The transition from child and youth care student to child and youth care professional can be an anxiety producing experience. This article will identify challenges regularly encountered by beginning practitioners in order to provide a frame of reference for entry into child and youth care employment. Anticipating and preparing for these events may facilitate an easier transition into the world of work.
Evidence suggests that levels of involvement and types of concerns experienced by child and youth care workers change noticeably during the first three years of employment (Sutton, 1977; Phelan, in press). Sarata (1979) examined three phases of work experience of new cottage parents. Initially, the new employees were preoccupied with mastering standard operating procedures. During the second phase they tended to compare their work attitudes and philosophies to those of co-workers and supervisors and in the third phase, the major focus was their appropriateness for and commitment to the child care role.
Sheahan et al. (1987) identified three developmental stages that residential child care workers within one institution seemed to move through. Each of the stages is described by approximately twenty worker behaviours characteristic of the stage. Beginning workers are given a copy of these behaviours upon commencement of employment. The intended goal is to reduce worker frustration, anger, and disappointment around predictable events and to provide an opportunity for supervisory intervention in a supportive manner based on the worker’s particular stage of development.
Research examining actual phases in moving from student to professional is limited. Sarata (1979) states that “most observers of child care practitioners have failed to distinguish between working in the role, and the process of beginning employment or adjusting to the role” (p. 298). A successful adjustment to initial employment is seen as critical if the worker is to continue practicing in the field.
The challenge of finding full-time employment in child and youth care often begins towards the end of a student’s final practicum. In addition to broadening awareness, skills, and knowledge, the practicum provides an opportunity for students to make professional contacts. That is, a positive impression generated in the mind of a field supervisor may open “employment doors" to the student’s future.
As graduation approaches, the student begins to assess the job market realizing that the graduate in many parts of the country is entering an employers' market. A number of employment areas have suffered cut-backs in government funding of social services and it is not unusual for employers in major urban areas to receive a large number of applications for a single vacancy. Applications are often received from persons whose qualifications exceed the job requirements both in training and in field experience. Subsequently, students who are at last relieved of the pressures of academic competition with classmates may now find themselves in an even tougher competition for jobs.
This situation permits employers to make additional requests of candidates. For example, an agency director may ask a prospective employee to give a commitment to remain employed with the agency for two years. The employer, however, may only be able to offer minimal job security due to dependency upon renewal of government funding each fiscal year and the availability of contracts. The successful applicant may more readily agree to a solid commitment in an uncertain environment given the intensity of competition.
Typically, students seek employment in their area of specialization or interest. Depending on level of training, workers are qualified for a broad range of jobs. However, given the scarcity of employment opportunities in some regions, the tendency may be to apply for child care related positions in which they have less adequate training. The flip-side of the “tight" job market are those regions that desperately need well-trained child and youth care graduates and employ them readily but, given the extreme need, place them in positions demanding skills and knowledge beyond their years. In either situation, employment in an area for which one has little experience can be an unsettling prospect.
Relying solely upon traditional job search strategies appears to be inadequate in some of today’s job markets. Results from Attinson and Glassberg’s study (1983) indicate that the largest percentage of jobs were obtained through personal contacts (38.6%) rather than through newspaper advertisements (19%). One may conclude that child and youth care students who make professional connections and establish a network of contacts in the field will have an ad-vantage in finding employment. Making contacts with other professionals, gaining experience, and establishing a reputation are all benefits gained through practica and volunteer work. Seeing the value in these experiences and taking advantage of the opportunities they may provide gives an added edge to the beginning job search.
In preparation for the interview questions may arise about the job requirements and one’s suitability for the position. The interview process requires a careful balancing act. The applicant realizes there are inherent risks in using the interview to explore whether or not the job will be suitable while wanting to appear enthusiastic and committed to a job they know very little about. This can lead to frustration if there has been little opportunity for information exchange as often occurs in newspaper advertisements where an anonymous box number is given by an employer who wants to avoid being overwhelmed with inquiries. Although there may be initial frustrations and disappointments associated with the employment search, there is also an accompanying sense of excitement in beginning to practice in the field in which so much preparatory time and energy has been invested.
