|The "Tool Time" Approach
12 steps to a better life
(But not a 12 step program)
The second thing I do is make some promises. I promise to
teach them how to have REAL power and control in, and
over their lives. I also promise to make them smarter than
the vast majority of people walking the planet in some very
I explain what real power and control is NOT. It’s not
getting angry and doing the many things people do when
angry. Troubled and troublesome students who can
become juvenile and adult offenders learn to use anger like
a drug very early in their lives. It’s because of the false
sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection
it gives them. It’s usually a way they try to compensate for
a deep sense of powerlessness. As long as they stay
angry they don’t have to feel anxious, depressed, ashamed
or guilty. Stop being angry and they do. That’s why so
many are also drug and alcohol involved.
Real power and control is also NOT intimidating others into
doing what you want them to. It's NOT doing things that
people tell you not to just to prove a point. It’s NOT getting
|Step 3 – Teach and Encourage them to have USA
The third thing I do is tell them I would like to teach them to
have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance if they’ll let
me. I explain that the reason USA is so important is shame.
I explain how shame comes about, that shame is what
people feel when they don’t believe they live up to
expectations. I tell them I believe most troubled and
troublesome young people, and juvenile and adult
offenders have usually have had a lifetime of being told
and believing they don’t live up to expectations.
I tell them I've often heard fellow teachers say, “The
problem with these kids is they have no shame”, but that I
believe it’s the exact opposite. They have too much.
Regret and remorse are healthy and helpful things to
have. However, shame can play out in some very tragic
ways. At the very least, as Dr. Ellis used to say, “Shame
blocks change”. It’s why teaching and encouraging them
to have USA is so important. Developing USA is Tool #2.
Beneath all the bravado that many troublesome students,
and juvenile and adult offenders display, I believe they
privately beat up on themselves. That’s part of why they
end up where they do. I try to convince them that it doesn’
t help when others do it, or when they do it to themselves.
I try to convince them that doing so will get in the way of
changing for the better. I offer them some simple
questions to ask themselves instead.
1. What do you really want?
Many will have trouble answering that question at first. It’s
partly because they’ve been chasing “mistaken” goals for
so long. People lose sight of what they’ve always wanted
when they do that. Many don’t like acknowledging what
they’d really like for another reason. They’ve never been
able to get what they’ve always wanted. It’s too
I give those I work with a list of things I believe all human
beings want. For example, I believe all human beings
would prefer to:
1. Live as long as possible
2. Be healthy instead of sick
3. Be happy instead of unhappy
4. Be successful instead of fail
5. Have good relations with others
6. Have as much freedom to do as they please as
7. Have as much control over their destiny as
Ideally, we’d all do everything we could to make realizing
such things in our lives more likely. However, no one does
that perfectly, or all the time. People often have
“mistaken” goals that get them off course from getting
what they really want. They get something out of doing
what they do in the short run, but make getting what they
really want in the long run less likely. People who chase
“mistaken” goals for too long often lose sight of what they
really want in life.
Five common “mistaken” goals are:
2. Power and Control
4. Avoidance of Failure
I believe it’s important to talk up front about why change is
hard, and what it takes to change. Many people try to
change and fail because they don’t understand what they’
re up against. They often give up trying because they fail
When we practice ways of thinking, feeling, and doing
things certain ways, we create “ruts” in our brains. These
“ruts” make whatever thought, feeling or behavior our
“ruts” lead to automatic. These “ruts” are easy to slip into
and hard to stay out of. Most people struggle to get out
once they slip into them. It’s just like real ruts on dirt
roads. “Ruts” can be good or bad things to have. “Ruts”
are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories can
become their destinies. That can be a good or bad thing
as well. The important thing to understand is that once we
The next thing I do is help them understand and
appreciate the important role emotion plays in everyday
life, and has in theirs. That’s Tool #1. Emotion can be
helpful energy to move. It can motivate us to make our
lives better. However, people often generate a
dysfunctional amount of it. They generate more than is
helpful or necessary, and it works against them instead of
for them. It ends up being too much of a good thing. A
dysfunctional amount of emotion makes people more
reactive, and less response-able. They are less likely and
less able to respond in the best possible ways to their life
events. It gives purpose to all kinds of unhealthy, self-
defeating behaviors. It becomes the driving force behind
behavior intended to achieve mistaken goals. It can make
otherwise smart people do stupid things. A dysfunctional
To keep the promises I make in the beginning, I teach
them to have an internal locus of control. That’s Tool #3.
It’s how they can take control their own emotional
thermostat. Most people have an external locus of
control. They wrongly believe that what others say and
do, and what happens, makes them feel the way they do.
