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63 APRIL 2004
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the field

Extending Child and Youth Care to serve the life span: A new look at concepts and practice

F. Herbert Barnes

Many years ago, I became concerned with what it is that children and youth actually experience in their daily life in residential treatment. It has been said in many ways that the person who spends the greatest amount of time with residential treatment program residents is the most influential person of all the staff. He/she is “the hub of the wheel" or the “yeast in the cake." But, as we all know, organizational structures, salary schedules, time schedules and lines of authority all belie those statements and identify them more as slogans than as concepts for implementing this notion of importance (Barnes & Kelman, 1974). Though many excellent workers are really quite professional, the work itself continues to be seen as non-professional when compared to the role, salary, authority and autonomy of other professionals who are also involved in the whole milieu of residential treatment. Aside from lacking a clear, mutual understanding of its practice, this work (and its workers) even lacks a unifying and distinguishing name. A worker may be known in one agency as a child care worker and, going to another agency, find he is a residential counsellor. There are still agencies who call this work being a houseparent, which clearly indicates the organic and philosophical base from which this occupation has sprung.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this present paper to examine, the work continues to be directly related to that base and to have care as its dominant, central theme. Though it has been adjusted, readjusted, tooled up, redefined and added to, it still remains rooted in parental care, thus remaining on the periphery of the “real" professionals who have their own identity, concepts for practice, mutual understanding about education, and then salaries, authority and professional standards that are logical ingredients of such a definition.

Because of these problems I have also been concerned for many years with finding some way to make substantive rather than merely superficial change. Superficial changes were noted in a much earlier article (Barnes & Kelman, 1974) and, in that same article, a new conceptual basis was proposed for redefining the work along the lines of the successful model which European countries have evolved. The European model sees the work based much more in educative action than in parental care.

Applications of European technological developments have been tested by this author in several American practice and service delivery settings and more broadly in consultative work with agencies that are seeking ways to enrich the daily life experience of children in care and to increase the energy and commitment of the daily life workers. Beyond that, it has been the core process of the ILEX (International Learning Exchange in Professional Youthwork) program which, for ten years, has been bringing representatives of this educative approach to work with American programs for the purpose of demonstrating this difference and developing together the kind of improvements that can be made through utilizing a new definition of the role and practice of this worker.

That this has been seen to be necessary is not new. Hromadka, speaking about the progress in thinking about residential programs, pointed out that the institutional care model has been replaced by a new approach; one that “assumes that the child's total living experience should be therapeutic" and that “child care workers, often called cottage parents, house parents, or counsellors, hold a key position in this new approach" (Hromadka, 1964, p. 219).

But he further pointed out that with this approach has come the realization that child care staff usually lack the professional know-how and status for the responsibilities they carry. People coming into the field have extremely limited or no training. Rivalry between professional and nonprofessional workers is still strong. American efforts to remedy the situation are inadequate and lack a uniform approach. Most of the training is carried out through local in-service training programs or short-term extramural courses, seminars, or workshops, which usually deal mainly with a specific local emergency. Experiments in employing child care workers with professional training in some related discipline have had mixed results.

The situation is somewhat different in Europe“Or at least in those European countries with the more advanced child care programs. Judging from my own research and from reports made to the United Nations, the International Union for Child Welfare, and the International Association of Educateurs such countries would include Austria, Belgium. Denmark, England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. Except for Belgium and Sweden, I have studied the approach to training of child care personnel first hand in all these countries and have found more similarities than differences among the various systems both in philosophy and practice. (Hromadka, 1964, p. 219)

The findings of Hromadka have clearly been borne out in the ILEX experience where we find a unanimity about the profession as a defined, internationally understandable discipline (including Belgium and Sweden) and a growing integration of thinking that flows from the Erasmus program, the part of the overall European Community effort which is developing the means to interrelate professional training and definitions across national lines.

But unfortunately, in this corner of the world, the old news is still too current. VanderVen clearly points this out. “Even though child care workers are increasingly better educated as a result of a sprinkling of academic programs and a proliferation of training activities, there are as already stated still too many discrepancies between the status of child care workers and other disciplines" (VanderVen, 1991, p. 289).

But, again unfortunately, this comment, when put together with another comment by the same author clearly states the perennial nature of this problem and the clear need to address it in a more substantive way.

VanderVen, describing the training of residential staff, states that

Even though the bulk of the preparation of child care workers comes from in-service training, this still amounts to “almost nothing,” according to Lorraine Fox, an experienced trainer. Major agencies may provide an hour or so a week of training, and think that they are doing a fine job of preparing these staff. In fact this barely touches what they need to know to do a professional job, focusing usually only on skills needed to perform in that agency. And, even where such training in child care exists, this is not always well coordinated or taught, and is generally not linked to university or college credit or to a recognized certification process.

