The Teaching-Family Model and Post-Treatment Recidivism: A Critical Review of the Conventional Wisdom

Article excerpt


Conventional wisdom suggests that the Teaching-Family Model (TFM) approach to treating youthful offenders is not effective in reducing post-treatment recidivism. This article reviews two major studies referenced in support of this widespread perception. Data presented in one widely referenced study are treated with a Cochran-Mantel-Haensel test, which, the author argues, is appropriate for data originally presented in two separate 2 X 2 tables (one for boys and one for girls). The construct and statistical conclusion validity of a major evaluation study presented to the NIMH is critically evaluated and discussed. A revised view of the leading TFM evaluations has implications for public policy regarding juvenile justice. The author suggests that a belief in the lack of post-treatment efficacy associated with community-based residential treatment has resulted in harsher treatment of juveniles and a higher incarceration rate.

Keywords: Teaching Family Model (TFM), Treatment, Juveniles, Recidivism


Can youthful offenders be rehabilitated? In the United States during the past thirty years, this question has engendered ongoing debate and disagreement (Glaser, 1980; Lipton, Martinson & Wilks, 1975; Martinson, 1974; Palmer, 2002; Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). However, a few decades ago, there was considerable optimism regarding the efficacy of treatment for juvenile delinquents. The Teaching-Family Model, in fact, grew out of a 1960s zeitgeist of all things are possible when it comes to reforming society (Wolf, Braukmann, & Ramp, 1987).

The theoretical underpinnings of the Teaching-Family Model (TFM) have been described as radical behaviorism (Morris & Braukmann, 1987). Delinquency, according to the theory, is the result of behavior deficiency rather than psychopathology (Phillips, Phillips, Fixsen, & Wolf, 1973). As applied to the treatment of adjudicated youth, the radical behaviorist approach is characterized by a "token economy system of reinforcement" (Phillips, et al., 1973, page 75). Youth in treatment receive points for compliance and achievement that can be exchanged for privileges. However, as the program developed in the early years, it became obvious that the teaching, social-interaction aspects of the treatment became "the heart of the program" (Phillips, et al., 1973, page 75).

The process of "give-and-take-instruction, demonstration, practice, feedback," (Phillips, 1973, page 75) is designed to help youth overcome behavior deficiencies and learn prosocial behaviors. Hence, the model is characterized by a small number of youths (eight) in a community-based residential setting managed by a married couple trained in the prescribed techniques (Phillips, Phillips, Fixsen, & Wolf, 1974). The Teaching Family Association developed as an accrediting agency. In general, fidelity to the model necessitates a highly structured program with specific protocols and continuous measures of each youth's behavior.

Early evaluations of the model by researchers responsible for its development at the University of Kansas suggested phenomenally better results of the TFM compared to institutionalization and probation (Phillips, et al., 1973; Kirigin, Wolf, Braukmann, Fixsen, & Phillips, 1979). However, since the early 1980s, it has been widely perceived as a model that lacks efficacy in reducing recidivism. (Fonagy, Target, Cottrell, Phillips, & Kurtz, 2002; Jones, Weinrott, & Howard, 1981; Kirigin, Braukmann, Atwater, & Wolf, 1982; Morris & Braukmann, 1987; Quay, 1986; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999; Wilson, 1983; Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985).

According to Jenkins (2006), the backlash to the 60s spirit started around 1974. Indeed, in criminology the "nothing works movement" led by Martinson and his colleagues appeared on the scene with a publication in the The Public Interest (Martinson, 1974). …


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