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Older reflections on early practice

2016

Hi. Thom here.

A lot of students have been posting over the past few weeks - and I love that - welcome to you all if you are new.

And, it got me to wondering - many of the questions are of the 'what if' or 'what about' genre.

So, I was thinking that maybe some of us folks who have been around for a while (whatever that means) could make a post about some of our own challenges or struggles in our early days. Or maybe a note about some of the things we struggled to 'realize'. Not asking for much - just a line or two.

Like me. It took me years (and, dare I say, years) to finally awaken to the fact that I was not as powerful and meaningful as I originally thought. And it was only when I realized that 'influence is earned through a trusting relationship', that I might have begun to have any really meaningful role in a young person's life.

So what about the rest of you - there are thousands of us who 'have been around for a while'.

What were some of your early necessary learnings, or challenges?

Thom
...

Hi Thom!

I am a second year student at Mount Royal and I appreciate your post very much. As much as school is beneficial to us as students there is nothing that quite compares to personal experience in the field. There are many things I face every day at practicum that throw me a curve ball or that I would not have expected whether that be with children or within my own self.

I feel that hearing about struggles on a larger scale and the practical ways in which you used to dealt with them will be extremely beneficial to our population. I think the issue that you brought up, recognizing our own impact and how much "power" we really have. This is a concept that I hold very dear to me. I believe that I won't always have the power to move mountains, but I still need to remember how impactful some of the mole hills can be. I can also, as much as remembering how small I am in the grand scheme of things recognize that my involvement could still be impactful whether that be positively or negatively. I need to be mindful of that, especially in the small things like tone of voice facial expressions and language. All of my actions can matter, I just need to make sure I am acting as best as I can so that the actions that are impactful resonate in a good place. My practicum supervisor always says to me that we want to be aware of what memories our children will take from their experience with us.

Again , thank you for considering the student population in your practice, we need people who are willing to learn and just as importantly we need the professionals who are willing to teach.

Kayla
….

This is a genius idea, Thom. Would love to hear from many who 'have been around for a while'!

Seth Osborn
...

Thom,

I have spent a few days trying to figure out what would be my advice without sounding cliche. After 23 years in the field of Child and Youth Care I would share these perspectives.

Focus on the things you have a choice in directing/choosing. I spent a considerable amount of time projecting blame (being negative) instead of having the compassion/courage to acknowledge my own limitations and seek help. We are but one person each containing our own personalities, family history, beliefs, cultures, etc. Find a positive person to talk with about the direction of the profession - in your home town, provincially, nationally or internationally. Child and Youth Care has wisdom within its members to share regarding their challenges and successes.

I attended a conference in Halifax, NS "The Joy of CYC Practice" with Thom Garfat and Andy Leggett by the Nova Scotia Child and Youth Care Association and the energy was amazing. The question "What gives you joy?" was a question I walked away with. Think about it! Write down what you discover and make sure you fit "it" in a few times a week.

I believe taking the time to educate yourself and practice detachment from work, family, friends, spouse, facebook, etc. to care for self is key. You are NOT being selfish when you are having fun or being happy. You are role modelling a balanced healthy life style and a better you is an effective practitioner.

Building a supportive group of individuals in your work/life group. Child and Youth care is taxing and many who have not experienced the profession do not understand the emotional tool therapeutic care can have.

Allow yourself to ask for help with compassion for self. I think my therapist is great!

Daily reminders that individuals do the best they can with what they have or know.

Challenge yourself to see the positive purpose within any situation.

Your life/career is a process of development. We ask children, youth and families everyday to make multiple change in their lifestyles and we witness the struggle and attempt to support them to move forward. Every individual struggles to make changes in self, everyone, it takes time, consistent support and by in. Not always the easiest to pull together all at once in our current system.

Just a few tips from my perspective. Good question! Looking forward to others’ points. I also like the questions being asked by the students particularly the thought process they went through to get to the question.

Be well.

