CYC-Online 66 JULY 2004
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Child and Youth Care Practice: The foundation for great supervision

Shelley Gilberg and Grant Charles

This article explores the relationship between good Child and Youth Care practice and good supervision. The exploration includes an analysis of traits present in both front-line practice and supervision and how those traits are displayed in both Child and Youth Care workers and supervisors. This article proposes that many of the same skills applied by Child and Youth Care workers are the same as those used by excellent supervisors.

We often tell stories as we write articles. While preparing to write this article we discussed a 1970s print advertisement for Caterpillar that was “ahead of its time.” The ad was a photo of a road being built through a forested area. This photo was the centre of the ad. On the left side of the ad all the positive impacts of the road were listed, for example, increased access to services and improved economic outlook for the nearby communities. The right-hand side of the ad listed all the negative impacts such as damage to animal habitat and increased traffic and pollution. Across the bottom, spanning the left, right, and centre thirds of the ad, in large print, was written, “There are no easy answers, only intelligent choices.”

It is unlikely that the marketing team who created the ad had anything to do with Child and Youth Care, but their point applies to our field. Rarely, in our relationship and dialogue-based field, do we find a phrase that illustrates so much with so few words. The complex interaction of environment, individual choices, social pressures, competing needs, and consequences depicted in the ad closely mirrors our field's experiences and struggles. For us, that 25-year-old Caterpillar ad and its trademark phrase captured the essence of the supervision challenge in Child and Youth Care.

A number of years ago one of us was involved in a survey of graduates of Child and Youth Care about their first experiences of being supervised in the field (Charles, Gabor, & Matheson, 1992). We asked each of them to list the positive (desirable) and negative (not desirable) characteristics of their supervisors. Although not surprising, the characteristics they attributed to “good” or “bad” supervisors were nonetheless interesting and are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Characteristics of Supervisors

Positive Traits

  • Acceptance

  • Friendliness

  • Positive role modelling

  • Positive interactions with clients

  • Provision of clear explanations of policies, interventions and procedures

  • Focusing feedback on staff effectiveness with clients

  • Giving concrete feedback about strengths and weaknesses

  • Exhibiting confidence and strong sense of professionalism

  • Non-judgemental

  • Exhibiting positive attitude towards work

  • Availability and approachability

  • Flexibility and creativity

Negative Traits

  • Lack of directness

  • Unavailability

  • Engagement in power struggles

  • Being self-centred

  • Encouragement of worker/client dependency

  • Being sexist

  • Being manipulative or defensive

  • Exhibiting lack of self-confidence

  • Being negative

  • Exhibiting lack of confidence in staff

The list of traits generated from the graduates looked a lot like the list of traits we desire and encourage in Child and Youth Care workers. As we discussed it and began to write the article, it interested us that not all Child and Youth Care workers make great supervisors, but most great supervisors are or were great Child and Youth Care workers. We asked ourselves what great Child and Youth Care workers have in common with great supervisors.

As we discussed this question we noticed themes of attributes and approaches that both great Child and Youth Care workers and great supervisors had in common but applied in different milieus. The themes were “strengths-based,” “experiential,” “patience,” “an ability to 'translate," “offering guidance based on outcomes,” “encouraging autonomy,” “creativity,” “curiosity,” “action focused,” and “walk the talk” (see Figure 1). We decided to explore what each of these looked like for a Child and Youth Care worker and a supervisor in practice.

