CYC-Online 98 MARCH 2007
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Some characteristics of a Child and Youth Care approach as they apply to Life Space Supervision

Jacqui Michael

Garfat (2004) has identified characteristics which reflect a contemporary approach to Child and Youth Care practice; characteristics which are also relevant for a Child and Youth Care approach to life space supervision.

The use of daily life events as a focus for supervision
Ainsworth and Fulcher (1985) highlight the fact that the group care practitioner uses the natural opportunities provided by daily life events as the focus for interventions with children. This applies equally to life-space supervision as it provides a far more natural environment in which to observe the worker and gives focus to understanding the worker’s actions. The life-space supervisor would use the natural opportunities provided by being with the worker in their work environment as the focus for intervening with the worker. By using the daily life events of the worker, the supervisor can assess the worker’s level of functioning, growth and developmental areas, because she will have seen the worker in the context of the child's world. In formal office supervision, the supervisor must depend on what the supervisee tells her about the actual intervention rather than being able to see for herself what the worker did in any given situation.

Life-space supervision can help the worker, for example, by offering support and giving feedback on how she is interacting with the children, what the dynamics in the rest of the group are at the time, how the child is reacting to her, her body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and her verbal response.. For example, an interaction with a child will take on a different meaning and have different influences if it happens in the dining room with other staff and children around where possibly the child is hungry and the worker is trying to relate to more than one child, as opposed to the worker relating to the child in his room after the meal. An inexperienced worker may try to intervene with a child in an environment not conducive to growth and change and must learn to alter this environment both physically and emotionally so that the child will be able to experience the situation therapeutically. With life space supervision feedback is immediate and new learning occurs in the situation in which it is necessary.

Garfat (2003: p.5) emphasizes that a relational approach is “”.the presence of the necessary clarity, boundaries and relationship-based expectations that provide containment while promoting empowerment and growth.” This is exactly what we are trying to achieve in life-space supervision. By being there, in the environment, and using daily life activities, the supervisor finds the opportunities to help the worker develop, just as the Child and Youth Care worker in the environment finds parallel opportunities to help the child developmentally. The supervisor needs to provide a safe, containing environment for the Child and Youth Care worker to function, explore, discover herself and make changes to her interventions and the environment if necessary. The supervisor needs to see the worker “in action” to be able to assess whether or not her interventions are appropriate and in fact addressing the needs of the children and youth. The supervisor will gain an insight into the supervisee in the life-space that she will not be able to gain from office supervision. She will be able to take into account what is happening around the worker, what the actual situation is, other influences in the environment, the behaviour of other children in the setting, the worker’s level of awareness and ability to adapt to the environment and the intervention needed.

Life-space supervision is an excellent opportunity for workers to learn in the “here and now.” This means that they can immediately transfer learning to similar situations. It happens “in the moment” and in the workspace of the worker. The fact that the worker can be observed and supported as she is doing her work makes this kind of supervision appropriate to the profession.

Developmentally appropriate interventions
The supervisor’s intervention must be appropriate to the level of development of the worker. Phelan (n.d.) discusses three stages of development of workers. In the first stage he says that the basic dynamic which drives this stage is the issue of safety. This level lasts for 12-18 months and during this time, the worker will probably feel quite anxious, unsafe, overwhelmed and outside of her personal comfort zone. The worker’s task in this stage is to connect with the children. In this stage, the supervisor’s task is to connect with the worker and start building a relationship of trust. The supervisor can also model different ways of connecting so that the worker can be exposed to different styles of engaging with children.

As the worker would use rules and routines to control children, so too would the supervisor need to share the rules and routines concerning the organization with the worker at this stage as this will give her a feeling of safety. The supervisor would be more evident in the worker’s life-space at this stage and be modelling interventions, perhaps having role played them with the worker prior to her intervening with the children. There would be a clearly defined structure to the supervisor being on the floor with the worker at this stage. In this initial stage, the worker will rely on more external control from the supervisor in the same way that young people may benefit from more external controls in the early stages of placement. By being immediately present, the supervisor provides the safety of proximity. At this stage the supervisor would be immediately helping the worker to structure her activities with children as far as possible, such as activities which could be planned together or routines which the worker must carry out. The children will test the worker in this stage and in the same way, the worker will be testing the supervisor to see whether she can rely on her and whether or not she will support her and be trustworthy.

