Podcast: How Little House on the Prairie Inspired Better Child Care
“It is an honor to be entrusted with the care of children . . .
who need so much and have suffered much at no fault of their own. They have paid a heavy price and continue to pay that price when society holds them responsible for behavior that is a manifestation of their pain for which there is essentially later in their life little understanding from society," says Albertus Kral, referring to the children who reside at Little House Residential Care Services Inc.
Founded in 1999 by Albert & Bernice Kral, Little House provides enhanced family-based care to children and youth who have developmental challenges, emotional disturbances, behavioral disorders, or autism. Sadly, these issues mean they can’t live with their families.
Albert’s personal journey began in the Netherlands. After his formal education, he joined his father in an insurance brokerage firm. Meanwhile, Albert found time to volunteer in various youth programs and began taking courses in philosophy, psychology, and attending seminars and workshops related to human behavior.
After immigrating to Canada in 1980, Albert became involved in the business of residential care for children, and along with his wife Bernice, founded Little House in Smithville, Ontario. They started with one residence that served six children, operating with the assistance of a childcare worker. As the demand for services grew, their business grew to include 28 employees working at four residences and one foster home.
A company name and mission statement inspired by a TV series
“We served in another organization for about nine years before we decided to start our own,” says Albert. “We called it Little House; that came from Bernice. And it relates to [the television program] Little House on the Prairie, which we often watched, and still do at times, because we love the philosophy behind it, and also the importance, and the values, and integrity of the program,” says Albert.
Regarding the program, Albert says, “To us, it comes across as a family that experiences a lot of difficulty, sometimes in various areas, and how the parents relate to that is just fantastic. They have the children involved, and then they try to solve the problems, not in an aggressive way, [but instead] with a lot of understanding and a solution that benefits both parties involved in any conflict.”
Reading through Little House’s mission statement, one can easily see how it is informed by the values of the program. It speaks to the organization’s commitment to create an atmosphere that cultivates feelings of acceptance, belonging, safety, and love. Little House’s model is to accomplish a family environment where structure is applied with compassion and where each child is guided by enthusiastic encouragement to reach their own personal best levels of social and vocational happiness and accomplishment.
We accomplish a family environment where structure is applied with compassion.—Albertus Kral
Choosing between two residential care modelsIn the interview, Albert explains that there are two residential care models: a parent model and a staff model. Little House prefers the parent model. Albert explains: “Both can be good depending on the nature of the children and the difficulty that they represent. But we feel that the family dynamics are extremely important. If we can resemble a family as children deserve to grow up in, that would be great, and that has been our intention from the very beginning. So in Little House, we have parents, a ‘mom’ and a ‘dad’ as we call them, and they create a family environment. They do things together as a family. They travel together; they do grocery shopping together. They sit around the table and discuss certain things. And the basis of it is the quality of their relationship.”
Here's why this Little House founder thinks every child is perfectWhen speaking with Albert, it’s easy to hear a philosopher at work. (Albert typically ends his emails with a quote from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and he is writing a book, slated for release in 2017, considering whether behavior is, in his words, perhaps not simply a matter of choice. He has promised CPI an excerpt and a guest blog post when the book is published.)
One fascinating premise advanced by Albert is that every child is perfect. Before you begin recalling, say, a roving and disruptive child in a restaurant where you were attempting to eat in peace, hear him out.
“I say that at trainings, too. And believe me, the staff look at me and say—I hear them thinking and I tell them that, too. ‘You probably think I have lost my mind; I’ve got to resign and you need somebody else to run this organization, for you will tell me this child is not perfect.’ And then I look at it, and there are two models of perfection.
One is the perfection that we all may describe in a certain way for a particular event or object, and I get as many models of perfection if I ask people to describe it. Then there is perfection, and I define that, in my opinion, as something that appears because it cannot appear in any different way. So if something cannot be different than it is, I say it must be perfect. Not meaning that it is the desirable perfection, but it can’t be different unless something else is different.
Albert goes on to give the example of someone trying to bake a carrot cake, except that instead of carrots, they use raisins. When they complain that their cake is an awful carrot cake, Albert tells them while it may be a terrible carrot cake, it’s a perfect raisin cake. He goes on to extend the concept to the challenged kids they care for at Little House: “So when you look at the children, if you have an autistic child, the child behaves autistic[ly]. If you get a defiant child, the child behaves defiant[ly]. Now, not all the time, but those are the trends. So in that case, the child is perfect. And when staff can grasp that idea, I said, ‘Now, if you go over the principle, the child is perfect.’” This idea of perfection—and with it, acceptance—in a care setting for troubled kids provides a reasonable and eminently productive philosophy.
Writing on a child’s mental blackboard
Another stunningly positive and productive concept that Albert champions is the idea that each time a counselor interacts with a child, they are writing an unseen but important message on the child’s mental blackboard.
Albert is emphatic about how interactions between counselors and children are extremely influential. In trainings, he reminds staff: “In all your interactions with the children—verbal, nonverbal, in any way, shape, or form—we've got to be aware that we should write on the mental blackboard of the child the following messages: 'You are significant. You are important. You are worthwhile. You are cared for. You are loved.’ And that is of the utmost importance, for those are factors that a child doubts all the time."
On why the Integrated Experience is central to care at Little House
Albert trains every Little House employee in the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® program and refreshes yearly. Many times throughout the interview, Albert, a Certified Instructor since June of 2013, refers to the centrality of the concept of the Integrated Experience to care at Little House, even going so far back as the pre-natal experience. “I look at CPI as a core foundation, and [part of] that is the Integrated Experience. And to me, it is so important, and I can go as far back as when we were born, and even the time we were in the mother’s womb. I look at behavior, and I look at how we develop. There are a lot of influences that we experience. And it's well known too that in the mother’s womb, a lot of conditions that the mother goes through affect the development of the child, and you can't really hamper the development, right?” explains Albert.
Taking the idea further, Albert relates how contributing factors are intimately related to the Integrated Experience: “So I see the CPI teaching model [as something] of significant value. I think it is fantastic in all aspects. Then they talk about contributing factors. The contributing factor relates directly again to development, the Integrated Experience. And when it comes to the contributing factors, I always split it in two. . . . I say there are contributing factors. They are from the past; they can be abuse, neglect. And then there are contributing factors that you call triggers. I call those dependent factors, for the triggers depend on the first contributing factors. And in combination of that, they can then cause the child to behave in a certain way,” says Albert.
Albert then relates an example where a child would begin to act out whenever his foster parents told him they loved him. It turns out that in previous care, the sentence “I love you,” was said directly prior to abuse. So the contributing factor of that past experience shaped those seemingly loving words into a trigger.
Finally, Albert relates the positive astonishment shown by social workers who see significant progress in an especially difficult child due to a working knowledge of the Integrated Experience and the Crisis Development Model℠. “We get questions sometimes from the social workers who say, ‘You know, the child is completely different. How did you do that?’ If you can duplicate it, you can create a success for other ones. And sometimes, it's just the environment. Again, I hate to beat this horse to death, but the Integrated Experience, yeah, CPI, we affect the child. And the outcome is positive,” concludes Albert.