Figure 1. Attribute similarities of Child and Youth Care Workers and Supervisors

Attribute Child and Youth Care Worker Supervisor
Experiential Lets kids try and finds “teachable moments” Lets staff explore and explores the consequences and alternatives later
Strengths-based Individualizes an intervention to a youth Builds on each employee’s strengths
Matching communication style Is consistent in values but finds a metaphor or strategy that works best for getting information across or keeping dialogue going Explores and understands which frameworks are best for each employee’s access to information and learning
Values or outcome-based guidance Avoids using too many rules unless it’s a safety concern “tries to help co-create desired outcomes Avoids reliance on policy, tries to give a sense of the larger picture and how and why decisions are made
Autonomy Spends time to ensure that youth understand the choices they have and exercise those choices Provides safe frameworks or questions to employees to provide them with the skills to make decisions and the rationale to support those decisions
Appreciates uniqueness Doesn’t assume one method works for all Doesn’t assume one method works for all
Flexible and consistent Responds to uniqueness and matches different kids” styles but has a consistent core identity that kids can count on Encourages differentiation and use of strengths for different employees, but has a bottom line and values framework that is transparent and constant for all employees
“Translator" Explains what others do, finds language that works, “draws” explanations and explains alternative options or interpretations of situations Translates between systems, analogizes supervision roles and tasks to employee’s own roles and tasks, translates into interactions in a number of possible “languages–
Curiosity Explores with youth what is happening and why, considers alternatives Uses curiosity as a check and balance for both systems and interventions
Creativity Uses a challenge as an opportunity to try something new and to learn themselves, uses youth’s individual strengths to inform the plan of how to meet goals Provides different approaches and questions that challenge themselves and employees to have each time be a “first time” and welcomes ideas from different places
Action-focused Takes a client’s goals and helps turn them into things they can do Uses their understanding of complex systems to break down difficult decisions or situations into a series of actions that employees or clients can do “explores how values and goals become actions
Walk the talk Acts in the same ways they teach youth about, that is, the value and responsibility of choice Lives by the values and frameworks they encourage, with kids, staff, and their own lives

Strengths-based philosophy

A Child and Youth Care worker takes a strengths-based approach with clients, believing that building on existing energy in a child or youth is empowering and validating, and recognizes the individual’s abilities. It values differences between people and sees what children do as having value, even if what they’re doing is not getting their needs met.

A supervisor, taking a strengths-based approach, sees value in having different employees with different strengths. The supervisor builds on those strengths. The supervisor challenges employees to broaden their repertoire of strengths and to apply their strengths in creative ways to meet the needs of clients, co-workers, the program, and themselves.


In the course of interacting, great Child and Youth Care workers look for “learning moments” and learning opportunities. They help kids try different behaviours and different approaches and then help process the outcomes and feedback. They recognize that choice and exploration are the key ways kids will learn about and adapt to their environments.

Outstanding supervisors allow employees to try different interventions or approaches. They ask for a rationale from the employee, not only to explore the framework and assumptions of the employee but also to maintain safety for clients. Great supervisors also live in the experiential place: they learn from being open to staff trying out new ways of being and doing. They know that in order to promote growth one has to take risks, and therefore one must be willing to risk mistakes. In this light mistakes are not statements about competency but rather are opportunities for new learning. Great supervisors encourage their staff to take risks, try new things, and learn from their mistakes. Great supervisors also remind staff that the same applies to kids.


The most effective Child and Youth Care workers have patience. They know that some moments are better than others, and they know that youth and families know the pace at which they want to change themselves and their world. Great Child and Youth Care workers recognize there are innumerable items that need attention, and so they don’t tackle everything at once, overwhelming themselves and the kid or family. They know and show that a quiet space in an interaction is sometimes all it takes for a kid or family to “find a light” on their own rather than be told the insight. This allows the kid or family to own the solution or the answer.

Supervisors with patience see the environment for employees and clients in a big picture and a little picture. They can wait to address or explore something that they decide is superficial until a more “teachable moment” or a more pressing issue arises. They recognize that change of pace and change management needs a long-term developmental view for families or employees that encompasses both timing and patience. Supervision is not a series of tasks but rather a process or a journey.

Ability to “translate"

Child and youth care workers act as translators for youth and families. They explain what others are doing. They offer alternative explanations for behaviour or situations. They support the youth or family in learning a new “language” to advocate for themselves or to communicate with others. They offer translations between clients and others. They translate behaviour of youth into possible translations. They translate the goals of youth and families into actions.

Supervisors with this “multi-linguistic” skill offer translation between the systems affecting a family or an employee. They offer translation between the legislative and policy requirements and the outcomes those “rules” are designed to provide. They offer another set of interpretations for behaviour or interaction patterns that challenge an employee and a translation of the factors an employee brings to a therapeutic interaction or relationship. Being a translator for employees, clients, or the program encompasses knowing the words, emphasis, structure, and culture of the other “languages,” whether disciplines or people, and de-mystifying the translation process for employees and clients (giving explanations, context, or perspectives to the actions of these other systems).

