Marty Beyer, Ph.D.

       In every community there is a program where the young people and staff are proud of the work they are doing together. These are programs where the young people feel safe. These programs have few inconsistencies between the means and the desired ends or between the planned and actual outcomes. I usually leave good programs wishing I could see more of them in other communities where they are desperately needed by young people.

    But it doesn't work that way. Most effective programs cannot be replicated. What comes to my mind when someone asks me about effective programs are not organizational models--instead I see the faces of the talented wizards who have created them.* These programs usually go downhill when the gifted founder leaves. Short of cloning that person, the same program cannot be started elsewhere. Generating more successful programs in other communities cannot be accomplished by cookie cutter treatment approaches, techniques, or environments.

    Treatment modalities cannot be replicated with guaranteed outcomes.  I am wary of any program philosophy that begins with, "What works best for young people is..."  I don't believe in successful treatment approaches per se. It is how the program's philosophy is put into action that matters.

    Level systems and points may have been the worst invention of youth services: these token economies are an artificial environment which give staff an excuse not to have to think or interact with young people. But I have seen a few creative behavior management programs where higher status really meant something to the young people, and they could earn it in their own way at their own pace with the support of their peers. Similarly, therapeutic communities with their contrived jargon and subculture usually make me sick. But I recently visited a successful program that has revitalized the best of the drug treatment movement of the 1960's. I was so taken by the young person who accompanied me that day that I started to imagine that this model might be the best way to reach young people. Soon, however, I came to my senses: there is no single right approach. To meet the needs of young people and to take advantage of the different talents of staff, there should always be a range of treatment philosophies.

* My apologies for using the term wizard, which generally refers to males; apparently there is no word for androgenous wizards—witch, sorcerer or magician just didn’t do. There are male and female program innovators. 

    Even if there is no single, magical treatment philosophy, it is tempting to think that certain techniques insure success. But I have seen tried and true techniques fail and unexpected methods work. For example, there are some terrible mentoring programs, developed out of model program publications. The mentors are well-intentioned and the young people needy. But the mentors have not been helped to clarify what they want to accomplish. They are ambivalent: they want to give support to the young people but they disapprove of their lifestyles, their families, their study habits, their nutrition, and their appearance. It takes a remarkable leader to enable middle and upper class do-gooders give anything lasting to young people whose lives have not been touched by the American Dream. Good intentions and model techniques do not guarantee an effective program.

    On the other hand, the most unlikely successes I have seen include:

  • A remarkable tutoring program with trained high school tutors. The tutors were the product of the same impoverished schools as their junior high school students; they were college-bound, but their spelling and grammar weren't nearly as perfect as middle-class tutors. But their enthusiasm for learning was contagious. They lit fires under young people who had given up on themselves years before.
  • An optician shop where former gang members proudly and skillfully help select frames, make prescriptions, and fit glasses for the public.
  • A small nature studies class with city kids initially terrified of things they had not be exposed to previously. They became excited about learning as they went on boats, caught fish and insects in nets, and studied other animals.


Such programs are not in treatment models publications because no one would expect their techniques to work. Yet this variety of techniques is essential to meet the needs of young people.

    Surely, even if certain philosophies and techniques aren't guaranteed,

location of the program matters. Wrong again. Some of the most effective

programs are in unlikely surroundings:


  • A remarkable street law class in a maximum security juvenile correctional institution which included attending juvenile death penalty arguments at the Supreme Court and having a medical examiner walk through a real autopsy of a murdered teenager.
  • Programs that teach marine skills, including scuba diving and boat handling, to urban delinquents, many of whom can hardly swim when they enter.
  • Sensitive poetry written by youth at an improvisational theater program in a rehabilitated warehouse at the center of a violent drug market.


The young people thrive in these unfamiliar environments because they are taken seriously and seen as competent individuals by caring adults. Perhaps a program based on knitting and basketweaving in a jail or an urban neighborhood might be just as successful as so-called models of outdoor education. It's not the location or activities that matter: feeling better about self comes from being good at something. Expensive treatment programs in flawless, modern facilities may feel sterile and depressing and often fail. Some programs in crowded, dilapidated, noisy storefronts have the spirit of doing something positive that emanates from the young people and staff.

    Of course, removing troubled young people from their environments almost always appears successful. Removal is tempting because of the relatively rapid changes in the young person's behavior and their apparent greater compliance than if they were being treated in the community. Young men who a few weeks before were violent offenders look like preppies when they are plunged into a rigorous residential school environment. Young women who enter drug treatment in the ravaging last stage of an emaciating illness look like well-scrubbed cheerleaders a few months later as they sing the rousing theme song of their treatment program.