Charlene

Many years ago I learnt a very important lesson. I had been in the field for about 2 years when this happened. It was Christmas eve and we had just had a Christmas dinner that was open to all street kids and gang members. We had kids of all ages show up; the youngest was maybe 3 and of course we had some young mothers with babies. But the story I want to tell is about this young boy who was 11, every time I saw him he would bunch me, or slap me, or kick me. I would always say to him I did not like getting hit but if you need to have that contact with me then then lets slap hands or fist pump. This did not work for him. Now this leads to Christmas dinner. Everyone had left and I was in the kitchen when he walked in and he slapped me on the back. I turned to him and said what I always said to him and that’s when he reached for something on the counter. In my mind I knew it could not be a knife as all knives were never left out. He took what he had in his hand and stabbed me, and dropped the knife on the floor. I think I was in shock and turned away from him and started to walk away. I took a few steps and then this idea came into my mind. I turned around and walked back to this little boy and “you have been trying to tell me that you love me”. This little boy smiled and said “yes”. I got to know this little guy a lot more over time and learnt that he was raised in a gang family. Everything he experienced was violence, violence was around him. As he entered school he learnt that families loved each other, but violence was how he learnt express for love. I figured that I pushed him to act this way because he was not getting what he was looking for.

This was a real learning point for me and to this day I really try to learn what a kid, youth even adults are trying to say through their behaviors. I believe this has made a better person to look deeper in. I find that I can never take things at face value. Working with young people I often ask how they are doing and they say great. I return with what does great mean to you? Or if they don’t know what I mean I say what does great look like or feel like. I often find great to them is totally different then what I think is great. As for the stab wound it was superficial as I had a heavy coat on.

Danny
...

Hi,

Early on in my career I was faced with the obligation of reporting abuse. I had become privy to physical abuse happening to a youth I worked with and knew I needed to report it to CAS. Many assumptions and fears (I'm sure similar to a lot of people) came to my mind involving all the negative impacts my one little phone call may determine. Without getting too detailed, my phone call actually brought me closer with their family and was a building foundation of my professional relationships with one of the youth’s parents (they were divorced and she has been involved with the courts and CAS with regards to the father’s abuse). I called her to inform her that I made a statement to CAS (CAS recommended it based on the circumstances). The mother was appreciative of my concern and obligation to protect her child. Needs and goals for the young person changed that day with the revelation of these somewhat frequent events. The youth’s mother and I worked closely in determining the best way(s) to move forward. Four years later I still have a great working (albeit sporadic) relationship with the youth, mother, and siblings.

Mike
...

This was a wonderfully reflective question from Thom. There were so many struggles and challenges for me it would be hard to focus in on one...but I did come with an example that I think encapsulates one of the most profound things I learned that has played out in so much of my Child and Youth Care practice over the years.

I first began as a CYC worker in a cottage of 18 teenage boys in a large residential center near New York City. I had no CYC education or training. In the beginning I wanted very badly for the kids to like me and find me credible. Many of the kids came from economically impoverished areas. I grew up in a federal housing project myself and, as a way to gain "acceptance" from the kids, I never missed an opportunity to mention that or tell a story about project life in my youth. Sometimes we would be on a recreation trip and you could see my projects from the highway and I would always point and say "That's where I grew up". It wasn't overtly harmful I guess, but I was missing a giant point about quality CYC work. Relationships and credibility with kids form from natural "connections" in the moments, genuine caring, non-judgmentalism and natural trust building over time...not from what you tell kids or how you try to impress them. As my Child and Youth Care skills grew and connections/relationships began to be more natural and genuine I found myself going out of my way NOT to mention I grew up in the projects. I learned it should not and did not matter.

In reflection it occurred to me I was breaking a golden rule about boundaries and self-disclosure as I was sharing my background for my benefit and not for the kids' benefit. It was also a big piece of me learning to trust kids and their ability to accept you for who you are and your level of caring and genuineness...not for how "cool" you might want to be. Many years later as a senior administrator in the program I included a number of kids to help deliver our monthly orientation for new CYC staff. The sessions/discussions were unrehearsed and the kids varied from month to month, but a smile would always come to my face when so many of the kids would tell new CYC workers: "Don't try to be too much like us...just be yourself. Over time we will like you or not like you based on who you are. If you give us respect sooner or later you will get it."

It took me a while to get it...but the importance of letting relationships just happen and to trust kids' innate ability to understand/respond to genuine caring over time provided a foundation that has lasted my whole career.

Frank Delano

I think the most important lesson that I learned as a new worker was that ALL behavior “made sense” if we took the time to review the young person’s history and experience before coming into care. I hold this to be true 50 years later.

Lorraine Fox

Thom,

This is a great idea, posting what we have learned over our time working with children and youth. I think the thing that I have learned working with children is flexibility.