Readiness to practice
Along with the initial excitement, novice child care workers need to grapple with the complexities of the new job and will likely have questions about their career readiness. A general lack of confidence or a feeling of being in over one’s head may accompany this experience. For example, “I’ve spent two years studying to be a child and youth care worker and I’m still not sure I'll be able to do the right thing, at the right time, with the right child." The graduate now realizes that the prior focus on learning has changed to one of accountability for the specific client interventions. The responsibility of intervening in another human's life can be overwhelming and beginning workers may see their approach as one of trial and error. Whereas this lack of clear focus can be confusing, with experience comes a clearer perspective and understanding of the process of intervention (Sheahan et al., 1987). Developing clear theoretical application in practice only evolves with time and with field experience.
A common tendency for beginning workers is to assume responsibility for client successes and failures. As a result workers may find themselves on emotional “roller-coasters" peaking when they perceive client success and “zipping down into the chasm" with lack of client progress. Ownership of client progress may subsequently result in the tendency for workers to contribute to client dependency. Not only do clients tend to become dependent on their workers for experiencing success, but also beginning workers often depend on clients for meeting their needs to be loved and admired (VanderVen, 1979). This need to be accepted can interfere with the worker’s ability to set clear limits particularly if in the setting of limits the worker risks rejection by the child. The following case illustrates this type of dilemma faced by a beginning worker:
Friday afternoon, when left alone with a class of six adolescents in an alternative school, the youth care worker was approached by a youth complaining of a stomach ache. He had already had two timeouts, and one more would result in a suspension. Intent on avoiding unnecessary conflict, the worker carefully weighed the options. Should the youth stay in the class and risk an inevitable suspension or would it be better to let the youth go home early and avoid further confrontation? After “careful” consideration the youth was permitted to leave. Five minutes later smoke filled the classroom; the student had set the school on fire as he left. The child care worker had the following thoughts: “I should have known something like this would happen! If only I’d paid attention to his nonverbal behavior.”
Two issues emerge from this example. The first is the worker’s choice of intervention, which was based somewhat on avoiding conflict or rejection; it was easier to send him home sick. The other issue is the worker’s questioning of her own level of competence. New workers often believe they should know what to do in every situation. Learning to take a positive view of mistakes by accepting and learning from them is a necessary part of adapting to work in child and youth care.
The beginning practitioner needs to be prepared for the processes involved in learning new skills quickly rather than expecting to be thoroughly versed in all areas (Baer & Federico, 1979). Assessing skills needed to function effectively in any position and then identifying how and where to get these skills is a key aspect to success in child and youth care work. Reading up-to-date publications, attending and participating in workshops, conferences, and post graduate courses are additional opportunities for fine tuning or further developing the necessary skills.
Defining the child care role
Professional child and youth care has expanded rapidly over the last three decades moving from an almost exclusively institutional base to a broad range of services and programs (Denholm, Ferguson & Pence, 1987). As a result of the expansion of services to children and families the focus and definition of child care work has changed dramatically. However, the continued professionalization of child and youth care workers has often been held back as agencies define their standards of practice by whom they hire. Although there may be intensive academic training available now, many agencies still tend to hire inexperienced and untrained personnel. This practice clearly affects the status of the profession.
Child and youth care workers who are new to the field may move into a new program where they are the only child and youth worker employed. They may be without a statement of philosophy, theoretical premise, or frame of reference for the role and yet are expected to define their role within the program, to the community, and to other professionals. Lack of role clarity can make it difficult for novice workers to present clear statements about who they are and what they do. A child and youth care worker may move into a setting where other professionals are unsure of the role and mandate of the profession and thus are unsure of the contribution that a child care worker can bring to a team or agency.
Perhaps one of the most prevalent situations in which lack of role clarity is evident is the school setting. Workers often walk a fine line in trying to clearly define their role without affecting the teacher’s role by performing teaching tasks yet still being viewed as a supportive person within this environment (Denholm & Watkins, 1987). Clearly, part of the challenge for the new worker is to educate and inform fellow workers of their role, skills, and professional value. The new worker thus needs to become confident and assertive about role clarity and which functions they are, or are not, willing to perform.
