What are Behavior Modification Programs for Teens?

Behavior Modification Programs for Teens

A behavior modification program (behavior mod for troubled teens program) is a residential treatment facility for teens that caters to teens who exhibit antisocial, or out of control behaviors. As the title aptly suggests, the main objective of these facilities is to replace, or modify, self-sabotaging behaviors in teens and replacing them with more productive and fruitful behavioral patterns. 

According to the latest data, there are close to or over 650 'nongovernment' behavioral modification residential treatment programs in the US. These institutions are separate from government-funded behavioral modification residential programs that courts often use as an alternative treatment to juvenile detention.  


Like most treatment programs for adolescents, the methodology, practices, and quality of treatment of behavior modification programs can slightly vary from one another. However, what every behavior modification program has in common is their reinforcement of a level system and practice of using negative and positive reinforcement strategies in order to attempt to promote behavioral change. 

For example, if a teen were to do something staff or peer leaders deemed positive, they would be given a positive consequence, such as special privileges, longer personal time, etc.. Contrariwise, a negative consequence would be given when a teen was to act out in negative behaviors where they would then be reprimanded and have privileges taken from them. 

Another foundational structure in behavior mod programs is its level systems - basically, the higher the level, the more privileges a teen will be given or vice-versa. Additionally, the highest leveled teens in behavioral mod systems will most likely be put in a leadership position where they can guide and instruct those in lower levels. 

Levels are also a consequence-based methodology, except long term: A teen achieves a higher level by consistently demonstrating good behaviors for a certain amount of time. Just like privileges, however, levels that are achieved can also be taken away for consistent negative behavioral patterns, or one major infraction - depending on the particular behavior mod program. 

The Origin of Behavioral Modification Programs

While its origins are somewhat ambiguous, most experts believe that behavior modification was originally developed by the famed American psychologist and behavioral expert, B.F. Skinner sometime between the mid-to-late '60s. 

It was through Skinner's formulation of applicable concepts such as observing that behaviors could be more easily shaped by reinforcement (encouraging favorable behaviors and discouraging negative ones). Whether or not he was the actual creator of behavior modification, Skinner was certainly the premier expert credited with shaping adolescent behavioral treatment into what it would eventually become. 

In spite of new data and research that suggests behavioral modification treatment is controversial and clinically ineffective when compared to newer, more modernized and therapeutic forms of treatment, it is the treatment's creator, Skinner, who is heralded by many as the man responsible for bringing 'troubled teen treatment' into the modern times. 

Behavioral Modification Programs for Teens

While behavior modification has proven to be effective in treating troubled teen behavior, the last few decades have given way to programs who use it as a supplementary part of their program rather than their curricular staple. While behavior mod therapy is still very much in use by said adolescent programs, most programs do not consider themselves to be “behavior mod” facilities - With the exception of boot camps and brat camps.

More modern and therapy-based programs, which commonly use more recent and provenly effective treatments such as positive peer culture, emotional growth, and leadership development, generally refer to themselves as therapeutic schools or residential treatment centers.

While recent developments in the evolution of 'troubled teen-facilities' have changed their functionality and approach to treating mentally-suffering adolescents, behavior modification still plays a very lively and fundamental role in many programs’ therapeutic curriculum.

The Downside of Behavioral Modification Treatment 

When compared to today's most cutting edge therapeutic boarding schools - namely those that do not utilize level systems and negative reinforcement-strategies -  behavioral mod programs are outdated and ineffectual in producing any long-lasting change in teens who struggle with behavioral and mental health-related problems. 

What's worse, there is a significant number of these programs that are recognized as boot or brat camps for troubled teens - facilities that dangerously lack in psychiatric care and treatments - at times, even fatally so.

Archaic treatment programs like that of boot camps are hardcore facilities that offer screaming, mental, and even physical abuse to their teenage clientele in lieu of any semblance of therapeutic treatment. In fact, an overwhelming majority of these types of behavioral mod programs do not even employ a therapeutic or psychiatric professional, whatsoever.

This omission of therapeutic treatment, of course, is problematic considering the majority of teens deemed "troubled" (that is, teens who exhibit continuous negative behavioral patterns and a lacking emotional IQ) live with at least one type of mental health-related illness. Boot camps' lack of therapeutic care is even more detrimental for the large portion of "troubled" teens who suffer from a co-occurring mental illness. 

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