That often causes them to feel worse than they need to,
and worse than is helpful or necessary for the situations
they find themselves in. It causes them to miss many
opportunities to feel better.
It’s really what we choose to think about what happens
that really causes how we feel. I teach people a simple
formula for feelings: EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING.
Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Attitude is always
the father of behavior. That’s why it’s so important to
teach juvenile and adult offenders to recognize and
correct their own irrational thinking. My simple definition
of irrational is that what people think, feel, say or do
makes their lives worse instead of better. It never makes
sense to do that to oneself. In Step 3 I pose a few simple
questions. First, what do you really want? Second, how’
s it working for you to think or look at things the way you
do now? How’s does it make you feel, and what does it
make you do? How’s does the way you make yourself
feel, and what you do because of how you think and feel
There are simple ways to correct irrational thinking. One
is to simply apply the scientific method to our everyday
thoughts and comments. Every thought we have or
comment we make is really our personal theory or
hypothesis about the way life is, or should be. The
question then becomes whether the evidence of our
everyday lives, or our pasts, support or refute our
theories and hypotheses? Does it suggest alternative
and better ones? The bigger the difference between our
theories and hypotheses and reality, the more emotion
we’ll generate needlessly.
There are simple but direct questions that people can be
asked, and taught to ask themselves. For example, if
In math classes, students are taught that if they
approach new problems in the same step-by-step
fashion, they are more likely to get the right answer. The
same is true in dealing with everyday problems. We all
have “ruts” for thinking, feeling and doing things the way
we have many times in the past. That can be good or
bad. Too often the way people automatically approach
troublesome life events just makes things worse. They
keep reacting to new life events the same way, even if it
hasn’t worked in the past, and may even have caused
them to suffer. Their cognitive, emotional and behavioral
reactions can even create problems where there are
none, or didn’t need to be any. I believe this can be said
for juvenile and adult offenders.
Dr. Ellis created a five step process based on his ABC
Theory of Emotions.
A = Activating Event
B = Beliefs
C = Consequences (Feel, Do)
D = Dispute
E = Effective Coping Statements
Tool #7 is to assert themselves with I-Messages. Most
people use YOU-Messages. That’s especially true when
they are making themselves angry. YOU-messages
include threats, orders, put-downs, name-calling, ridicule
and sarcasm. They are aggressive, not assertive. They
usually come with finger pointing. They are also called
“solution” messages because they tell others what to do
and attempt to take away their right to choose. No one
likes either of those two things. That’s why YOU-
Message invite needless and futile power struggles,
some of which become physical, and can end in injury or
even death. Using YOU-Messages often was a factor in
why juvenile and adult offenders end up incarcerated.
I-Messages simply give information to others. They
leave what others want to do about that information up to
|Practice using the “tools”
When people are first taught the “tools”, they are like
apprentice carpenters, electricians or mechanics. It will
take practice to become good at using the “tool” to fix
anything that’ broken, and build something better for
As I noted earlier, one of my mentors used to say, “Look
at your past, but don’t stare at it”. Too many offenders
do the latter. What others say to them, and do with
them, encourages them to keep doing that. This “tool kit”
approach is about their future, not their past. You can
get them through the first eleven steps without every
talking about their past, or asking them to. It’s about
On a TV drama series called "The Golden Boy", a burly
veteran detective tells a rookie, "Inside every person are
two dogs fighting, one good, one bad. The one that wins is
the one you feed the most." I believe that too often we feed
the wrong dog with troubled and troublesome students in
schools. I believe we definitely do that in correctional
facilities. This approach feeds that other dog.
I ran "Tool Time" groups for the most troubled and
troublesome students at my wife's high school for two
years. At the end of that two years, three of my oldest kids
were about to graduate on time instead of having dropped
out. One had, but returned to school. He actually received
the "biggest turn-around" award from the school. The last
day we met, one of them said, "We were real asses when
you first started group, but you never gave up on us.
Why?" I told him, "Because I believed that inside each one
of you was a kid who just wanted the same life he saw so
many others kids around him having, and just didn't know
how to get that for himself, and may have given up hope.
That's the kid I went looking for, and wanted to talk to every
time we met. That's the kid I wanted to teach what I know."
There's a saying, "Look at your past, but don't stare at it".
That's what troubled and troublesome students often do.
That's what juvenile and adult offenders do. It's why they
get stuck there. Too often, adults insist that young people
look at their past, at what they've done wrong. That simply
encourages them to stare at it even more, and be more
likely to get stuck there. This approach is all about their
future, not their pasts. It's about where they want to go,
rather than where they've been, or even where they are
now. It's about giving them the "tools" to get there, and
giving them hope by doing so.