When I began working with children I wanted to follow through with all that I had learned from college. One of these lessons was always having a plan in place for the day. To my younger self having a plan looked very different than it does now. I had always thought that writing lesson plans and committing my ideas to paper was the only way, unfortunately this commitment also lead to me becoming strict and rigid in my work. I had felt that when I wasn’t able to accomplish everything I had planned that I wasn’t being successful. This as many can imagine led to many unsuccessful days and nights wondering how I could do better. Finally after what felt like torturous failure I was reflective enough to realize that planning should only happen as a framework and not a curriculum.

Being open to working with children and youth, we need to realize that they too are the teachers, and that our job isn’t about telling, or giving, but building. I am in no way implying practitioners and counsellors not to have a plan, but instead suggesting that we look at the idea of planning to be a framework, a model that is adaptable to the light speed at which children develop. We are not the pilots of the child’s life, only a navigational consultant that suggests different courses. If they choose their own path, then we need to be flexible and adapt to what they need.

Devon Bonville-Wills
...

Hi everyone,

Coming fresh out of college with a Child and Youth Worker diploma (Ontario, Canada) into the field lent way to both challenges and "struggles to 'realize' " through various presenting employment opportunities. Via my experience back then, the CYW position was viewed as pioneering work engaging exciting avenues and valued by employers. Little did I realize there was a lack of professional recognition amongst other coworkers as I pursued pathways to help children and youth, families, and communities. There was some resistance and lack of understanding from some, while others jumped into teamwork mode and embraced new/alternative viewpoints, thoughts, and ideas. Being one who grew up on the value of working together, I had blind spots as to what was occuring until it was pointed out to me.

Reflectively, although my naivety and full-out passion drove me forward in promoting and being part of positive change, there is value in promoting, advocating, and helping others understand who we are. Interestingly, despite time passing, I have discovered that this professional challenge still exists in some workplaces. Yet, I have found using our 'voice' can bridge the gap and is twofold: communicative dialogue and child and youth care in action. And so we continue.....

Best to everyone on the journey,

Mary Anne
...

Hi guys,

I started my ‘career’ working in a night shelter for people with a problem with alcohol. The two staff members slept in a room with no lock down the corridor from the male and female dorms. I had no fear as I had nothing to compare it with and I ‘worked’ with the characters that used the shelter through listening to their stories, their songs and sometimes their rage. I just did things from a sense of compassion for people rejected by society and it evolved me into the qualified worker I later became by focussing on the human companionship and the sharing of stories. Despite all the teaching I have received about theories largely constructed by dead white men in essence it doesn’t get much more complicated than being there and being open to people.

Top tip for a happy and successful life in residential care; make sure the petty cash balances and don’t sleep with service users or colleagues.

Jeremy
...

Hi Guys,

I am sitting here smiling at Jeremy's contribution. It makes a lot of sense to me on very many levels. I fell into social care by accident. I was a long term unemployed and virtually uneducated abattoir butcher. In those days I would have said slaughterhouse butcher, but now that I am educated (and apparently middle class) I use words like abattoir!

Anyway, in those days very few people were qualified. We mostly made it up as we went along and did what felt right. Sometimes we got it right, and sometimes we didn't. I began to question my ability when I was presented with kids with very complex needs so I immersed myself in training/education and the professionalization project that was happening in Irish social care at the time. I felt certain that training was the only way to go, and that the kids deserved the best quality of service that we could provide. In hind sight, I was half right!

I sometimes avoided getting into issues with kids because I thought that I wasn't qualified to deal with whatever might come up. I thought that counselors and therapists were magical/mystical people and only they could provide real therapy. I kept a healthy distance from most conversations that were remotely intimate or emotional. Not being entirely happy with that situation, I eventually trained as a therapist.

I no longer work in residential child care, but I feel like the work is part of who I am (at least professionally). I now know that my opinion of counselors/therapists was utter nonsense and when I think about it, I kind of regret not having had the confidence to trust the relational process and just be with the kids in their vulnerability. I am certain that would have made me a better care worker and would have led to more positive outcomes for the kids.

The single most valuable skill that I have acquired in the last few years is learning how to let go of most of the academic knowledge that I have accumulated. It is kind of ironic that training and education has taught me that training and education are not the most important things in social care practice. If anything, it could be argued that I/we have spent the last 20 years or so going (at least partly) down the wrong road. In my opinion, the result is that in many respects we have re-institutionalized Irish social care in the name of professionalization.