In the same article Phelan identifies the task for the level 2 worker as being to learn a new set of skills that will help her to transfer control to the youth. In the same way the supervisor will expect at this stage that the worker can function more independently. As the worker grows in confidence and develops, she will be able to give the children more control over their lives and should feel that she has more control over her interventions with them.

In terms of life-space supervision, the supervisor may have more of an observing role at this stage and be able to use cues and pre arranged signals which will indicate certain interventions with youth. The supervisor would be more hands-off with this worker than a level 1 worker. At this stage of a worker’s development, she should be giving children more choices and the parallel process in supervision should be that the supervisor allows the worker more choices. By this stage the worker should be able to think through her interventions more independently and understand why she is responding in a certain manner. She should be able to link theory to practice and the supervisor should be able to help her analyse her interventions and understand the link between the theory and the practice. When this is done “in the moment”, as it is in life space supervision, then the worker develops new skills and knowledge in the environment in which they are needed.

Phelan goes on to discuss the level 3 worker as having mastered basic safety and caring skills and now having the skills to use relationships and encourage inner control from the youth. This parallels what the worker should experience from her supervision. The supervisor could expect the worker at this stage to have developed a level of self-awareness whereby she can analyse her interactions herself and be accountable for her responses to the youth. Supervising this level of worker in the life-space would entail much more observation, very little hands-on supervision and helping the worker through observation and on-the-floor discussions to analyze and reflect on her interactions and her responses to the youth.

The worker should demonstrate a level of competence in her work and be able to explain what she is doing and why. She should also be able to develop her own strategies for intervention and be aware of what feelings are being evoked in her when working with the youth. The supervisor could start teaching the worker at this stage to mentor younger workers and help her to establish professional relationships with them using the experiences she has had with her supervisor. Through the hands-on mentoring approach which has been inherent in her supervision, the worker will have learned the skills of mentoring newer staff.

Throughout all these stages of the worker’s development, the relationship will be of primary importance and the worker and supervisor should establish a relationship of trust and respect. It would be important for the supervisor when doing life-space supervision with a worker to at all times show support for the worker and not undermine her in front of children and colleagues. The relationship the supervisor builds with the worker must parallel the relationship she is expecting the worker to build with the children.

Being in relationship
The most important aspect in working with children and staff is that of establishing a relationship of trust with the other person. The supervisor needs to establish both a personal and professional relationship with the worker. Personal in this context refers to knowing the person “the beliefs, values, strengths and weaknesses of the worker “as well as seeing him/her as a professional within their setting. The quality of this relationship will reflect the quality of the supervision. Relationships are central to everything we do in Child and Youth Care work and we know that change and development occur through relationships. We can convey trust, respect and care in a single intervention and these three elements must be conveyed in every interaction we, as supervisors, have with the worker. The relationship between the supervisor and the worker in the life-space will be observed by the children, who will take note of the interaction between them. This serves as a valuable role modelling exercise.

In the supervisor’s relationship with the worker she must be aware of transference and counter transference issues “what she is projecting from other relationships on to the worker and what the worker might be projecting on to her. It is often these projections which cause us to react, rather than respond professionally. Transference and counter transference are usually unconscious processes which must be made conscious in the relationship. Being aware of what we are projecting or what is being projected on to us will help us to modify our reactions to people. This must be discussed openly, therefore, between the worker and the supervisor and through this the worker will be helped to understand this process in her work with children and their families.

Hunt (1987: p.115) discusses three important steps in understanding ourselves in relationships; reflexive, responsive and reciprocal.