The training and education activities taking place also embrace only a very small proportion of child care workers, usually those whose agencies are active. Many across the country do not even know about them. One of the greatest tasks of the future will be to connect the leadership in child care professionalization with the larger numbers of practitioners distributed all over the country. This will not be easy since even many in the field think that common sense, rather than formal education, is all that is needed to “do” child care work. (VanderVen, 1991, pp. 289–290)

And now I have been asked to consider whether it might be possible to extend the work done on conceptualizing a practice model for child and youth work to a model that could be applicable to milieu work across the life span. Not only does this seem possible, it may actually be the major new demand that will provide the impetus to close the gap between practices here and in Europe. The traditional philosophical base of the work in “care" and “parenting" will not lend itself, even through new adaptations, to the task.

Such an extension requires instead the kind of conceptualization that puts emphasis on creative and activity therapy in a different context wherein

The emphasis is not so much on developing the worker’s skills or know-how in leisure-time or vocational activities as on appreciation, understanding, and the therapeutic use of creativity and various forms of human expression and communication. One French school devotes a whole semester to teaching the child care workers how to appreciate modern art. What we in the United States do in this regard varies: too often we have a lecture on activity, list games to keep kids busy, or suggest traditional needlework, wood or metal work for rainy days. (Hromadka, 1972)

These elements which Hromadka describes are core elements of the educative approach which emanates from a different philosophical and intellectual starting point than parental care. “It requires more than “being like parents” if that is to be done. It requires workers who can provide to the child a conscious use of self that is based on an in-depth knowledge of the child's psycho/educo/social/developmental needs. And there must be a construct to encourage and define this" (Barnes, 1983, p. 7).

That construct could well be that of the “constant-contact practitioner" (Giner, 1971) who operates in the life-space of the persons he/she serves, working with them individually and together in their group and taking professional responsibility for the welfare and progress of both individual and group.

In order to carry out this role, I see the practice of such a milieu professional as based in and responsible for five identifiable areas of practice:
working with groups and working individually with the group members; planning for and assuring their physical care; developing and managing the curriculum of the milieu; and promoting the integration of the value and meaning of their daily life experience into their own sense of self. The knowledge about, planning for, and accountable implementation of these five practice elements are what I see as the practice of this now professional milieu specialist. It is these responsibilities which workers could expect to meet if they elect to join the profession; these responsibilities which educational programs and curricula must gear up to teach people to know, plan, and do; these responsibilities which administrators would be able to feel certain that their milieu specialist would actually deliver. A description of each responsibility follows.

Group work. Whether in a community-based group home for adolescents, residential treatment centre for emotionally disturbed children, elder-care centre, transitional living program for mentally handicapped people (youth or adults), the group, whether large or small, is a core element of the experience of the persons served by the program. In some programs (e.g., a residential institution for adolescents) the group will be a powerful element in the daily life of youth and staff and therefore needs intensive definition, clear structure, and dependable consistency to make sure that it is building a positive peer influence as well as providing a productive operating base for all its members. In other programs (e.g., a convalescent hospital for elderly persons) the group will be a more subtle and supportive element which needs to be susceptible to changing definitions based on nature of activities, time of day, and other actual realities of the persons in residence.

A group will have its own special and appropriate curriculum (one of the responsibilities discussed later) which the milieu specialist must understand and manage. But the nature of leadership needed and the impact! effect of peer influences will be significant determinants of the style of group work which applies regardless of curriculum. The milieu specialist’s task in leading the group work is to develop among the members a shared responsibility for the group’s progress, activity, product, and value to each of its individual members. The determining factor in whether group membership/participation is helpful to individuals in developing feelings of shared problems, in combating feelings of alienation and in pursuing a curriculum of living that has positive benefits to its members, depends largely on the worker, the worker’s style of leadership, the tone set by the worker, and the expectations for the interactions of the members with the group one of whose members is the worker. The business of the group, then, is tasks, fun and process“What it does and how it does it. Both are equally important.
And it is important to learn to use the power of that group beneficially for the individuals. It must be part of a milieu worker’s skill to include feelings and process issues as tasks and responsibilities of the group, as well as planning for constructive ways of living and interesting things to do.

Working with individuals. To assure that persons in milieu programs do not become lost in groups or become mere appendages to a process larger than themselves or otherwise lose their identity, it is essential that programs find ways to recognize and promote the individuality of persons being served. From the earliest days of residential treatment, this was assured through the addition of casework services which, unhappily, while doing the elected task, also promoted fragmentation and an ever-increasing focus on pathology. The responsibility should be part of the practice of the milieu specialist for then the individual work, depending on its purpose and the nature of the program, can range from helping the individual manage and enjoy the residential environment to helping the individual to understand himself and his own dynamics.

