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38 MARCH 2002
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Practice excellence

Brian Gannon

Whatever other plans you may make this week, include these basic skills of keeping in close touch with the children and youth in your programme.

Practice excellence. The phrase seems to imply the work of super-professionals, far removed from us ordinary Child and Youth Care workers who find ourselves in ordinary and often in modest circumstances with youngsters who have messed up. “When I get to the end of a day with my group of kids,” says one worker, “how hard it is to look back and see what I did as 'practice excellence'!"

Probably we are being too hard on ourselves when we think like this. Nobody expects a place of hurting, anxious and unconfident kids to look peaceful and organised. In fact, one of the qualities of good child care workers is the ability to think on their feet, to figure out the situation in their group moment by moment, and to act in response to this kid's needs now. Such work will always look somewhat fragmented and spontaneous.

Go on, ask!
What makes for practice excellence is when these “surface phenomena" – the ripples and waves and storms of our work – are grounded upon a strong undercurrent of attitudes and knowledge which keep us facing at least roughly in the right direction. As you plan your week, check out the following questions and how the kids you work with might answer them. They are simple and profound. And they have a lot to do with practice excellence.

Do I convey welcome? Am I pleased to see you? The needy and grasping child often draws out exactly the opposite feeling from us, and so will go on being needy and anxious, and tomorrow will need even more from us. Instead of keeping people at arms length, or even intimidating them with my “don’t cross this line" message, do I give the gift of welcome, inclusion, belonging, so that youth feel comfortable with me?

Do I try to keep you functioning? Instead of labelling you as “dysfunctional", or making excuses for your non-functioning – or simply grounding you so that you cannot function – do I show you that there's a way back up from where you are, do I show you possibilities for the next step, encourage you to try again – get you past the hurdle that I know is hard for you so that you can get going again? And then rejoice with you when you find once more that you are making it on your own?

Do I help you maintain your balance between skills and responsibility? When you don’t manage, instead of criticising do I take the trouble to show you how and teach you how? And when you have learned how, do I give you a shot at trying it for yourself?

Do I expect what is on my agenda rather than what is on yours? Do I, however subtly, lead you towards what I want for you rather than what you want for yourself? Do I really respect you for who you are and what you are becoming, or is this a ploy to co-opt you or convince you that “my way is best?" Am I giving you space to become what you are becoming?

Do I acknowledge your growth and change? Do I secretly keep you categorised as “troubled", incapable, antisocial – or do I notice and acknowledge your movement towards your own greater maturity and competence? Do I recognise your changing status from struggling to coping, your changing role from helpee to helper, and your growth from child to adolescent to young adult? Do I prefer to notice your strengths – and in particular watch out for new and emerging strengths?

Do I model for you good values? Do I simply demand from you acceptable behaviour, or do my actions towards you reflect respect and encouragement? Do my actions match my words, so that I model integrity and honesty? Which of my attitudes and styles (do I really want to know this!) might you act out in your relationships with others in your life?

Do I, in my dealings with you, offer what you would expect from an ordinary loving parent? Do I give you the feeling that, no matter what, you are loved and significant and of worth? Urie Bronfenbrenner suggested that every child needs at least one adult who offers irrational love – “who is crazy about you" – so that you don't walk an anxious tightrope all the time fearing that one mistake will equal rejection.

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