In summary, I am with Jeremy and Thom. I would add, don't be seduced by knowledge, it will only inflate your ego. Stick to good old fashioned compassion or what the more courageous among us are daring to call 'love'. At the end of the day, it's all about human relationships.

With very best wishes from a very wet Ireland,
John Byrne
...

Hi all,

I started my residential child care life in 1994 as a houseparent in a local authority children's unit. I remember being very well intentioned and feeling powerless as the kids ran rings round me. I realised very early on that if you don't have a relationship with the people you work with you can't have any impact on their lives, positive or negative, so I began to explore ways of developing meaningful relationships.

This meant brushing up on football skills and knowledge, learning about all genres of music, and getting involved in anything that meant spending time with young people to built up their trust. As a basic grade worker I came in with my toolkit. This was made up of swimsuit, gym gear, pack of cards, dvds, cds, board games, colouring pencils etc. anything that we could do together.

It paid dividends, and still does, as young people remember you having fun with them. What I would say to any worker is have lots of patience and put the work in. These young people need time to suss us out and when they do the possibilities can be endless.

Ruby Whitelaw
... 

I am not so sure whether I would qualify for “being around for a while”…. But I can share some of my early and difficult learnings.

I starting working in 1996 as a probation officer. At that time the child and youth care system in SA was undergoing transformation (whatever the hell that means, because it still looks the same to me now) and the whole Circle of Courage movement was very “new” to us, especially where CYCW is not my primary profession.

 In those days I was very eager to learn about behaviour management, because essentially that was the biggest problem – managing the behaviour of kids. I tried to find as much info as I could, and I was very disappointed. Everywhere people seemed to be very vague about how exactly you “do” behaviour management. I met Jim Anglin on one of his visits to SA and spent some time chatting to him, and I just didn’t get it. Also had the privilege to talk to Jim Consedine on restorative justice on one of his visits – I had the same questions and got the same vague answers. Everyone was talking about relationships, and I was interested in the “skills”. I wanted the shortcuts.

 So it took me many, many years to learn that the relationship really is everything and that without deep connection you are lost in your work with children. It is a learning that I am sad to say escapes many practitioners in my field – in social work and in psychology. Sure, we talk about relationships and the importance of building rapport as a means to do the therapy, but most still don’t get it: the relationship IS the therapy… this has transformed the way I work with children. So much that I sometimes find myself referring child clients “back” to referring agencies and trying to explain to them that “therapy room” work is not going to be useful to a specific child, and that life space work really is their best – and only – option.

 This is a concept I find very hard to sell, sometimes for weird reasons. It is easy to “sell” the idea of therapy, because it is very specific and you can measure it – a session is 60 minutes in duration and I charge a specified rate for that time. But when I say to people “let me work with your child care staff to build an intervention strategy based on how they can connect with the child and how they can use the environment to make moments meaningful” it seems too vague for them to buy into. For me it is not vague, but I realise that there is a frame of reference missing (from many practitioners) when we talk about this way of working with children, so I guess we have a huge job to do in terms of educating social workers and psychologist about a child and youth care approach. And don’t get me wrong, it is not that I think social work or psychology is missing the mark, but I think a CYC approach completes the missing pieces of the puzzle. It provides a context for me against which I can measure my thinking when I engage with children.

So this is how one of my older challenges became a learning, that now presents me with new challenges.

Werner van der Westhuizen
South Africa
...

Hmmmmm, well here goes. What I want to say seems so simple and people think they get the concept but often they really haven't embraced it completely. When I finally did, it was liberating. Get ready now. "We are not responsible for the choices kids make." We can suggest, advise, plead, demand, even pray but in the end they will make their own choices based on a whole lot of factors we have no control over. And those choices do not reflect my skill as a YCW, how much I care, how powerful I am or how important I am. 

In fact, dare I say, it's not even my job to get them to make the "right" choice? It is my job to help them understand how they see themselves in the world, why they make the choices they do and the possibility for change. To be there for them when they succeed and when they fall,. To be there for them no matter what choices they have made. For many years I was a trainer in Non Violent Physical Crisis Intervention. When talking to new Youth Care Workers about how to avoid power struggles I would often say "We are not responsible for the choices kids make." and follow up with how liberating it was for me when I finally embraced this. 