Additionally, helping individuals to set reasonable goals both for their participation “what they hope to derive from and what they intend to invest in the immediate milieu “and for their longer range benefit “what they hope to accomplish or obtain by virtue of their current experience “is much more effectively done by a milieu specialist, for all such goal-setting is real, practical and best done on the basis of shared experience rather than assigning this to a detached professional who does it on the basis of abstractions or problems to be solved, possibly even cured.

Planning for and assuring physical care. This area is not something that should be left to chance or not included as part of the responsibility of professional people. Physical care, both of people and the unit, cottage, home, ward or dormitory that they inhabit, are particular and emphasized responsibilities. There is no other professional who is focused in such a way as to assume these responsibilities, nor is any other professional able to use the understanding derived from sharing experience in daily life in order to promote and advance the progress and goals of group performance, individual security and growth.

Actualizing a concern for physical welfare can provide significant entry points into feelings, anxieties and ideations. Being involved directly with persons in issues of personal hygiene, sexuality or body-image feelings provides opportunity for intensive relationship building, life-space counselling and on-the-spot education that is available to no other therapist. Frequently looked on as an onerous chore, these responsibilities when viewed in this way, take on a value that enriches and intensifies the work while meeting basic human needs of people that are critically important to be met in quality ways.

The worker who is attuned to the realities of structuring the environment and caring for the physical space which his group utilizes, is provided a vehicle for building feelings of ownership on the part of individuals and group which contributes directly to the enhancement of self-esteem and to the reduction of alienation. In addition to all the values of living in a well-cared-for physical setting, the learning opportunities available to people when workers provide quality role models in the use of shared facilities are direct and multi-dimensional. Problems in managing the unit become elements of curriculum for the group. Problems in a person's managing his own body become ingredients of individual curriculum, whether that is nutrition, alcohol, drug or physical abuse, or establishing a regimen of weight-lifting to become a healthier, handsomer specimen. As such, the physical care of the individual and the environment are both the responsibility and the opportunity of the milieu specialist.

Curriculum. This is the vehicle that all of the work rides in, whether relationship-building or program development, whether it is getting up or going to bed or all points in between. When the events of the day and sequential contents of days and days are viewed in this way “as curriculum “we change the entire nature of present definitions of child care work in a residential treatment program or patient care worker in an elder care centre. The grind of supervising ends. We are working with people both individually and as they do or don’t mesh together in the group. Control issues vanish and are replaced with content issues, highly relevant pieces of the total curriculum. The total concept of curriculum also includes the specific activities in which the group engage, the routine necessary to its civilized living, the regular jobs necessary to its survival and the special projects of work and play which come out of the group work. In its totality it is a laboratory for learning which includes both learning, and learning how to learn.

The milieu worker, to develop fully the curriculum of living, must pursue two parallel lines of ideas as a continuum. These can be called capitalizing on what happens; and designing the environment. In the first, the worker responds to clues, germs of ideas, indication in sounds, through observations of everything from individual moods to the weather. These may indicate a need for enriching the curriculum. There may be indications of interest that can be developed through group discussion into actual activity which can engage individuals and actively develop the group’s functioning ability and provide new and beneficial experiences. Such events as a trip to the beach in a children's program or a trip to the orchestra in an elders” program come to mind as examples. There may be new entry points discernible for individual work to be done. But everything that happens is a significant part of the curriculum of the group’s living and presents to the worker the possibility for capitalizing on it.

In the second dimension the worker purposefully plans specific activities or events to achieve desired goals. A “group" of elders may in fact be a collection of isolates whose isolation from each other reinforces negative attitudes about self, about others, about the facility, about life in general. But to propose a quilting activity, for example, to such a “group" could involve the active and positive participation of a number of people, each bringing their own skills and ideas which the worker, through properly knowing the people and effectively using group work approaches, can help to bring out and orchestrate, thereby helping all people to find a place in the activity through having a channel into which to invest their positive energies.

In a children's program, “bad" behaviour can be quite active and precipitate “control responses" in the adults in charge. A rash of sex talk, for example, can be viewed simply as a behaviour problem to be squelched, or it can be viewed as an opportunity for developing better understanding. It probably needs limits set on it, but it probably also needs a bull session or a film. Annoying, irritating behaviour needs to be elevated into a discussion more than it needs to be squashed so the group can get back to “normal." Normal (usually defined as a state of nothing bad is happening, which automatically prevents anything significantly good from happening) is no the goal. Neither is the goal of curriculum to have everything be a beautiful success. Rather it is to create a fabric that has interest, fun, new experiences, new ways of solving problems that will help people to raise their consciousness of what happens, why, what can happen and what they can do about it again whether they be children or adults.

The curriculum of daily living, in this construct, is the singularly most important thing. Group work and individual work emerge out of it. And, it is these very nitty-grittys which have heretofore been construed to be nonprofessional and consigned to the back room of management or supervision and viewed as non-dynamic that are now the principal arena for the professional work of the milieu specialist.

