How Can You Make Real Change? Use the Three R’s

“Scared Straight” versus “Relate”

As Human Services Administrator for the City of Santa Clarita, California, I oversee programs that help young people find jobs, resist drugs, get healthy, learn new skills, and avoid gang membership. We invite ex-gang members to speak to “high-risk” teens and we show teens in our Community Court program videos that graphically depict the tragic consequences of drinking and driving. Many programs place a proverbial “fork” in the road that gives people an opportunity to choose a different path – to make a change for the better.

Over the years, I’ve watched young people use the program tools and resources to make better decisions and change their lives and I’ve seen kids reject these opportunities and continue to live dysfunctional lifestyles. When I witness the latter, I ask myself, “Is any of this working? Do ‘Scared Straight’ tactics work? What about counseling, mentoring, motivational speaker, and “boot camp” programs? “Are we trying to affect positive change using proven methods?”

One of my favorite books Change or Die, by Alan Deutchman addresses some of these questions:

  • How does change come about in a person?
  • How does someone stop drinking?
  • Stop using drugs?
  • Start eating healthy?
  • Start a new career?
  • What REALLY works to facilitate change in a person, and what doesn’t?

In the spirit of his book title, Mr. Deutchman gets right to point and describes what works and what doesn’t through captivating and illuminating real-world examples. Here are some of the Change or Die ideas I found most surprising, intriguing, and enlightening:

What Does NOT Work:

The “Three F’s of Failed Change”

Facts – Presenting people with facts does not motivate long-term change.

Most gangsters end up dead or in jail. You drink too much. Pot is a gateway drug. Cheeseburgers are bad for your heart. Cigarettes cause lung cancer.”

Fear – Frightening people with admonitions or gory videos does not motivate long-term change.

You will end up in jail if you continue! You will die if you don’t stop!”

Force – Forcing people to change by using violence, threats, or intimidation, may cause short-term change, but does not motivate long-term change.

What Does Work:

The “Three R’s of Real Change”

Relate – Providing people with role models, mentors, and coaches does facilitate long-term change.

“I can make it because you made it. I can make it because you believe in me, love me, and show me how. I can start a new life because I trust you when you say there is a light at the end of the tunnel even if I can’t see it now.”

Repeat – Teaching people how to “Fake it ‘till you make it” is key to facilitating long-term change.

“Make a positive choice even when you don’t feel like it, and repeat the new behavior until it becomes a habit.”

Reframe – Helping people see themselves in a positive new way and celebrating small victories does facilitate long-term change.

Fake it ‘till you make it ‘till you believe this “new you” is the real you. “Wow! I really can do this. This is who I really am.”

Solid role models + changed habits + new self-image = Changed lives!

When I apply these ideas, I realize why some of my programs are successful and what may be missing in the ones that don’t work as well. Mentoring and/or on-the-job training programs work well because they include all the “R’s.” And the programs that include only one or two “R’s” are still more effective than those that do not include any.

I used this table to briefly evaluate two of our current programs:







Youth Unemployment

Mentored, on-the-job training

Employer teaches, encourages, and nurtures young person. May offer permanent work when training period ends.

Young person works at the same job site for weeks or months. Learns to show up for work even if they don’t feel like it. Experiences success.

“I did it. I am a successful employee. I can earn a living. I don’t have to sell drgs to make money.”


Includes all three “R’s” and is particularly effective.

Teen Reckless Driving

Show Community Court teens videos of horrific car accidents, order mandatory traffic school, fines and community service




Probably not according to the research.

Teen Reckless Driving

Ask community members to speak to Community Court teens. Have teens attend a local memorial for peers who died in car accidents caused by reckless driving or DUI

“I lost my friend, sister, or child because someone was drinking and driving.”


“The victim was the same age as me, went to the same school, and lived in the same neighborhood. This was a real person, and that could have been me that killed them or me that died.”


Includes only two “R’s,” but still more effective than just videos.

It is difficult to change unhealthy patterns and deeply engrained beliefs, but we can use these concepts to help focus our time, energy, and resources on methods that have the best chance for promoting lasting personal change.

Hope Horner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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