How to motivate incarcerated youth? Issues of an early-career researcher

This month’s contribution comes from Aniek van Herwaarden, who is a graduate student at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She is involved in research projects which address behavioral problems in youth with mild intellectual disabilities. In this blog post, she evaluates her experiences as an early-career researcher in this field.

As I am currently working as a student assistant on a project for youth who are resident in juvenile institutions, several ethical, practical and societal issues cross my mind. In this blog post, I will describe some of these issues. In particular, motivation of incarcerated youth and being an early-career researcher are two of the major difficulties I encountered during my work at the juvenile institution.

How to make your participants as excited as you are about your research?

Within the research project “Change Your Mindset! – Forensic Care”, a newly developed, short-term, on-line intervention program is being carried out. This project is a collaboration between the University of Amsterdam and Pluryn in The Netherlands, by principal investigator Petra Helmond. The intervention targets at changing the participant’s mindset from a fixed mindset to a so-called “growth-mindset”. The latter includes a way of thinking in possibilities and growth, rather than pessimism and disabilities (see also: Yeager & Dweck, 20121).

As a researcher, you would think this program sells itself: it is on-line, it contains fast videos and interactive animations, it involves peers who have been in prison as well, and gadgets (rewards) are provided after each session. Unfortunately, practice shows differently. Only about half of the inmates enrolled in the program after our recruitment stage at the institution I was affiliated with. During the program, another half of the participants dropped out because of lack of motivation. Additionally, several participants dropped out because of personal/practical reasons (e.g., translocation). Because of this drop-out rate, motivating participants seems crucial. Additionally, even if the participant completes the program, motivation is an essential component of effectiveness of the intervention. The intervention requires an active attitude and contribution from the participant, and so the intervention might only be effective for the participants who are intrinsically motivated. Research assistants are of high importance in supporting the motivation of the participant. Then the question arises: how to motivate incarcerated youth? In this blog post I will offer some ideas which might help in answering this question, but I would welcome your suggestions for ways of implementation that help to motivate participants.

Why do we want to help people that do not want help?

The importance of motivation and enrollment in the intervention lies not only within the research project obviously. We do this work to improve the quality of life of the target group. But why help people that are not motivated, who do not want help?

First of all, this specific group of incarcerated youth are of high importance for the government in the fight against criminality. Targeting developing offenders, as they are still quite influential during adolescence, will decrease the problems they might cause in the future.

Next to this societal reason, there are obviously also personal reasons to carry out intervention programs within this group. As stated before, the primary goal is to improve quality of life of the delinquents. The lack of motivation does not automatically mean that they do not care about the quality of their lives. Main reasons for lack of motivation could be that the participant does not acknowledge the fact that they need help and that external help might be very effective. For example, reasons for participants in the current project to drop out included experience of failure of previous interventions and they emphasized the fact that they do not need to change their behavior. They showed lack of faith in external help and did not see the fact that their behavior is not effective in society. Especially on these two reasons, the research assistant has a great influence in order to improve motivation of the participants. But then still the question remains on how to achieve this. I kindly invite the reader’s ideas on this matter.

Being early-career: how to be acknowledged

The second issue that I came across in my work in the juvenile institution, was being an early-career researcher. This issue was especially emphasized when one of the staff members questioned our training and skills in order to work with this target group. For this specific program, we were trained to interact with incarcerated youth and our general interactions with clients were trained in bachelor programs. It is true that our experience with clients is very low. One or two short-term internships might not prepare you to work with criminal youth offenders and set out an intervention in such a closed institution. However, there is the fact that we only see the adolescents one hour per week, where they get to do something other than their usual routine, and which is voluntarily. Actually, there are very few reasons involved that might trigger externalizing behavior during an intervention session. Therefore, it could be argued that the amount of training is sufficient enough in relation to the amount of time spent with the adolescent.

This early-career problem of being questioned on your capabilities (even though you were already hired for the job!) is maybe also most present in the field of (prevention) research.  Frequently, the researcher is seen as an uninvolved, distanced person who only knows things from books but not from experience. One important suggestion to get around this issue within an institutionalized environment is to involve the clinicians and the staff within the institution. In addition, making them excited for your research, letting them know about the goal, letting them feel important and a part of your research project is a key to a positive attitude towards the project and you as an early-career researcher.