People generally seemed somewhat bemused as the concept is so simple, "common sense" really. Yet we get angry and frustrated with kids when they don't make the choices we want them to. We talk about punitive interventions and how "they need to learn...". We stop hanging in and start insisting it's time for them to go somewhere else. We take away the things they love, "time them out", discharge them. All to teach them a lesson - make the choices we want you to. 

So that's my two cents. When I finally accepted that I am not responsible for the choices kids make I was able to stop focusing on my own needs and really be there for the kids I work with.

Kim Nicolau
...

 Hi all,
 
Of course Kim is technically correct. We are not responsible for the choices kids make. Students should be aware though, that this is essentially a cognitive behavioral approach to care. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just that not all workers (or services) operate from a cognitive behavioral perspective.
 
Making good choices in life is what mental health is all about. In order to make the right choices though, a person needs emotional and intellectual capacity, not to mention an ability to take responsibility for the consequence of their decisions. Unfortunately, (for lots of reasons) many of the kids we work with don't even come close to possessing any of these skills and abilities. It is our job to get them there.
 
Sometimes (not always) we do know better, because we're the adults with the experience, and that is the way it is. I am not suggesting that we should engage in punitive power struggles that are usually more to do with adult ego then child welfare. If my child, or the child I am caring for is about to make a bad choice and I know for certain that the outcome is not going to be good for him, I have no difficulty intervening and making the choice for him, as is age appropriate.  I don't see that as controlling or punitive, I see it as being a responsible adult.
 
I am slightly concerned that Kim's advice could lead to workers stepping back completely and giving all of the decision making power in life to the kids, whether or not they are able for it. Giving decision making power to children in any context is a gradual process. Sometimes it's a bit of a dance, but that's the work!
 
With best wishes,

John Byrne
Ireland
...

Thanks for raising those points John. I wouldn't want anyone, especially new YCWs, to assume I am suggesting we don't provide guidance and advice or have appropriate expectations and consequences for behaviour. Nor am I suggesting we shouldn't intervene in any way possible if a child is going to make a choice that will put him or her in danger. You are absolutely right, some kids have yet to develop the skills necessary to make good decisions.

 My suggestion is that kids will make choices despite all of our efforts that are not the choices we want them to make.When we accept that we are not responsible in the sense that it was not our lack of ability, lack of power or lack of caring that was the cause and that we will never be able to make someone do what they don't want to do (although we can certainly employ some useful strategies in this regard) we liberate ourselves to focus less on our own needs and focus more on the child's needs. Too often we are so completely focused on getting kids to do what we want them to do that we forget to ask questions like "What do they want?" "Why do they want it?" "What is the best choice for them?" "Do they know what their options are?" "Do they see themselves as capable of doing things differently?" "Why is it so important that they do what I want?" and I could go on and on. Thanks again for raising those points so that I have the opportunity to clarify that when I say we are not responsible for the choices kids make I am not saying we are not responsible for providing appropriate supervision, guidance and care.

Kim Nicolaou
...

Hi everyone,
 
Great sharing! I am enjoying reading everyone`s posts.
 
John, your post in relation to Kim's, raised memories and take away moments of working with children and youth, and the importance of walking alongside them in their life space. As a reflective practitioner, the lessons learned in shared experiences never ceases to amaze me. Both the practitioner and the child are on this ongoing journey we call life. It is where we all make choices, and yes, even "mistakes". These experiential choices, regardless of outcome, are where we learn and grow along the way.
 
As child and youth care practitioners, we make choices, interact, and reflect on our practice. Along the way we learn through all our challenges and successes and gain "practice wisdom". Stepping back can be part of healthy interaction as it may give us clarity from our own perceptions, judgements, and memories influencing how we interact and react to various circumstances. Yet, as John raised, stepping back too much can result in problems down the road. We want to find balance where authentic relational interactions support the development, learning, and growth of children and youth in our care. I find  engaging in the day-to-day and moment-to-moment experiences with children and youth can bring about the most impacting life lessons and "ah-ha" moments. I feel it is not about participating in the "doing" per se but in the "being". I feel in this manner we can be role models, learning partners, support systems and so forth, while also empowering children and youth in making meaningful healthy decisions in their lives.
  
As John put it, it is like a dance. And well...I for one love to dance, even when I don't know how to at any given moment. There is something motivational about being my own person in relationship with another. It`s both an invitation and an acceptance, where like a dance, each partnership is unique in  how they will "be". The movement itself becomes a beautiful expression of each person and our interaction as we dance together.
 
Thanks,
Mary Anne
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