For many it's as if the flame that represents their burning
desire to have a good life has been reduced to a pilot light,
or even gone out. We need to light their pilot light if it's gone
out, and turn their flame up so it's burning brighter and
stronger, but in a good way of course.
No matter what gets broken, or what people want to build
for themselves there's only so many tools available to fix it
and build what they'd like. Imagine if someone had a lot of
loose screws on all kinds of things they use everyday in
their lives, and knows that has made life tougher for them.
But he/she didn't own or know there was a tool called a
screwdriver. I could sit there and have them list for me all
the loose screws they come across in their daily lives. Or, I
could just give them a screwdriver. Give them a screwdriver
and they'll probably tighten a lot of screws on their own
before you see them again. That's how this approach works.
even with others. You can just end up giving away power
and control over your life that way. Getting angry, knowingly
breaking rules laws, and getting even with others is a way to
give others opportunities to do things to you, things that you
can't keep them from doing. Ultimately, it's how people end
up in prison with others dictating everything they do 24/7.
REAL power and control is being able to:
1. Choose whether you’re going to get upset or not
2. Feel the way you want to about yourself
3. Feel as good as possible regardless of what happens
4. Keep people out of your head
5. Defend yourself against those who have lived there
much too long rent free
6. Stop doing things that are unhealthy and self-
defeating, or even self-destructive – things you have
always wanted to stop doing but never could
7. Get your life to turn out the way you want it to,
instead of some way you don’t like
I tell them that when young people have a dysfunctional
amount of shame, you get either “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”.
Most troubled and troublesome students, and juvenile and
adult offenders have been both at different times in their
lives. It depends on the circumstances they find
themselves in. Most are “rattlesnakes” with adults,
especially authority figures who are trying to get them to
admit wrongdoing. That’s what often gets them into
trouble. However, all that “coiling”, “rattling” and “striking
out” is really defensive, just as it is with real snakes. It’s a
reaction to feeling threatened. Anger and striking out at
others is a way to compensate in a world where they feel
threatened so often. Many end up in the “eat or be eaten”,
“kill or be killed” worlds of gangs. That’s because
“rattlesnakes” are not tolerated or accepted well in families,
schools or society. It forces “birds of a feather to flock
together”. Being a “rattlesnake” then becomes a matter of
survival in such worlds.
depressing to keep thinking about it and hoping for it.
2. How’s it working for you to think, feel, say and do
what you do now? Does it allow you to get what
you really want, or make it harder?
Once they answer the first question, the answer to the
second question is always obvious. “It’s not”.
3. If you keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing
what you do now, will it be easier or harder to get
what you really want in the future?
The answer to this question is usually obvious as well.
Learning a non-judgmental way to evaluate their thoughts,
feelings and actions is Tool #9.
The behaviors that get most young people into trouble, and
juvenile or adult offenders incarcerated usually have one or
more of these “mistaken” goals. Most violent acts have the
“mistaken” goals of Power and Control, and Revenge.
Most drug offenses have the “mistaken” goal of Withdrawal-
Avoidance-Relief. Dropping out of school usually has the
“mistaken” goal of Avoidance of Failure. Joining gangs
usually have the “mistaken” goal of Attention, gaining the
acceptance, approval and respect of others.
Anger is often the driving force behind Power and Control,
and Revenge. Anxiety, depression, shame and guilt are
behind Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. Shame drives
avoidance of failure, and loneliness and estrangement
drive seeking attention. It’s human nature to get off course
because of “mistaken” goals. Learning to recognize when
you do is the first step to getting back on course and
staying there. Recognizing when people have “mistaken”
goals is Tool #8.
create “ruts” we can never get rid of them. We can only
make new ones and hope that they can compete for use
with our old ones. However, we can always slip into our
old “ruts”. Most people do.
Troubled and troublesome students, and juvenile and
adult offenders have a lot of changes to make in the way
they think, feel, say and do things if they’re ever going to
get what they really want in life. I think it’s important that
they know what they’re up against, what it takes, and how
to go about it. That will give them their best shot at
changing for the better, and maintaining that change.
Knowing about “ruts” is also important to have UOA, and
helping them achieve USA. Understanding why change is
hard, and what it takes is Tool #10.
amount of emotion has probably played a big role in why
juvenile and adult offenders end up incarcerated. It will
continue to unless they can get control over how much
emotion they generate.
I introduce them to the concept of a THINK-FEEL-DO
thermostat. Most think that what others say and do, and
what happens controls their thermostats. That’s not how it
really works. I promise to teach them how to learn to
control their own thermostats, and to turn them down.