These factors are important in relationships and are areas where the supervisor needs to help the worker develop. She must be helped to reflect, respond and reciprocate in all relationships. The supervisor too must pay attention to these elements in her relationship with the worker through reflecting on what is happening between her and the worker, what the dynamics are in their relationship, how she responds to the worker and how she interacts with the worker and elicits responses from her. The worker and supervisor’s previous experiences of supervisory relationships and their early experiences of relating and developing trust will impact on the supervisory relationship.

There needs to be a space to talk about this and it could be one of the areas where the boundaries of supervision versus therapy become apparent because working on these and healing past experiences may well be issues for therapy rather than supervision. If the supervisor behaves in ways that encourage trust and respect, this in itself will be therapeutic for the worker, who in turn will be able to model this for the children. The supervisory relationship in Child and Youth Care is not a therapy relationship, although the outcome may be therapeutic for the worker. As Maier (1987) says there must be an atmosphere of openness and confidence between the worker and the supervisor and this can only occur if there is a trusting relationship.

Flexibility and individuality of approach
It is now common in Child and Youth Care practice to expect that our plans, approaches and interventions with each youth is specifically designed for the youth as we understand him.. Standardized groups approaches, where “one consequence fits everyone” are no longer acceptable. The same may be said of the approach of the supervisor to each worker. Let us take, as an example, the way in which people learn.

We all learn in different ways. The way we process knowledge is different, the way we remember things is different and the way we use our knowledge is different. The supervisor must be aware of her own and the worker’s style of learning. Sybil Artz (1994) developed a diagnostic tool called the “Ways of Knowing Profile.” which I have found to be a most useful guide in establishing people’s preferred learning styles. A questionnaire is administered which, when analysed, reflects people’s preferred learning styles. Artz” identifies four styles based on Jung’s four distinct ways of knowing oneself and the world: sensing, thinking, feeling and intuiting. As described by Artz (1994:33-34) the four functions are:

All of these ways of knowing are valuable in the field of Child and Youth Care work and each one can be developed in the worker and the supervisor. No way of functioning is seen as right or wrong “they are all equally valid. Artz states that all of us use all four functions all the time, but we develop them to different degrees and rely on some more than others. To help the worker and supervisor understand each other’s preferred style of learning; they should understand the characteristics of each of these functions. In doing so, the supervisor is better prepared to create specific interventions with the worker that are tailored to the worker’s learning style.

This area of learning styles is only one of the ways in which a supervisor might make her interventions specific to the individual worker. The meaning of the supervisor’s intervention for the worker is another area in which we find information about how the supervisor might tailor her interventions for the specific worker. There are as many areas in which an intervention can be individualized as there are individuals. Thus, we see that just as the worker is expected to intervene with flexibility and individuality with the child, so too we can expect the effective supervisor to do the same with the worker.

Attention to meaning making
Meaning making refers to how we understand a specific situation or experience and each person will make a different meaning of the same situation. Because our life experiences are unique and different, we will ascribe meanings to things from our own particular framework. The supervisor may interpret what the worker feels, believes and thinks about the specific child she is intervening with, what she thinks the worker’s beliefs are about the type of intervention she is having to make, but could be wrong because it is her interpretation, not that of the worker. For example, if the worker is involved in a discipline issue with a child, the supervisor may observe the worker’s intervention and form an opinion about what the worker’s attitudes to disciplining are, how she was disciplined as a child, whether or not she has difficulty with authority, whether she feels easily threatened, whether she feels in control, whether she feels she has to “win” a situation and, what meaning the worker gives to the child's behaviour in the context of the child's general functioning. This might be the meaning which the supervisor makes of the intervention, but if she were to check it out with the worker, the worker may have a very different experience of the situation. And in processing this with the worker, the supervisor models, for example, the importance of understanding how the child is interpreting a situation and how the meaning of her intervention might be different for herself and the child.

Garfat (2004) refers to a framework to understand the meaning making process in Child and Youth Care practice and the elements which might influence how we make meaning of a situation or experience. To these I have added the concepts of knowledge, values and beliefs. In looking at the influences on how we make meaning we are more able to understand how the individual worker is experiencing any supervisory intervention. Meaning-making is about our perceptual framework, the lens through which we make meaning of what is happening and this is influenced by:

Previous caring experiences – our experiences of belonging and the type of relationships we have had in our lives will affect the way we make meaning of a situation. As mentioned earlier, we might project previous experiences on to current ones.