    Many would object to the brainwashing of these programs. One of the strengths of the wizards who operate effective adolescent programs is that they acknowledge that the goal of treatment is changing values. Wizards take charge of the brainwashing involved in getting youth to accept values that are non-violent, non-delinquent, anti-drug, and pro-learning and pro-employment.     Wizards also recognize their responsibility for helping young people cope with the conflict between their new values and what they have come from. Unfortunately this conflict is not acknowledged, either by the courts who send them to be brainwashed or by their brainwashers in most residential programs. They deny that young people will return to their old lives. Once delinquents are exposed to more positive values, they are expected to go off to college or the military without looking backward. It sounds absurd, but what else could be in the minds of the lawyers, judge and social worker who optimistically send a 16-year old delinquent hundreds of miles from home to a $50,000/year program? Surely they are not imagining him, cleancut in his letter jacket and polite speech, returning to his mother's public housing unit with three young children sleeping in a fold-out couch in the living room. Assuming that he has enhanced his skills, he should finish high school and resist the pressures of family and friends who are convinced that education will not bring him a better life. He should get a job and ignore the fast money friends on his street earn from illicit activity. These are the ridiculous expectations of so-called model programs that cannot pass the test of real life.     

    Maybe this kind of "permanent removal" is becoming the national trend, but look at what it says about young people: what you come from is so bad, you must turn totally away from it. This anti-family bias is unfortunately the foundation of many youth-serving programs. These programs fail because they insist that young people break with their pasts. Young people cannot choose to be disloyal to their families. Who they are is in part what they come from. Changes in behavior and values are only possible if young people can integrate their pasts with their new selves. Wizards whose residential or day treatment programs achieve enduring change in participants train staff to invest a substantial amount of their time enabling young people to accept new values without rejecting their origins.      

    A great genius of wizards is their appreciation of the chemistry between the staff and the young people.   You can see the loving relationship between staff and youth in any effective program: the hand of an actor on a young person's shoulder,  the look of achievement as a youth docks a boat, the pride of a young person taking a good grade to the tutor, the radiance of the teacher applauding a student's answer to an ethical dilemma. Wizards look for special characteristics in staff: an affection for the young people they work with; a belief that anything is possible; patience with change that is unbearably slow and often involves slipping backward; tolerance for unpredictability and a range of ways of accomplishing goals; an appreciation of "acting out" as an expression of the individual rather than a testing of authority; awareness of one's own anger; ability to set caring limits; flexibility in limit-setting; a genuine enjoyment of youth making more and more choices for themselves. Wizards look for staff who are natural teachers--individuals who are addicted to seeing light bulbs go on in young people's heads. They approach every situation as an opportunity for themselves and their students to learn, and it is this freshness that young people find irresistible.

    Wizards help staff eradicate the word "unmotivated" from their vocabulary. They see that change only occurs when the young person wants it. Wizards help staff to be effective enablers, empowering youth and their families to change. They do not label the families of these young people "dysfunctional."  They celebrate with the young people what they come from, recognizing that being streetwise and possessing survival skills are significant accomplishments from which the young person can draw in positive ways.  Thus, while teachers are wondering why students show no interest in the beautiful donated costumes for the urban junior high's production of Macbeth, down the street a young actor without props successfully draws delinquents into a dramatic creation that begins "I have owned this despair like property.  I am responsible for its care and upkeep.  My one investment, it keeps me rooted.  Despair is the one thing that's truly mine."

    I have only seen this essential chemistry between staff and youth occur in programs with special leaders. Wizards embody the mission of their programs. They live according to the values on which their programs are based. They oversee how the philosophy and techniques are put into action. They are hard-working but take care of themselves, and they do not want staff to be overly self-sacrificing. Wizards help staff have a sustained passion for their work without burning out.  Wizards also teach staff not to see their professional tools as ends in themselves, but as the means--if skillfully used--for empowering young people and reaching families where they are.  Wizards are strong leaders--they maintain a remarkable balance of control over and nurturance for staff; they understand but do not take advantage of the staff's dependency.*  The loving guidance that flows from these directors to staff is mirrored in the chemistry between staff and youth.      

    A wizard does not allow program expansion beyond the size of staff he/she can personally reach. Wizards spend time nurturing each staff person. In multiple site programs, the wizard travels and brings staff together to maintain that all-important personal inspiration. The wizard must know from daily experience of it that the quality of life is good for staff and youth.

    Wizards are the ultimate innovators. They are not bound by training or habit to one approach. They do what works. Their programs are driven by the needs of the young people.

    The wizard is the heart and mind of an effective program. But I've never seen a wizard raise another wizard. When someone else, even a younger protégé, takes over the program it is not likely to continue to be as successful.

    Are there undiscovered wizards out there? One thing is certain--publications of model programs will not stimulate new wizards and probably do just the opposite. A wizard-nurturing environment would be one that challenges service providers to meet the needs of young people. A wizard-nurturing environment would be one that requires programs to show that they can motivate young people and enable them to be successful, with values that embrace the families they come from. We kill off wizards by requiring service providers to copy another program or design a cheaper way to provide the same old services. New wizards might be stimulated by hearing from experienced wizards about their process of generating effective programs that met the needs of young people. Such a wizards conference would not encourage replication. A wizard needs the opportunity to create, to collect a group of staff to figure out what it would take to meet the needs of troubled young people. Why would a wizard respond to a request for proposals to replicate someone else's model?  Effective programs don't start with a model treatment philosophy, technique or location. First, you find a wizard.



Beyer, Marty (1991). "First You Find a Wizard," Corrections Today,

    Also published in Future Choices, Youth Policy Institute, Spring, 1990.    

* Some of the worst directors of youth programs are self-serving authoritarians who need the staff to love them--their powerful parental role in the organization is way out of balance, although they often appear to be visionaries.