Acknowledgement from significant others as a facilitating factor within your research

Additionally, this involvement of staff members and other clinicians is often an unseen variable in intervention and prevention research which targets institutionalized youth. Staff members can actually be seen as the ‘family members’ of the child/adolescent in the institution, as these are the persons they see on a daily basis. What is often forgotten is that such an environment is highly controllable and influential. Whereas the usual complex social network of non-institutionalized youth is uncontrollable and hard to properly influence, the small social network of institutionalized youth can be more easily influenced. For example, a staff member can (un)consciously motivate the participant before the intervention session takes place, whereas the staff member might not do this if he is not involved and does not know what the participant is going to do. Next to acknowledgement of you as an early-career researcher and your research, involving staff members has therefore another function in motivating clients.

To conclude, being an early career researcher and working with institutionalized youth comes with different issues. Motivating participants seems to be a major problem in carrying out an intervention among delinquent youth. Additionally, being an early-career researcher is not always easy in such an environment. One suggestion is to involve clinicians and the staff of the institution in your research project. This may overcome the motivation problem, and it might improve acknowledgement of your research. Additionally, in order to get the participants motivated, they need to be aware of the fact that they encounter problems, and that external help is efficient in solving these problems. In the end, it is not all problems that I encountered during this project. And the problems that I did encounter were only just very informative and made me grow as an early-career preventionist. Therefore, I am very grateful to be involved in this research project.

About the author: 

Aniek van Herwaarden is a graduate student within the research master Development and Socialization in Childhood and Adolescence at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She is involved in research projects which address intervening in behavioral problems in youth with mild intellectual disabilities. These projects relate to the department of Developmental Psychology at Utrecht University as well as the department of Research and Development of Pluryn, a healthcare service for youth with complex behavioral or developmental problems. Please feel free to contact her through email: a.a.m.vanherwaarden[at]students.uu.nl.

Bibliographical references

  1. Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314. []

4 thoughts on “How to motivate incarcerated youth? Issues of an early-career researcher

  1. I hope my former colleagues who are running a programme in a prison in Scotland for Mentor UK will read the post and add to the helpful advice and insight that Rosaria has provided, from a practice perspective. You can read a bit more about their project here: http://mentoruk.org.uk/programmes/breaking-out/

    As I recall part of the success that Gez and others who worked on that programme had in recruiting and retaining young people to the programme was in developing extrinsic as well as intrinsic rewards for engaging and staying engaged. They used different colour rubber wristbands to show how long the participants had been involved and to mark progress.

    I also remember how hard those delivering the programme had to work to make sure that there was interest in the project amongst those working in the institution – both amongst frontline staff, but also at senior management.

    The other insight that I remember was how important the relationship between the young people and their mothers was seen to be in terms of motivation to desist from behaviours that may lead to returning to prison.

    • Dear Andrew,
      Thank youfor the reference to this project! I really like the idea of peer mentoring and I think it is a good way to approach this youth, as is done in CYM as well. This wrist-band reward system seems nice and motivating for the participants. Nice idea! It also makes the program more visible in the institution, and for the staff members.
      What an interesting finding about the relationships with their mothers. In conversations, I also experienced that family is an important value in the lives of these youth, maybe because these relations are unconditional, in contrast to instable friendships they’ve had before detention. Or maybe I’m speculating too much.. Anyway, thank you for your insights and for introducing me to this nice project!
      Best, Aniek

  2. Dear Aniek: what an important and difficult research you are involved with! I A few thoughts may help you to feel less discouraged. First, maintenance and retention in intervention studies with youths are low in general. Second, many of these young offenders may have psychiatric disorders that make focussing and endurance difficult – apart from motivation. Not knowing how the intervention is built it is very difficult to give advise. Two things I realized from my clinical work with very related targets is that two important qualities of any intervention should be: a. structured, very brief and eventually repeated rather than processual, long and demanding; b. providing short-term reward.
    I wish you luck
    Rosaria

    • Dear Rosaria,
      Thank you for your encouraging words. I really recognize the problems with focus and endurance. Therefore, I think it is nice that the intervention includes one-to-one guidance. The intervention itself is (in my opinion) all the things you mention: structured, brief (six weekly 1h sessions) and repeated. However, whereas the one-to-one guidance is nice, it might make the sessions also more processual and demanding, as sometimes long and in-depth discussions arise. Nevertheless, I agree that short term rewards are helpful within interventions. Although it is hard to get little presents approved by the security (e.g., no key hangers), we did provide presents after each session. However, I did not experience too much excitement from the participants, but this might be an exception.
      Again many thanks for your insights on this issue!
      Best, Aniek

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