Knowledge “our knowledge about ourselves is of primary importance here. Having an understanding of our own needs will ensure that we can more effectively separate personal and professional issues. We also need knowledge about troubled children and their behaviour. Knowledge about the worker and the issues they struggle with, their temperament, their areas of strength and their weaknesses will help us in our understanding of their work.

Peers – the type of relationships we have with our peers can often affect the meaning we make of situations. How we think about situations may be influenced by what our peers think and how they react. The supervisor should know about the workers relationships at work, especially who she connects with and who she struggles to connect with.

Culture – different cultures have different values, traditions and customs. These will influence the way we understand certain situations and make sense of daily life events. The supervisor needs to be aware of how certain actions, etc., are interpreted in the worker’s culture so that she might understand a part of the workers process of interpretation.

Family – The dynamics we experience within our families, our backgrounds, the type of family we come from and the relationships we had with primary caregivers will cause us to make meaning of situations differently. By understanding how the worker conceptualizes family, for example, the supervisor with be able to better understand how the worker interprets her experiences of the child's family. The supervisor must be aware of her reactions based on her own family experiences and must also explore the worker’s perceptions and experiences of family. This will help them both to have an understanding of how they make meaning of families and the issues about their families which affect their supervisory relationship. Our attitudes to authority often arise from relationships with parents and this may need to be explored in supervision.

Values and beliefs – Our cultural and religious backgrounds shape what we believe about people and their behaviour. We must have a clear idea of what our values are and ask ourselves questions like, do we see people as having potential and being capable or do we see ourselves as the experts who know better? Do we believe that people have the ability to grow and change? The supervisor who explores the values and beliefs of the worker is able to be more helpful and more easily make meaning of how the worker sees the world.

Personal history – The life experiences we have had and how we have assimilated and dealt with these individually will influence the way we make sense of situations. This would involve work history, relationship history, traumatic experiences and so on. The worker’s previous experiences of supervision and authority issues in other work situations will impact on how she makes meaning of the current experience.

All of these factors influence the way we perceive the world and our framework for interpreting other people’s behaviour. These factors then influence the way we behave in situations. When the supervisor understands how the worker “makes meaning” she is in a better position to develop specific interventions for the individual worker. The supervisor must also have a high level of self awareness so that she knows how she makes meaning of situations and how she and the worker might differ. This needs to be discussed in supervision so that the supervisor and supervisee come to common understandings of situations. Making meaning is, after all, a central part of who we are in the world.


Ainsworth, F and Fulcher, L.C. (1985) Group Care Practice with Children Tavistock Publications: London and New York

Artz, Sibylle (1994) Feeling as a way of Knowing: A Practical Guide to Working with Emotional Experience. Trifolium Books: Toronto

Garfat, T. (2004). Meaning making and intervention in Child and Youth Care practice. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care. Feb/Mar, 9-16.

Garfat, T. (2003) Four Parts Magic: The Anatomy of a Child and Youth Care Intervention available at

Garfat, T. summer (2003) Committed to the Relational. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice Volume 16 issue 3

Garfat, T. (2001). Congruence between supervision and practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care. 15(2), iii-iv.

Hunt, D. E. (1987) Beginning with Ourselves: In Practice, Theory and Human Affairs. Brookline Books: Cambridge, MA

Maier, H.W. (1987) Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth: Concepts and Practice The Haworth Press “New York, London

Phelan, J. Stages of Child and Youth Care Worker Development. Available at

Phelan, J. The Relationship Boundaries that Control Programming. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice Volume 16 issue 1

Pietermaritzburg Children's Home Building Job Descriptions for Child Care Workers

This feature: Michael, J. (2005). Life-space supervision in Child and Youth Care practice. In Garfat, T. and Gannon, B. (Eds.). Aspects of Child and Youth Care Practice in the South African Context. Cape Town: Pretext, pp.49–62

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