When I first started working with troubled youth in schools, I had very little experience and hadn't yet finished college. I knew that the turnover rate at my job was high, and I had doubts about how long I might last.

One student used to taunt the new employees, saying that he would surely outlast us even though he would only be staying for a few more months. I had no clue, really, how I was supposed to "deal" with these students, especially if they "got out of hand." I remember one day watching a more confident colleague take a tough gang member into the office and give him a real verbal whipping. He literally screamed at the kid (who was so well known for his crimes that when he was moved from a city 40 miles away for treatment in our city; the local police already knew him by name). Through the office window I watched as the gang member kept his eyes on the floor and trembled as the verbal thrashing continued. I wasn't sure whether he trembled from respect or barely controlled rage. When my colleague emerged, he muttered to me as he passed, "It's the only language they understand."

His statement really bothered me. I thought it not only limited the student, but also the teacher who believed it. My approach was turning out to be quite different (partly because I was not adept at his approach, and partly because I didn't believe in it enough to do it convincingly). For survival, as well as out of genuine interest, I took time to get to know this student. We played basketball together, and when he was bored in class, I took him to the library to check out books. (I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the books he was interested in.) During the first couple months I was not as good as my colleague at getting immediate "compliance." Some might have considered me a pushover.

Eventually, however, I challenged this student and his closest friend (in our program) to improve their behavior in some way, and as a reward I would take them to lunch at a fairly nice restaurant. They chose the specific behaviorial challenge as getting top behavior scores for an entire week. Their choice surprised me because I would have accepted a lesser goal, and this outcome was something I had never seen them do before. I may even have doubted the possibility of them doing it. On the other hand, I thought it was a good test because I was not the one who assigned the behavior scores. At the end of the week, the friend had succeeded, but this student had failed. (He had a major blowup that, if I remember, may have involved the throwing of a desk.) Like a good behaviorist, I said I would take the friend to lunch, but not the student in question.

Neither boy was satisfied with this result. The friend didn't want to each lunch alone with an adult. Both pleaded with me to allow this boy to go. Just as when he was in the office getting screamed at, I saw the boy drop his eyes to the floor, a sign of respect in his culture. But this time he was calm; there was no fear or trembling. In a quiet voice he said, "Please let me go. I promise I will get all fives next week." (Five was our top behavior score).

From a behaviorist point of view, letting him go would be the exact wrong thing to do. This kid was a "criminal." He got his way through lying, cheating, stealing, intimidation, and violence. Wouldn't letting him go send the wrong message? Wouldn't I be foolish to believe him?

But my SENSE was that he was being truthful. My sense, against all reason, was that I should take him to lunch. Part of me became self-accusatory as I contemplated taking him to lunch. I was just weak—a pushover. And he was a career liar. In my imagination I could almost hear the clicking tongues and see the shaking heads of a generation of teachers before me, teachers who brought me up through years of schooling by strictly rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. But I could not deny my sense that he was being sincere.

Finally, I said, "There is no way that I can make you keep your promise. You'll be leaving our program soon, and there is nothing I can do to you if you do not keep your word." He knew that this was an informal agreement among friends. He and I both knew that there was no earthly judge or authority that would or could punish him for not keeping his word if I took him to lunch BEFORE he had fulfilled his part of the bargain. "If you keep your word," I continued, "It will be entirely up to you." Then I took them both to lunch. In doing this, I sent the message that I believed him, or even more, that I believed in him and in his ability to do this thing.

The next week his behavior was perfect. This outcome was so unusual, so astonishing, that the teacher who assigned behavior scores came to me privately and asked what I had done to get him to behave. I said, "Nothing really. We made an agreement, and he kept his word." Honestly, I don't believe lunch had much, if anything, to do with his good behavior. After all, this student was not a stranger to getting something for nothing and never paying it back. I think this sort of initiative (on either of our parts), and his willingness to behave properly even when "my back was turned," never could have been accomplished if we had not gotten to know each other and been open to the possibility that there was more to each of us than met the eye. I wasn't just another authority figure to be resisted or manipulated. He wasn't just a criminal to be controlled or punished. It took more time to get this result than perhaps shouting might have taken. But shouting at this student had never resulted in compliance for very long. The effects of our interaction for me as well as for him were much more lasting and beneficial. I have drawn on this experience many times in working with youth and adults.

An unintended result of getting to know this student beyond surface appearances was that not only did I come to trust him better (and he responded to that trust), but he also came to trust me better. One day he walked into class early. He and I were alone in the room. He didn't look at me, but he looked sad. I asked him what was wrong. Without hesitation, he responded (almost in an off-handed way), "My friend was shot yesterday."

I expressed my sympathy, but he didn't seem to want to talk more about it, so I just sat with him in silence. A few moments later a teacher who had been in the adjoining room asked to talk with me. She had heard us talking and asked what he said. I told her. She then told me that the staff at his group home had called to let her know that they had noticed something was wrong with this student. They had been trying for hours to find out what was wrong. But he would say nothing to them. In retrospect I think he probably answered my simple question because he knew I wouldn't analyze him, press the issue, try to "fix" him, or blame him or his friend for bringing this tragedy on by their lifestyle. I think he sensed perhaps without knowing it, that we understood each other, not because I was a great psychologist, teacher, or counselor, but because I was a friend.