“Child and youth care programs – particularly the residential ones – are constantly encouraged to adopt a developmental approach. What does 'developmental' mean in our context?”
There are probably three senses in which this word is used in relation to child and youth care.
One, that our interventions
take into account and are paced by what we know of human development;
Two that our interventions themselves have a "life span" along which they must grow and move; and
Three, that what we learn about "problems" and "solutions" as we work with individual children, youth and families, must be reinvested in the development of communities and societies so that we move beyond a repeating or "revolving door" clientele.
If you don’t mind, we should probably deal with these over three articles. We will begin this month with the first:
1. Our care work and our interventions need to be developmentally appropriate and paced by developmental timetables.
In simple terms, this means that we should have a developmental map of where children and young people generally are at various ages, and then a good assessment of where particular youngsters are – physically, intellectually, emotionally – on this map, so that we are aware of where they fit in with the norms for their age group.
Of course, all children develop at their own rates, and they also develop at different rates physically, intellectually and emotionally, so there is always wide latitude when we consider what we call "norms". Young people coming into care or treatment programs often show developmental "lags" in relation to age group norms. Our job is to start where they are, not expecting them to be ahead of their current capability, nor confirming their "behindness", but aiming for them to catch up with developmentally adequate function as soon as possible.
Often children get "stuck" in their development, and their "stuckness" is preoccupying and immobilising for them. Through neglect, unsatisfactory nutrition and poor health, these children will be physically under-developed. Similarly, impoverished and unstimulating environments, and frequent moves or irregular schooling, will see them cognitively, verbally slower. Most seriously, anxiety, abuse and maltreatment will leave the children in immature, often infantile, emotional positions. It is quite a tight-rope walk for us, the adults in their present environment, to meet these children where they are at these various developmental stages, to loosen the knots, and to start walking forward with them.
This is always an intensive stage of our work, affirming current status, encouraging effort and risks, rewarding small gains, so that tomorrow the youngsters can be a little ahead of where they are today. We find, for example, that an improved sense of physical well-being can provide the energy for greater emotional comfort and resilience, and this in turn permits easier interpersonal engagement, which with improved verbal stimulation and activity levels, promotes intellectual mastery ... and so on. Child and youth care workers have an acute sense of these developmental paths of a child or youth, of what is possible and where next to lead and encourage, in this "three-legged race".
Use of the so-called strengths approach is central in this developmental work. It is critical that we can ascertain where growth is being made and how far the child has come (e.g. physical, intellectual, emotional “and of course there may be other continua we may want to use) so that we know which aspects of development can "take the strain" as we move one or other continuum forward. The growth must be real and organic, and we mustn’t mind how "lop-sided" it looks as we try to restore the balance. Essentially we are aiming at a stage when all developmental aspects approach the age norms for this young person so that he or she is able to manage reasonably well. From this point, their developmental course can resume.
Children, when they regain faith in their environment and belief in themselves, have a natural tendency to want to take up the reins of their lives for themselves. But getting them to this stage often takes a long time, with enormous patience, and skill at planning and teaching the daily curriculum of developmental detail. It is only when we bring the chronological ten-year-old within reach of “normal” ten-year-old competencies, that we can have expectations of ten-year-old behaviour “and within our programs we make allowance for trial and error as the youngster "gets it".
To be realistic, we may be working with a fourteen-year-old, knowing that he or she will be sixteen before a workable equilibrium is restored.
Also, in my experience, we must be prepared for both the disappointments and the miracles. We cannot expect too easily to eliminate fourteen years of hurt and mistrust; this can take a lot of shoring up as we encourage the youth to "try" this or "risk" that – especially when the developmental express train is careering along beside them. The dice at the school’s grade eight party are heavily loaded and we will be up against the odds when we help with the party frock and the make-up during the afternoon. The cards are stacked against us when the under-fifteen team selection is under way, but we have to make these "reality tests" from time (or protect youngsters from them when necessary: "Let’s work towards the under-sixteen team next year.")
And the miracles are just as likely. Firstly, when they find themselves in a nurturing, responsive and rational environment, many children make rapid progress. But when this environment is personalised through the presence and attention of a steady and encouraging adult, advances can be far more dramatic.
Two more things.
One, when we try short cuts, for example by demanding, by sanction and threat, the behaviours and attitudes we think we want, we must expect our progress to be superficial and brittle. Making up for the damaging experiences and deprivations of troubled kids can usually only be done the hard way. Building a youngster’s secure sense of self and "controls from within" must be done layer by patient layer. And yet when we do it this way, avoiding the dangers of conflict and failure, it is often surprising how quickly we see the child making progress.
Two, there is an urgency to this developmental "catching up". When a child is young, some developmental lags can seem less important – but other aspects of development are marching on inexorably. "She is only a child," we may say, forgetting that physical maturity will soon be around. While children are physically smaller we delay facing the developmental work because we can still "manage" them, avoiding the fact that an emotionally unstable and impulsive youngster in the body of a seventeen-year-old can be lethal. We are over indulgent with teens not realising that they will soon – sooner usually than kids living with their own families in better-off circumstances – have to face the realities of supporting themselves. Most seriously, because we are child and youth care people, we are often familiar with developmental theory up to an including adolescence – while the youngsters we work with will very shortly be facing the demands of young adulthood, the stage of risking who they are as they make commitments to other people, to their work, to wider causes.
Remember that the clearest "finishing line" in child and youth care work is the stage of young adulthood. That’s when all our work is really put to the test.