That will give them more response-ability – the freedom
and ability to start responding to life in the best possible
ways. That will give them their best shot at finally having
the life they’ve always wanted. A life they may have given
up hope of ever having.
Anything that others say and do, or that happens is just an
event. It’s the thoughts we have about the real or imagined
events of our lives that really cause how we feel. Thoughts
cause feelings, not events. We all have a host of cognitive
choices we make all the time, usually without realizing it. It’
s the way we make those choices that really determines
how we feel. I teach them what those choices are, and help
them see ways to make them better. I also teach them to
focus on what they have control over instead of wasting
time and energy trying to control things they don’t. They
only control what they think, feel, say and do, not what
others do. Learning to control what we think, feel, say and
do is a big enough job for any of us.
work for you? Does it make it easier or harder to get what
you really want? As I said earlier, the answers to such
questions is usually obvious.
Luckily, Dr. Albert Ellis identified a pattern to the irrational
thoughts human beings have when they generate a
dysfunctional amount of emotion, and do things that make
their lives worse. He said people engage in four basic
types of irrational thinking. He called them Demandiness,
Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Label and Damning. It’s
easy to teach people to recognize that pattern in
themselves and others. That’s Tool #4.
someone’s belief was “They have to do what I want”, the
questions would be “Why do they have to? They have to,
or you just want them to? They have to or you’d just like
them to?” People often struggle to answer such questions
correctly. They often start their answers with “Because…”,
and proceed to give a host of reasons. None of which are
the correct answers. They can be taught that the only
correct answers are “They don’t have to. They don’t have
to, I just want them to (or would like them to). They don’t
have to do anything.” With practice and rehearsal, such
questions can be to their minds what spell check and
grammar check are to a computer.
We can start with the Activating Event or the
Consequence. We can start with what happened, or what
someone is imagining will. Or, we can start with what
someone felt and/or did as a Consequence of what they
believed about the Activating Event. However, it’s what we
choose to think or believe about what happens, ourselves,
others and life that’s really important. Thoughts cause
feelings, not events. Attitude is always the father of
Step B is Tool #4 – recognizing irrational thinking. It’s
called “Thought catching”. It’s also called “Turning private
talk into public speech”. Step D is Tool #5 – correcting
irrational thinking. Step E is finding new ways to look at
things that allow people to generate a more functional
amount of emotion. I sometimes add a Step F for
Functional Amount of Emotion.
them. They are the most effective way to communicate
with others. Learning to use them can also be a way of
putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be.
In other words, it’s a way of practicing talking the way you
want to start thinking. That can help people generate a
more functional amount of emotion, and free them to be
I would never expect I-Messages to be effective in the
circles many troubled and troublesome young people, or
juvenile and adult offenders travel. However, if they are
ever going to have the kind of life they would like to have, it
will help to learn how to express themselves using I-
Messages. It will help to practice doing so whenever they
themselves. There’s a saying in the trades, “Any job is
easy if you use the right tool”. That’s true in dealing with
everyday life problems and issues as well, even really big
finally having the life they’ve always secretly wanted,
instead of settling for the one they have. It seeks out the
“good dog” and feeds it. This approach seeks out the
person that has always wanted the life they’ve seen others
have. It gives them to “tools” to finally get it. I believe that’
s our best hope for helping them become productive
members of society instead of a threat to it, or a drain on it.
|Step 1 - Let them know you have UOA
The first thing I always do is let them know I have what
Albert Ellis called UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance
for them, and every other human being. Most troubled and
troublesome students have spent a lifetime believing and
often being told that they don't live up to others
expectations in some way, and feel a good deal of shame
because of it. Many have been told "You should be
ashamed of yourself" many times. It's why they often will be
reluctant to work with anyone, even if that person has their
best interests in mind. They expect them to be like
everyone before has been.
I have a rule. If you do what everyone else has always done
with troubled or troublesome kids, you'll get what they've
always gotten. So do something different. That's part of
why I start by letting them know I have UOA. That
and the fact that I honestly do have it for them and anyone
Most of the time they ask, "What's that?". I explain that it
simply means that I see whatever they or others think, feel,
say or do as being understandable given that they are
human, and what they've been through in their lives. It
doesn't mean I have to like or agree with what they think,
feel, say or do, have in the past, or might in the future. It just
means that I believe that if we took other human beings and
put them through exactly what they have been through,
there's a good chance they'd probably think, feel, say or do
pretty much the same things. Some might fare better, others
worse. But most would probably end up much the same. For
all we know, they might even be faring better than most