So, here is what I think – you are either there to do it, or you are not.
I have been visiting programs over the past few months – programs scattered here and there throughout the country – and I have come to the conclusion that only about half of the staff are really “doing it” – Child and Youth Care that is. The other half are just sitting around, waiting for the sun to set or something, not (sometimes) even noticing the kids.
A few months ago, I was visiting a large residential centre and while the staff were in the office, looking up methods for wrapping presents on the internet, a group of kids were beating on one of the boys in the kitchen. Another time I was in a kitchen when one of the boys slipped a knife into his pocket; the staff were in the living room chatting about the new contract.
Three kids took off from the school program while a staff was making a personal shopping list; a young girl was abused while the staff was talking to a friend about the coming weekend; a young boy smoked up on the porch while a staff sat at a desk drawing illustrations of a new machine he wanted to buy; two kids bullied another while a staff was busy with personal homework. Too many times to count I observed as a group of kids entertained themselves with inappropriate TV or nonsense, while the staff sat off in the corner staring into space.
Not unusual. Unfortunately for the kids.
And yes, there were lots of times when I saw staff playing street hockey with the group, or building a tower out of sticks and rocks, or preparing for a spring camping trip. I loved those moments.
It was the others that annoyed me.
Effective Child and Youth Care practice, wherever you are, begins with engagement and connection. Change occurs because someone does something. Growth occurs when young people are engaged with those who help them find a new way.
If telling young people what to do, how to act, and then waiting for them to change really worked, then there would be no struggling kids in group care programs, schools, and other “places of helping”. If telling them what to do, and then waiting for them to do it (punishing them when they were doing something else) worked, then they would have changed long ago.
Doing care, especially Child and Youth Care, requires getting off the seat and engaging with the young people for whom we are responsible.
Okay, okay. Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but really, it annoys me to see time being wasted, opportunities missed, and children not being helped. They come into care because someone, somewhere, has not done that which would have been helpful to them. They come into care in the hope that this time it will be different; that the staff responsible for their care will engage with them and help them move to a new way of being in the world. But if no one does anything different, then nothing will change.
So, we have to ask, “how is it that this happens?” “How is it that (some) staff are able to simply sit around, watching, doing little except reacting, while the children wait for help?”
Personally, I think there are two reasons:
First, there is the issue of knowing what is expected, or effective. When we hire people who do not “know better”, we cannot expect them to do better, can we? And when we hire staff who do not know that the role of an effective CYCW involves engaging, doing, and actively being with young people to help them learn new ways of acting in the world, then we cannot expect the staff to understand that it is important. And then, I would argue, the responsibility for changing this falls to the organization. Shall I shout it out? “Training, training, training!” And, of course, support, knowledge and education as needed and appropriate.
Number two on my list is effective supervision.
Now, as we all know, supervision can (and should) help a worker enhance their effectiveness with young people. Through a process of reflection and learning, a worker considers alternative approaches, debriefs their own experiencing, and is able to develop a more effective position in their work. And this is good. But there is also a part of supervision that some people, because of their framework, think of as “management” which involves ensuring that workers are actually doing something, hopefully something effective and meaningful, with the young people.
I was with a couple of supervisors a few months back, in a program in a large city, and as we were sitting in the dining area, I noticed that the staff on duty were sitting around talking and laughing, while the youth were entertaining themselves with meaningless activities. I asked the supervisors why the staff were just sitting there, not engaged with the young people and one of them replied “we have told them they are supposed to be doing things with the kids, but they don’t change.”
“So,” I asked, “this seems like a good time to intervene with the staff. Why not wander over and quietly tell them to go get engaged with the kids?”
“Oh, they will say it is not their job and get all upset. They say their job is to observe and keep the kids safe,” the other supervisor replied. “Whenever we tell them to do something, they get angry and it becomes hard to work with them. And they say that when they try to do things with the kids, the kids get all upset and tell them they don’t want them around anyway.”
And I thought, “what an interesting parallel this is”. The staff appear afraid to engage the kids, because of how they will react and the supervisors appear afraid to engage the staff for the same reason”. I wonder which came first. And I am thinking that in “modeling avoidance” supervisors like this are teaching staff to practice avoidance. After all, the staff were not doing what was expected of them, and there we were, myself and the supervisors, modeling exactly what the staff were doing; sitting around talking and not engaging with those who we should be helping.
If supervisors are not prepared to make expectations clear, and supervise staff to meet those expectations, how can we expect staff to act differently?
Now I am not, in the end, saying that if the staff are not engaging with the young people that it is all the fault of the supervisor. After all, even in the programs where I have seen supervisors doing nothing helpful, I have seen other staff practicing fine Child and Youth Care work. So, obviously it is not all about the supervisors. There is enough responsibility for everyone.
So, there you have it.
If you do nothing, nothing changes.
If you do the same thing as before, expect the same result.
People learn what they experience.
Cliches? Yes. And perhaps relevant.