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52 MAY 2003
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Using theory in practice

Brian Gannon writes on getting more practical mileage out of the theories they teach you in child care training courses

Often we sit in a class or read a book and learn something of a particular theory in child care or child development. If we are students we specially try to memorise the theory so that we can do well in our examinations or assessments – and we can easily forget that the theory was not taught for our examinations, but for our practice back home with the youngsters we work with.

It’s not always easy to connect what we learn in our studies with the kids back home. What on earth can Freud's theory of the unconscious have to do with Kenny who keeps picking on Pamela? Gail sprawled in her room reading silly picture books doesn’t look much like Erickson's adolescent identity-building. When I yelled at the twins for fighting and spilling tomato-sauce on the table cloth, Fritz Redl would hardly have called that a “life-space interview". At least, it certainly wasn’t a very good one! Maybe Freud, Erickson and Redl would have been more interested than we think. Let’s take one of the better known developmental theories, and see how we can more consciously – and profitably – use it in our practice.

A theory of moral development
Kohlberg developed a model of moral development in which (in vastly simplified terms) he proposed three stages:

Stage 1: Kids do what we expect of them because grown-ups can make life unpleasant for them if they don’t. William, who is four, doesn’t really want to leave Daddy’s workshop tools alone, but he does because he knows there will be a row, maybe a clip on the ear, if he doesn’t. In Kohlberg’s first stage of moral development, therefore, youngsters are saying: “I'll do what you want for fear of punishment – or whatever unpleasant 'consequence' you apply to my unacceptable behaviour".

Stage 2: Kids do what we expect of them because they have come to value grown-ups' positive attention and affection. Sally, who is seven, is going to stop eating so disgustingly and noisily because she can see this turns people off – the very people she needs to accept her and love her. In Kohlberg’s stage 2, the youngsters are saying: “I'll do what you ask because I value being in your favour – I want to secure your on-going approval".

Stage 3: Kids do what we expect of them because they have come to understand for themselves the basic values of their family and their culture. Carl, who is seventeen, can grasp and respect his community’s values around issues like stealing, dishonesty, and violence. In Kohlberg’s stage 3, the youngsters are saying: “I'll go along with that because it’s also what I have come to want – I am building my own set of values which seem to work for me".

That’s the basic theory.

Of course it doesn’t work with all kids the same way at the same times. Some can take a little longer to get through stages 1 to 3; others may get stuck somewhere along the way.

Again, stage 3 may look very different on opposite sides of town: at one end we may crook our little finger while we hold our tea-cup, sip sherry and converse ever so politely; at the other we may be a little rougher, do a little grass and speak more frankly. But we get by in our neighbourhood, and that’s is what matters. Somehow (although we never even heard of Mr Kohlberg) we got through his stages 1,2 and 3.

So what about our young people in the children's home, I hear you asking? Well, there are two ways, at least, in which we can helpfully use this or any developmental model or theory.

Keeping development on track
Any developmental model is useful as a yardstick by which to measure how children are growing. Height and weight norms are the most obvious examples. Young mothers who are being specially careful about nutrition will often monitor their babies' weight and growth – and become anxious if the baby doesn’t thrive (or thrives too much!). Other developmental models give us an indication as to what we can roughly expect children to be doing at what ages. Of course there are individual variations: there may be years between the ages at which children enter puberty, just as there might be feet between their heights at maturity. But a model gives us a guide.

With Kohlberg’s model, for example, most youngsters pass from stage 1 to stage 2 by six or seven years of age. By this time they have moved away from a self-centred position and are more able to judge the social and interpersonal consequences of their own behaviour. Just stop and think of that: by this age a child should be saying: “I'll do what you want because I value your approval". Now think of your group of children in the children's program. Have your seven and eight-year-olds developed this level of social interdependence, where they can moderate their own behaviour in the light of your approval, in the interests of their relationships with other people? It is an important question to ask. Not many children in care easily get to this stage of moral development. Relationships have more often been the cause of hurt and disappointment to them. In their confusion the children have been ambivalent about the significant adults in their lives, often distressed by them and angry at them.

Applying theory to practice
By asking these questions, you begin to build your list of developmental tasks which lie ahead of the children. This takes us directly to the second way in which we use theory – and this is a crucial step which we often get wrong when there are so many kids in our face. Here it is–

If Margie doesn’t in fact value her relationship with us and she goes on with difficult, self-centred and provocative behaviour, do we

(a) force her by threats and sanctions to toe the line? Or do we
(b) recognise that we must try harder from our side with the relationship so that she will get to value it?

This is what makes things so difficult for Child and Youth Care workers: If we choose (a) and stop her wrong behaviour by punishment, we may go on winning the behaviour battle for a while, but we are confirming her place down there on Kohlberg’s stage 1.

She will behave to avoid punishment. We are not giving her footholds up to stage 2 – and somehow we owe this not just to Margie but to society. If nothing else, we need to hand on to society someone who climbed up through the three stages, not someone who only behaves through fear of punishment. We choose (a) and we buy ourselves some peace and quiet, but we are putting off a hell of a job for later, or for someone else! In other words, as busy child care workers we can easily be tempted to solve problems by saying “Do this, or else!" Mr Kohlberg says, if we want to be true to child development principles, we have to try harder than that! Trying out some theories to see if they “fit” our particular situation often shines some light on things we can’t understand. Rick is eleven and has pushed us to the limit. He goes on with his stealing and bullying, he abuses the younger children verbally and physically, and is rude and unco-operative with adults. We haven’t known how to handle this, and we are hurt by our continuing sense of failure. There are a number of diagnostic or evaluative models we can apply, but what does Kohlberg’s developmental theory offer? By eleven Rick should be well into stage 2 ("I want to behave because I value our relationship"). We must then ask: “With whom does Rick have a valued relationship? For whom would he modify his behaviour? Who is significant enough to Rick that he wouldn’t want to spoil the relationship by his uncouth behaviour?" I wonder what the answer would be!

