “They stop and think of how my words can change a conversation. How is my anger changing the person who is reacting to me?” Kern said.

    Sometimes the emotion that is expressed is secondary. One example would be fear. While fear may be the primary emotion, it may be masked by anger as the secondary emotion, Kern said.

    The program lasts a minimum of 16 weeks as 22 different sections of the program are covered. The participants are also given homework to identify situations in their own lives and choose an alternative response to their usual reaction to situations.

    If participants don’t complete their homework, their lack of completion may count as an absence. Throughout the program, participants are only granted two excused absences and if they reach that, they are terminated from the program, Kern said.     

    Kern said that as participants learn to apply the principles of the program and what they have learned to their daily lives, they are less likely to re-offend or return to old patterns. Studies show a recidivism decrease of about 30 percent, she said.

    Kern said the program gives the participants a chance to learn skills some didn’t have the opportunity to learn growing up.

    “A lot of people are lucky enough to have someone, like parents, to teach them. But if you never learn that, never learn empathy or never learn to look at things from someone else’s perspective, it’s a hard skill to learn as an adult,” she said.

    What the participants learn also has a ripple effect.

    “People who learn this share it with others. One of our participants said, ‘My girlfriend said it feels like she is in the class too because I go through my homework with her every day,’” Kern said.

    Some of things the participants learn through T4C are how to actively listen, ask questions, give feedback and know their feelings.

    They also learn that the thoughts a person has controls their behavior, how to pay attention to their own thoughts, recognize risk, think in a new way and more.

    As part of learning problem-solving skills, the participants learn how to understand the feelings of others, make a complaint, apologize, respond effectively to anger, plan and more.

    “It’s a great program,” Kern said.

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