CYC-Online 49 FEBRUARY 2003
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Child and youth care work in a school undergoing complex language and cultural adjustment in South Africa

Rosa Nightingale retired a couple of years back after nearly thirty years involvement in child and youth care in a 60-bed campus program in Durban, South Africa. It was a responsive program, pioneering systematic work with families (Nightingale, 1989), an ECD day program and, latterly, a residential nursery program for HIV/AIDS infected infants and orphans. All this experience hardly prepared her for the child and youth care challenges when she volunteered to help at an ordinary primary school on the urban-rural borders a few miles from the city. CYC-ONLINE interviewed her this week.

Child and youth care workers are not common in South African schools. What was behind your move into this area of work?
The new dispensation in South Africa introduced radical changes to the education system whereby all children have a right to attend all schools. This has meant a redistribution of teachers and (the beginning of) fairer distribution of resources. In many cases the consequences have been difficult to predict. It was anticipated, for example, that there would be classes with an average of 50 pupils each, but in many areas the schools simply couldn’t accommodate the large numbers; in others there were immediate worries relating to issues such as language and cultural differences.

Our school is on the perimeter between a largely white dormitory suburb and a poor, black rural area. Overnight the student body was 40% Zulu-speaking, only 5% of whom could afford to pay school fees. The school is thus in a process of fundamental change, with high levels of challenge and anxiety – a fertile field for child and youth care intervention!

What sort of tasks were presented by this integration?
The former black schools were small and scattered and without adequate ECD resources and this shows up in schoolwork. The circumstances of these children remain difficult – it’s hard to get to school, the children have seldom had a good breakfast, there are many homes with absent parents who stay nearer to larger cities because of their work, the children thus have less adult supervision at home and are left very much to themselves ... so they experience less communication, fewer boundaries, social skills ...

Teachers are on overload?
This is common in South African schools with their larger classes and often stressed kids. (There is a high unemployment rate, high crime rate, high drug use, and these factors complicate classroom management, let alone teaching.) Teachers are often tempted to fall back on their basic teaching job descriptions ...

Ironically, this has helped in the introduction of a child and youth care position in the school. Teachers easily recognise students who are in difficulties or those who are disruptive or troublesome beyond normal school child levels. They will thus refer kids to me as “needing care" – or needing a talk or time-out or control.

The presence of a different kind of professional on the team helps teachers to expand their way of seeing “difficult” pupils. The old habit of “sending a pupil to the principal” implied an authority or punishment solution. Now teachers are able to see kids as “vulnerable or unhappy" instead of “sulky or uncooperative" – and bring them along to me.

What facilities do you have at your disposal?
Basically I have a classroom and I have the run of the school grounds. Before morning classes start there are usually a group in my room, just to say hello, play some music or maybe for a hug or some encouragement at the start of a tough day. During classes I am able to see one or two at a time, and be available for time-outs or the odd crises. This way I see 20, 25 kids one-on-one every day.

I make the room cheerful looking so that it says “Welcome" but without being a free-for-all. After school hours it can again be a group place for a while, and I have been amazed at how many kids look for a “home" experience which they are missing at their own homes – both white and black, rich and poor. It’s easy to recognise the kids who have “nobody at home".

How do the children view you?
For starters, they never heard of a child and youth care worker, and I must have a clear idea for myself of who and what I am, to get this through to the children. They start, of course, by seeing me as a teacher, and then as a social worker or therapist ... and slowly my role is being understood. One young black boy sidled up to me and asked quietly: “Must we pay to see you?"

My experience is that I am being seen as an available and responsive adult, and many children are looking for just that in their lives. They like to be noticed and greeted, they like to show somebody what they have done in school, they like someone to watch their game or listen to their song. They need to be accepted and understood by an adult.

Some have a desperate need to be nurtured and loved. The number who come just to be touched and hugged is an indication of how many, particularly the rural kids, have nobody at home. One child is eating an awkwardly made sandwich. I ask: “Who made your lunch for you?" “My brother," she replies “her brother is in Grade 3. Another sees me eating a sandwich for my own lunch. He comes nearer and is watching the sandwich, not me. One is aware of the possibility of embarrassing or shaming a child, but I ask “Did you have something for lunch?" He shakes his head slowly. I break my sandwich in half and hand him a piece, which he receives hesitantly in his two hands.

What do you think is your child and youth care influence?
I think my main task is to keep people moving along. When they are sent to my room as a time-out I must aim to get them back into class. Often I can draw the sting from a situation, for example, where a child has done something wrong and the teacher (or another child) is angry. I can lead the child away from a situation which might get ugly, rather than just saying “Stop that!" and move him through a process where he can rejoin the group in a while. One has to avoid being seen as a “shelter" from responsibility, and it is quite possible to hold young people accountable and yet keep a light touch. You can do wonders with a wink, I always think. I was pleased with a boy who could arrive in my room the other day and admit “I did something stupid this morning."

I have become aware of new skills which I need. For example, mediation, grief counselling, and physical handling of potentially violent situations. I am quite challenged by the complexities in some families, for example, the simultaneous expression of mourning and anger ...

I have learned a lot about body language and gestures when I don’t have the language to be helpful. I can “say" come and sit, straighten their hair, show that I am watching, smile encouragement.

The future?
In the rural areas, and with direct reference to issues like HIV/AIDS and migrant labour, there is the growing phenomenon of missing adults in young people’s lives. AIDS is a shadowy reality for many ... the children will say that their mother is coughing, they went to a funeral on the weekend, an aunt is looking after them ... Without adults, children are afraid, defensive, easily provoked to violent reactions. We see this at our school. I feel the need to optimise the presence of whatever adults there are. A school could be a helpful centre of support and learning, but we haven’t succeeded yet in bringing parents and other adults together. We are thinking of trying a Saturday morning ...

I am aware of nutrition and health problems which have a direct bearing on success in education, and we need some basic competence in this area. We need to keep our school as a strength in the lives of children and families, not a reducing resource. With our reduced ability to raise fees, we’re in danger of seeing the school declining “school sport gets edged out of the timetable when the busier teachers have less free time, and when we have no way of visiting another school for a match. I would love some educational games, some books. I also need some new ideas for working with groups up to Grade 8 level, for that way we can reach more children. And what would be very special is a volunteer who speaks Zulu – we would make quite a team!

The other day at the supermarket one of our little Grade 1 Zulu girls came up to me and introduced me to her grandmother. “Who is this?" asked the grandmother. “Is this one of your teachers?" “Not really," whispered the girl. “Is this the school psychologist?" The little girl again hesitated. “Well who is it?" asked Grandma. The girl thought for a while, then replied: “I think she’s an angel."

Well, that’s a nice new rank for child and youth care workers!


Nightingale, E. (1989) The development of a short term family service model, The Child and Youth Care Administrator, Vol.2 No.2, pp.22-32)

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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