I was attending a meeting in Montreal during the International Child and Youth Care Conference in October and the Chair, Carol Stuart, asked the group “What do you think is the most important skill that Child and Youth Care practitioners should possess?”
My response was the title of this article. I then became curious about why this was my answer. It has a great deal to do with my own strengths and personality traits. I also believe that your ability to ask good questions is connected to your professional development stage. I have previously described a three stage model of Child and Youth Care development where Stage 1 is the Competent Care Giver stage. I would like to develop some ideas about the curiosity that appears in this stage. I will describe the curiosity focus of the other stages in subsequent articles.
The new worker struggles with being safe and then creating safety for others, establishing external controls as needed, and developing an adult persona with youth and families. New workers struggle with creating interactions that don’t look too clumsy or foolish, while also trying to be helpful and professional. Often there is a felt sense of tension as the new worker interacts with people whom he is starting to refer to as “clients” (a term that will hopefully be discarded as the worker matures in his ability to have relationships). Typically, any potentially tense connection will create anxiety, and the new worker’s fight/flight response is very close to the surface. So, useful curiosity at this stage, when entering a family’s home or attempting to control a youth or group of youth, will be “What am I feeling threatened about?” and “Am I having a fight or flight reaction right now?” Follow up questions like “How can I feel safer” or “What needs to happen to make me more comfortable” are important.
The development of a Competent Care Giver is a developmental process that takes 12-18 months, and the worker’s questions are many.
As a new member of the Child and Youth Care team, some helpful questions are:
Do I expect my co-workers to protect me? For how long?
Are there some team members that I feel safer around? Why?
What skills do I admire most in my team members?
Why do I use punishments?
How much external control is the right amount?
Some emotional curiosities:
Do I feel angry easily here at work?
Do I feel confused often?
Am I ignoring certain behaviors or people to avoid responding?
Do I feel safe around my supervisor?
Am I pretending to be more adult-like than I feel?
Do I feel abandoned by my co-workers at times?
Power dynamics become important because the new worker needs to shift from being overwhelmed to feeling in control, but new workers can easily get lured into foolish power struggles too.
Do I feel powerless in some situations here? How do I deal with this?
Am I inclined to use punishment and threats when I am anxious?
How can I feel more in charge without being bossy?
Do I engage in power struggles with the youth or families?
Who intimidates me?
How can I control things better?
Where are my boundaries? Can I say “No” without feeling anxious?
Do I expect to be able to handle every situation?
Being safe and making it safe for others is a high priority and so external control techniques and an adult presence are a useful focus. There can be too much emphasis on catching people doing things, or being excessively bossy. Chores, homework, curfews and other required behaviors can become the central focus for the new worker and this is useful to a point, because one needs to run the program smoothly, but it should be background, not foreground in the daily experience.
Some useful curiosities include:
Am I doing things with people or doing things to them? (e.g. Do I stand back and supervise chores or do I join in and assist? Do I expect the family to treat me like a guest, or do I pitch in and help?)
When things are quiet, do I sit back and wait for the next time I need to “run the program” or do I see these times as opportunities to connect with people?
Do I use recreational activities as a daily tool to assist me to connect with people?
Do I expect to reward compliant behavior with fun, or do I expect that fun is part of the program for everyone?
Can I make some of the jobs needing to be done (homework, cleaning up, eating) more enjoyable and fun?
Do I plan enjoyable interactions with each youth/family I am working with?
Once things are under control, do I have an agenda?
New workers mistakenly believe that they should immediately be having intense, problem-focused discussions and relationships with people. This creates an unsafe environment for everyone involved and should be avoided. Safe relationships for the new worker can focus on having enjoyable interactions like play or mutual interest discussions, or doing helpful things like finding resources or coaching people in social skill development. Individual connections and therapeutic conversations are more useful after further professional development.
Useful curiosities about relationships can be:
What are my natural reactions to the youths/families I am working with? Do I like or dislike some more than others? Are some less interesting than others?
Why do some people avoid me? Do they fear trusting others?
Why do some people cling and seem so needy? Do they really trust me?
How can I be helpful but keep myself safe?
Do I refer to the people I am working with as clients? Does it help me feel safer and a bit different than them?
Am I “acting like” a professional? When will this feel more natural?
Do I know about attachment dynamics? Separation and loss stages?
Do I need people to like me?
Establishing yourself as an adult can be a challenge for the new worker. Younger workers may have never labeled themselves as adults or parental figures, and this new identity is something they have not prepared for.
Do I dress, talk, and behave like an adult?
Do I look and feel like an adult to the youth/family?
Am I comfortable being seen as an adult authority figure?
What else do I need to do to establish myself as an adult?
The experience of struggling with these questions is a major part of the developmental process that creates the successful emergence of a Competent Care Giver. By the end of a new worker’s first year the curiosities deepen.
After many months, or even a year, curiosity about safety shifts focus.
Is my emotional intensity more manageable, after 3 months, 6 months, a year?
Am I less reactive, less inclined to engage in power struggles or avoidance?
Do I come to work feeling nervous or has it changed to something else?
Do I feel like a full member of the team?
Does the work satisfy me?
The competent care giver wonders:
Are the youths' behaviors becoming more humorous than alarming?
Am I beginning to anticipate behavior accurately?
Has my confidence overcome my apprehension (after 8-12 months)
Now that I’ve gotten everyone organized, what’s next?
This is the point at which the Child and Youth Care practitioner starts to develop the skills and attitudes that characterize a true professional. The next stage of development, described as the Treatment Planner and Change Agent, has a very different set of curiosities. These will be discussed in the next installment.