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62 MARCH 2004
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student paper

Holistic approach

Janet Newbury

I believe that these four ideas can be summed up into one word: positive. Henry Maier claims that optimism should be considered a form of intervention. This I truly believe. I have been formally studying Child and Youth Care for little over two months now, and am already a firm believer in the value of this approach. Having worked with youth in different contexts and different cultures, and I feel that the most effect I have had has been in simply conducting myself in a positive way and encouraging others to do the same.

The reason I am so enamored with the Child and Youth Care approach is its holistic nature. To recognize the connections between childhood attachments and self-esteem, behavior, reactions to separation, and more, is simply one example. The power of relationships is another. Relationships with people are certainly the most important aspect of my life. The amount that can be accomplished simply by developing healthy, positive relationships is overwhelming. Now, to have discovered a field for which the development of relationships is a priority is extremely inspiring.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear Gerry Fewster speak at a conference last month. He carried the holistic approach of Child and Youth Care to another level. He drew a very direct link between the body and the mind. Physical well-being is a priority for me, and I believe that if we are to truly embrace the Child and Youth Care approach, then we must acknowledge this connection. This means, for instance, recognizing the ill-effects of preservative-laden, sugar- and caffeine-filled foods on mental health. Gerry Fewster presented a strong argument against pathologizing children's behavior, by suggesting that conditions such as ADHD are manufactured by our culture “pharmaceutical companies to be specific. He suggested that being more in touch with our physical selves could possibly offer solutions to the symptoms which characterize ADHD youth. I'll come back to this later.

Acknowledging the link between physical and mental health, however, does not only mean recognizing the negative effects. We can also use it to our advantage. If we could emphasize physical well-being, and encourage people to see the links in their own bodies between this and mental health, we could use this in our work in empowering people to take control of their own lives. I know for a fact that if only I can force myself out the door to go for a run each day, the positive implications are numerous – I become healthier, my mind clears, I become more energetic for the rest of the day, I am less inclined to eat food that is not nutritious, I feel more fit. And each of these things impacts everything else – more energy means I am more inclined to work harder both at my job and at school (which in turn leads to more money and better grades respectively), eating healthier food and becoming healthier means I will probably look better and may have a more positive self-concept (which in turn help me in terms of interacting with people with more confidence, and therefore getting more positive responses from people). My purpose in this tangent is to illustrate the fact that it is absolutely impractical (and for myself, impossible) to look at any one aspect of our lives in isolation. By adapting a holistic approach to life in general, and to our work in particular, we can recognize the importance of everything we do. This will not only encourage us to make wiser choices, but will hopefully enable us to regain a sense of control in our lives and become accountable for all of our actions.

That said, I think we as Child and Youth Care workers can go a lot farther than we have in developing this holistic approach. So far I have learned the importance of relationships in our line of work. I have learned the importance of context. I have learned the importance of environment and procedures. I have learned the value of knowledge, skills, and self. However, in my opinion something that has largely been left out of reflection on all of these concepts is the fact that every single one of them is shaped by our culture.

We have to recognize the fact that none of our preconceived notions are simply common sense. And for the most part, none of them came purely from within ourselves. In order to be able to judge the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) in what we do, we must be able to recognize the impact our culture has on the decisions we make – big and small. Living in a society in which media – television, internet, newspapers, radio – is the number one source of information, we have to acknowledge that not only is the information we receive coming from subjective sources with agendas of their own, but there is also a lot of information that simply is not being transmitted to us. I think we are all guilty of assuming from time to time that the way we do things is “normal”. We are all guilty of passively accepting the way things are: perhaps because of this assumption rather than recognizing that there are alternatives. In his documentary “Manufacturing Consent" Noam Chomsky emphasizes the fact that we are all subject to a certain amount of propaganda which influences much of what we do, and that it is our responsibility not to fall victim to it. I recently read an opinion article in the Globe and Mail that directly addressed this issue in terms of the education system in Canada. As school boards amalgamate and power is taken farther and farther away from the individual, people are viewed more as parts of a working system and less as individuals with unique needs. We are repeatedly encouraged to accept that by giving up our personal needs we are contributing to a greater good: a more smoothly working system.