Guidance based on outcomes, not rules

The most effective Child and Youth Care workers maintain a safe environment, but use rules and authority as little as possible. They explore desired outcomes with kids and the consequences of various ways of getting to those outcomes. They explain the rationale behind the few rules they are responsible for staying within. When kids point out other ways to meet the needs the rules claim to meet, Child and Youth Care workers are open to these conversations.

Effective supervisors provide employees with opportunities to explore how to get to the desired outcomes of program mandates, treatment goals for a client, or professional objectives. The supervisors explain clearly the reasons for “hard and fast” policies or rules and are prepared to explore alternatives when employees have ideas or concerns. Great supervisors offer guidance that relates to outcomes for people, putting the “rules” in a larger context.

Encouraging autonomy

Teaching youth to recognize the choices that are present in their lives every day and helping youth explore what is important to them so that they can consciously make those choices is one of the primary tasks of the Child and Youth Care worker. There are always choices and trade-offs to make. Like the Caterpillar advertisement, being well-informed doesn’t make it easier, but it allows kids to develop a sense of being “in” rather than “on” the world.

Supervisors give answers, great supervisors ask questions. They have expertise but don’t have a need to be experts. Supervisors who encourage autonomy in their staff provide them with frameworks and questions that tease out the choices and the trade-offs in a given situation. This not only provides a more comprehensive understanding of the current dilemma, but leaves the question as a resource for the employee the next time a decision is to be made.


Child and youth care workers use their beliefs about the uniqueness of each kid and their strengths-based philosophy to spur their creativity about how best to help that youth. They tend to shun the “one size fits all” approach to working with kids and find energy in coming up with creative ways to meet individual treatment goals and use resources in new ways in programs.

The most effective supervisors embrace their own creativity and encourage creativity in employees and clients. They do not assume there is only one way to do things in treatment, staff teams, or programs. These supervi sors challenge employees to be creative and prevent staff and programs from falling into a “cookie cutter” approach to dealing with kids and their families. They subscribe to Einstein's theory that you can’t always solve a problem at the level it was created, and as such they look for other sources of solutions. They see many of those sources in their employees.


Curiosity in Child and Youth Care workers is linked closely to flexibility and exploration. The best Child and Youth Care workers don’t believe they know everything, but rather believe there are many possibilities and explanations. They seek these explanations and perspectives from the kids and families with whom they work. They try to avoid assumptions and preconceptions, allowing them to be curious and respectful in creating interventions. Flexibility is necessary to let curiosity guide the intervention and interactions. Every conversation is insightful and teaches the Child and Youth Care workers about the youth and themselves.

Supervisors with curiosity can be a challenge to employees who want black-and-white answers. The supervisor’s curiosity, again linked with flexibility, provides the basis for both encouraging alternative perspectives and constantly monitoring the qualities of the intervention. They may ask, for example, “What are we doing? How does that feel for the client? How does it feel for us? Is there a better way? Are we making the best use of our own resources? What is it about that we are reacting to? How can we best contribute? What is it you were hoping to achieve?”


Child and youth care workers are often the facilitators of the client’s own goals or outcomes. Great Child and Youth Care workers are able to take these desired outcomes, and often those of other disciplines, combine them with the individual strengths of the client, and come up with an action plan. Child and youth care workers help promote change in “being” through “doing.” Workers know that experiential learning only happens if kids have an experience. They strive to provide an active opportunity for youth to explore different ways of meeting their goals and different ways of “being.”

Supervisors who are action-focused encourage employees to “think it out,” but ultimately to make a choice and “do something.” Just thinking about a problem or situation doesn’t change it, so they assist with breaking down complex decisions into actionable phases. They teach the value of process, but that process has value only in the context of an outcome. They may explore what would happen in an ideal world or scenario and then seek to discover: “What can you do? What can the client do? What can I do?” An action-focused supervisor provides employees with the power to do something to move towards change and not remain “stuck.”