Ever heard of I-messages?
Often we adults perversely insist on controlling youngsters when we should be teaching them to control themselves. We forget that when they’re nineteen we won’t be there to say “Pick up your clothes" or “Don’t speak like that". The whole task of child rearing is to get children to get better and better at being adults. We often get on the wrong side of Kohlberg by forcing them down into lower stages of moral development. When we threaten a child, we simply keep him operating at stage 1. We all learned about using “I-messages" instead of “you-messages". The very point of these is to emphasise the effect of children's behaviour on us so that the kids get to see us as people, not controllers. We are taught not to say: “Your room is a pig sty, you are a mess!" Rather we are taught to say “I like to come into your room when it looks so smart. I appreciate a tidy room." We are taught not to say: “You are rude! Don’t you dare speak to me like that!" but rather to say “I feel humiliated when you talk to me like that ..."

I-messages like this make youngsters aware of the social context and impact of their behaviour, and helps them to be responsible for their behaviour within that social context – and they help kids to climb from Kohlberg’s stage 1 to stage 2.

Ever heard of giving choices?
Child and youth care workers will be aware that similar situations arise between stages 2 and 3. Liz, who is eighteen, comes to her housemother: “My relationship with Chris is becoming more and more important to me. Can you give me some advice about contraception?" Here, Liz is beginning to function on stage 3, having made some decisions for herself as a young adult. But her housemother replies:

"You know how I feel about that sort of thing. You stretch my feelings for you to the limit when you get into that stuff. I’m not sure I’m going to be happy with our relationship if you ..." The housemother forces Liz back into stage 2 by threatening the relationship. She is not understanding the developmental process:

When Liz was eight, building this relationship was important, but Liz is a big girl now, the nature of the relationship must change.

We all learned about giving youngsters opportunities to make real choices. The point of these is to let them test their wings with regard to their own autonomy and decision-making. We are taught not to say “Wear the green pullover with that skirt" but “What do you think will look good with that?" This helps children take responsibility for their own feelings and tastes – so that progressively more adult decisions can be left to them, based on their own developing values. Giving sensible opportunities for making choices helps kids to climb from Kohlberg’s stage 2 to stage 3.

Staffing strategies
The transition from stage 1 to stage 2 with deprived children is particularly difficult, and this is probably where programs fail most. Certainly it is discouraging to see the number of stage 1 adolescents who pass on down through the welfare system to go on living stage 1 lives. For very seriously disturbed children, the building of relationships requires often going back and rebuilding some very basic foundations, and many writers have suggested that such children need what amounts to a second shot at babyhood in a particularly caring, trustworthy and predictable environment to achieve this. But most children in care can achieve this in a more normative environment.

The building of a relationship, though, is often not what it seems. Many talk about relationship building as if it were a specific task, whereas it is really the byproduct of an number of tasks. Relationship really means “connectedness” or “bonding” and the only way we can achieve this bonding is by doing things together, lots of things over a period of time. Building a relationship means building a store of shared experiences. The children's program is the ideal place where adults and children can make time and space to do things together, to group and re-group for different purposes, to spend one-on-one time and group time, to do serious things and have fun together – and because this is a children's service and not a holiday camp, we do these things after intelligent and purposeful planning.

At a child and youth program where I was director, we regularly monitored the quality of relationships between each staff member and each youth, using a descriptive scale of 0 to 7. (0 meant no contact at all, 1 meant only routine contact, 2 meant some time regularly spent in a scheduled activity ... to 7 which meant a frequent, mutual and trusting relationship.) This exercise taught us a lot about the “economy” of our human resources: there were some youngsters, who because they were functioning at a high level anyway, many staff related to well – while other youngsters were not getting anything beyond routine relationships. We could afford, therefore, to “detach” some staff from better functioning kids and assign them to others more needy of adult time and attention. A parallel exercise indicated how individual children valued individual staff members, so we were guided in matching adults with children.

How are your kids doing with their moral development? Are you struggling to build those relationships to hoist them up from stage 1 to stage 2? How do you do that? Many child care workers would like to improve that skill! Or are you, by using threats and punishments, yourself keeping them at level 1 functioning?

Are you holding your breath as they make ever more significant decisions in their lives, scrambling up from stage 2 to stage 3? That’s scary too, and takes special generosity and courage from child care workers. Or are we placing our preferences and biases above their choices and being conditional in our relationships – thus keeping them at level 2? When we think carefully about these things, when we consider how our theory can be integrated in our practice, we are moving away from being just baby-sitters and child minders; we are being more like the child development specialists we ought to be as Child and Youth Care workers.

* * *
Our colleague Vivien Lewis used to say that in the children's program we must help the children to grow through three stages:

  1. where they see staff as staff;

  2. where they see staff as people;

  3. where they see staff as friends.

I cannot think of a better summary or application of Kohlberg’s theory.

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