Working in this field, it is of extreme importance that we question these notions with every essence of our being. Let’s now get back to the concept of ADHD. Much of the research behind this comes from pharmaceutical companies, who obviously reap great benefits every time a child is diagnosed. While reading discussion threads on CYC-net, I get the impression that this concept has not been challenged – or even explored – by most of the people working with these youth. By passively accepting labels and agreeing to work within them, we may be limiting youth substantially. If we go back to the discussion on physical health: would it not be logical to assume that much of what we consume actually contributes to hyperactive behavior? Rather than accepting the fact that schools receive sponsorship from cola companies, shouldn’t we make efforts to take more preventative (as opposed to reactive) measures to dealing with hyperactive behavior? In my opinion, a holistic approach to Child and Youth Care work absolutely requires drawing such connections between relationships, physical health, and culture.

With a holistic approach, the answers are often right under our noses. If we are already aware of connections and consequences, then finding solutions will likely become a much simpler process. Rather than segregating all aspects of our being and seeing specialists for each and every one of them, we will be more inclined to recognize links and avoid problems before they occur. At present, however, our culture makes this type of exploration quite a challenge.

While living in Japan, I learned a lot about Japanese culture and about my own Canadian culture. I recognized things as culturally-specific that I had once assumed were universal. By the time I left, I felt extremely culturally aware and thought I had gained a fairly complete understanding of what it is in my culture that sets me apart.

About a year later, however, I moved to Jamaica and discovered that I was a far cry from self-aware, culturally speaking. Suddenly, because the Japanese and Jamaican culture are so vastly different from one another, completely new aspects of myself were being called into question. I began to learn about even more aspects of my own culture as I went about comparing and contrasting it to my new environment. I now realize that while I am working towards developing an understanding of myself, I am nowhere near the end of the road. I know that the media, popular culture, traditions, and customs I have grown with here in Canada have impacted the way I see the world, and continue to do so.

Not only have they impacted who I am as an individual, but they also influence how we deal with each other as members of a shared culture. While studying developmental levels in class, my mind constantly drifted back to my experience working with teenaged girls in Kingston, Jamaica. These thirteen to seventeen year olds were living lives full of adult responsibilities. They also exhibited no behavioral problems in my presence. According to our studies of developmental levels and attachment disorder, these girls would have been prime candidates for some serious behavioral issues. They were all young mothers, all separated from their families (if they had families at all). Many of them had experienced sexual and physical abuse, they performed at very low academic levels, and they were removed from their hometowns and support groups – not to mention the fact that they were all living far below the poverty line. That said, they were extremely responsible when it came to duties and chores, they were all extremely respectful of me and other “authority figures”, they took great pride in their babies and helped each other care for them, they had plenty of domestic skills, and they were not aggressive or immature. Very little of what I studied regarding development and attachment applied to them. When exploring why, I can only come up with one answer: culture. In our Canadian culture, children are quite sheltered. They have the luxury of being able to take health care and education for granted, and are generally protected at least until the age of sixteen. There are a number of social safety nets that, although not foolproof, they can generally fall back on if it comes down to it. In addition, the amount of responsibility put on youth in our culture rarely extends beyond themselves – and even their responsibility to themselves is limited.

In working with children and youth (whether those of our own culture or not) it is necessary for us to realize that everything we do and every situation we are faced with is certainly shaped by our culture. While all systems have pros and cons, this awareness will hopefully remind us that there are indeed other ways to do things and in fact, things are being done in other ways elsewhere as we speak. This will allow us to think outside the box when it comes to problem-solving in our line of work.

It is crucial, then, for us to do all that is in our power to become culturally aware. This does not only mean learning about other ways of life, but it means learning the peculiarities of our own. If we believe that a holistic approach to Child and Youth Care is the only way to go, then I believe it is negligent of us to avoid this issue. Being aware of the impact of political and economic agendas on every aspect of life in our culture – including Child and Youth Care – will encourage us to challenge those powers, and will enable us to continue to work towards our goals in a positive way: being client-centered, solution-focused, strength-oriented, and particularly anti-oppressive.

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