Walk the talk

Child and youth care workers who don’t “walk the talk” with kids stand out. Those who do “walk the talk” tend to live their lives and make their own choices in the same manner that they encourage kids to do. Walking the talk means demonstrating the qualities in themselves that they identify as positive or desirable in kids or others. Effective workers behave with coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors in a way that is congruent with their espoused values to kids. They value learning and know that it happens all the time, for kids and for themselves.

Supervisors who “walk the talk” can demonstrate the qualities they encourage in employees and demonstrate the interaction values with clients that they expect and encourage in employees. They are still effective front-line Child and Youth Care workers, and they remember that experience and augment that perspective with their other role as a supervisor when interacting. When they voice a value or a decision it is scrutinized heavily. Employees and clients alike soak up their statements, and because of the power in the position it is most important that supervisors can “walk the talk.” These supervisors also teach and guide by walking and not necessarily talking at all.

What does great supervision require

Great supervision begins first and foremost with an understanding of the opportunity and the responsibility inherent in the process of supervising. Similar to therapeutic opportunity and responsibility in client relationships, the supervision relationship has a power dynamic that requires balance and introspection to effectively balance the opportunity and responsibility. The power present in the role puts the responsibility squarely on the supervisor to remember that all of their actions will be seen as related to their role, whether they are or not. Again, similar to how we might approach this with clients, the goal is to give back the power while maintaining a safe place, and then add all the operational parts of ensuring that services are delivered to children and youth. Great supervisors find ways to put the power they have been given in the hands of those whom it affects. They balance the competing responsibilities of ensuring therapeutic integrity and safety for kids and families, supporting employees to develop and explore their skills, and practical or operational requirements.

"Life-long learning” is an often-used phrase, but it is truly important in this context. A supervisor must be willing to learn in order to encourage learning and openness in the employees with whom they work. The employees in turn must believe that learning and curiosity are valued. Therefore mistakes are also seen in that context, in order to convey that message to children, youth, and families.

Another important component of great supervision is a solid base in and an understanding of the meta systems involved in Child and Youth Care. A practical grounding in meta systems and communicating means the ability to go back and forth, and take employees back and forth, between the macro world of how levels of systems, different interactions, and personalities mix and the micro world of how the same things in a kid's environment and life interact with the employee’s experience and what they bring to the therapeutic relationship. Ultimately it is the blended version of these factors that will affect outcomes. The approach that a supervisor takes to translating how these systems and interactions affect employees and clients forms the culture of a program and directly informs the employee’s practice. The employees must see and believe that the supervisor values the contributions and sees the constraints of other parts of the system in order to work effectively.

The final and most important element of great supervision is the supervisor. Many components of supervision can be taught, but supervisors, in fulfilling the above elements, need both a strong set of core values and a strong sense of their own identity. Without these, it is difficult for a supervisor to be willing to learn or “not know.” It is equally difficult to give away power or help others understand the choices, and sometimes trade-offs that are made when making those choices, unless one has an understanding of one’s role in the process. Understanding systems cannot happen without knowing how one affects a system. Likewise, knowing one’s own needs and beliefs allows one to be aware of the needs and beliefs of others in various systems. Most often the sense of identity carried by these great supervisors is strong but accepting, and open but consistent. They are conscious of a greater purpose that can be achieved through them rather than by them. These core values include a true respect for others, a belief in the value of many different contributions and the value of all people, honesty, and integrity.

There are no easy answers, only intelligent choices. The opportunity and responsibility of the supervisor is to help illustrate these choices in whatever way each person, team, family, system, community, and supervisor will best understand and learn. Supervisors are not born but rather are made. However, it is not easy making a great supervisor. It takes a lot of work, a commitment of time and energy, and a belief in the importance of the job. Fortunately, in our field, the process of becoming a great supervisor is made somewhat easier by the fact that the skills that make someone a great Child and Youth Care worker form the foundation for making one a great supervisor. Great Child and Youth Care workers don’t necessarily make great supervisors, but it sure is a good place to start.


Charles, G., Gabor, P., & Matheson, J. (1992). An analysis of supervision of beginning Child and Youth Care workers. The Clinical Supervisor, 10(1), 21-33.

This feature: Gilberg, S. and Charles, G. (2002). Child and Youth Care Practice: The foundation for great supervision. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15 (2), 23-31

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