Integration. Integrative tasks for the practitioner occur along three avenues. When he is functioning as group leader it is his task to ingrate each member into the totality of the group. Here he must define clearly, or get the members to define, the purpose of the group’s activity and get them working on it. Group work is a process and the milieu specialist is in complete charge of the process. In this way he doesn’t need to be in charge of the people; they can be in charge of themselves with relation to the task at hand–a very important principle. When the milieu specialist is functioning as individual counsellor he is the integrator of each of his charge’s total experience in the program and he is the bridge from the past to the future, as well. In the fragmented design of the departmentalized children's residential treatment facility this important task has always suffered neglect. The child, sent from specialist to specialist, is alone at the centre of his experience. A skilled milieu worker, however, who inhabits this centre with the child, can engage with him directly in the important process of synthesizing his continuum of experiences, extracting meaning and integrating new learnings, both intellectual and emotional, into new patterns of functioning. Certainly the elderly person, struggling to adapt to congregate living after 45 years of marriage and home-making is similarly alone and in great need of conscious attention toward achieving this same quality of integration.

Finally, the milieu worker integrates the wide range of outside skills into the ongoing process of individuals; the group’s and his own professional needs. The fact that this breed of worker is a competent professional does not suggest that he is also a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a nurse, a special educator or physical therapist. He is none of these, but he needs them all. But rather than being “on the team," he is chairman of it as Hromadka (1964) so clearly described. The worker must determine when his knowledge of the person is insufficient and then seek the needed information. He must know when his program resources need the enrichment of outside resources and procure them. The range of resources needed by the skilled milieu worker is rather more because of his ability than less. His needs will extend over a range of specialists from a psychiatrist to help him formulate his own diagnostic understanding of a youngster all the way to a philatelist to help an elderly man with his stamp collection.

Throughout the different facets of the milieu specialist’s practice, whether in individual work, group work, the nature of leadership, his management of the ever-evolving curriculum and processes of interaction, the principal stock in trade that the worker has, and which is his principal helping quality, is the purposefulness of his role and relationships. It is, after all, not the worker’s personal affinity with people, his parent-like functioning or his being a peer that is at the centre of this whole thing. It is his clarity as a professional who has a specific role in the life of the person being served and n that person's ecological system.

In identifying these five areas of practice I think we can find a new conceptual base for milieu work: one that is founded in educative action and applicable to clients of all ages in many settings, whether facility- or community-based and whether residential or day programs, rather than one that is an extended notion of a base in parental care, restricted therefore to children and operating essentially as an adjunct to treatment rather than the treatment itself.

Certainly, in identifying the new base that is needed for establishing this professional to work across the life span, it seems both inappropriate and unwise to carry along an old name which derives from a previously used base and is directed toward serving only one age group.

The countries of Europe, which have developed all aspects of this milieu specialization, including practice, training, employment and professional regulation into a known profession, call this profession social pedagogy. Exceptions are France, which has a historical and traditional attachment to its term, educateur specialist (but at least that is function, not client descriptive), and Norway, which still has turf allegiances and voted just recently to retain its term, barnevernpedagog. Certainly the thrust of “Europe “92" for creating harmony in economic, physical and educational matters across national boundaries should propose support for a commonality in terminology as well. And, though the U.S. and Canada are not direct partners in these common market developments, there are many commercial, financial and educational moves being made to begin to position this hemisphere as participating and it seems that we might simplify our task of professionalization by joining those moves and linking up. We can, and probably should, be Socialpedagogues as well, working together in a transdisciplinary, transgenerational profession whose time has come.


Barnes, F.H., & Kelman, S. (1974). From slogans to concepts: A basis for change in child care work. Child Care Quarterly, 3(1), pp. 7–23.

Barnes, F.H. (1983). The child care worker as a primary practitioner. Keynote address to the Fourth Biennial National Conference of the National Association of Child Care Workers of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.

Ginger, 5. (1971, February). “The problem-educateur": Social unrest. International Child Welfare Review, pp. 17–21.

Hromadka, V.G. (1964). Children. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Children's Bureau (Vol. II, pp. 219–222). Washington, DC: United States Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Children's Bureau.

Hromadka, V.G. (1972). How child care workers are trained in Europe. In H.P. David (Ed.), Child mental health in international perspectives: A report of the joint commission on mental health of children (pp. 253–259). New York: Harper & Row.

VanderVen, K. (1991). Residential care, education and treatment in the United States. In M. Gottesman (Ed.), Residential care: An international reader (pp. 289–290). London: Whiting & Birch.

This feature: Barnes, Herbert. (1992) Extending Child and Youth Care to Serve the Life Span: A New Look at Concerts and Practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol. 7 No.4 pp.93-102

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