While this lack of role clarity can be difficult for some it is nevertheless one of the most appealing aspects of this profession. Unlike other professions, the child care role has flexibility and provides child and youth care workers with the freedom to adapt their service to meet the “real" needs of the children and families with whom they work.
The beginning worker may be reluctant to take complete advantage of the expertise of the supervisor. Instead, supervisory sessions tend to be used to prove one’s competence and supervision time may see the worker attempting to convince the supervisor of his/her proficiency and commitment rather than gaining support and information related to the job. The benefits to be gained from supervisor feedback on areas of weakness or inexperience may be lost as confidence building takes precedence. This focus on competence at the expense of self examination may relate to the fact that mistakes now take on a new meaning as they may affect one’s reputation as a professional rather than simply indicating areas of focus for student learning. With this shift in emphasis, the novice practitioner can become fearful not just of making errors but of these errors coming to the attention of the supervisor.
One aspect of professionalism is having a rationale for clinical intervention. Beginners naturally question their level of professionalism yet need to remember that whether they feel qualified or not, the job has been entrusted to them. At times there may be self-doubt, a feeling of being ill equipped to offer assistance or support to their clients. The beginning practitioner may not realize that this self-doubt surfaces at times for all those in the helping professions.
Sarata (1979) describes the initial months of first employment as a lonely time where “the workers find it difficult to request assistance for themselves and often relegate concerns and frustrations to another time" (p. 27). The beginning workers' inability to articulate their concerns often limits their capacity to obtain the type of peer support needed in the early stages. As Sarata comments, “maintaining a supportive atmosphere for discussion will not always be easy because a new worker’s preoccupation with basic procedures will be less than intriguing to more experienced workers" (p. 33).
Another area of supervision that can create difficulties for the beginning worker is the worker’s confusion with regard to the many roles performed by the supervisor. Workers may be requesting assistance as to the effectiveness of an intervention or simply identifying weak areas in order to request feedback and support from their supervisor while the supervisor may be in the process of evaluating the workers' competence. Therefore, both workers and supervisors need to reach joint clarity about the purpose and structure of supervision and each others” expectations.
Another area facing the novice child and youth care worker is the development of a thorough understanding of the agency functions, policies, procedures, rules, politics, and power structures, and an understanding of how these functions are related to their own role. As Fassett (1978) noted, “discovery of these realities without adequate preparations has had devastating effects on many of our new, eager and creative talents" (p. 54). However, the new practitioner is rarely aware of, or prepared for, these realities when commencing employment.
The worker’s limited perception of the agency may be traced to what Egan (1986) calls “the shadow side of organizations." These are the covert rules and complex sets of mutual understandings which are not written in any policy handbook yet often govern how employees behave and how procedures are followed. An example of such a covert rule would be that no employee shall talk directly to the Director about a case without first consulting the program supervisor. The new worker usually stumbles over such covert rules through trial and error. Nevertheless, the worker’s effectiveness will be influenced by the ability to quickly assess the informal agency structure. A program that may initially have been perceived as restricted by the routine of tradition, may in fact be a program held in place by a series of interrelated expectations cemented by years of practice. This view is supported by Fassett (1978) who commented that “untold energies are spent in attempting to reconcile what practitioners view as a conflict between their professional ethical structure and the demands of agencies" (p.54).
VanderVen (1979) described beginning child care workers as having “a feeling that administrative action and policies actually erect a barrier to the spontaneity and freedom they feel the children need and they can provide" (p. 104) That is, the position taken by the agency may seem antithetical to the workers' perception of human service needs. Subsequently, “new workers develop a sense of “self-hate” from seeing themselves as purveyors of negative factors" (Fassett, 1978, p.54). Learning to deal with disillusionment when the realities involved in services to children and families offered by various agencies be-comes evident can be difficult. Due to political, economic, and social factors, clients' needs will not always be foremost in service planning. The worker who feels responsible for poor service offered by agency constraints may feel helpless and victimized, identifying with the client and thus becoming less effective as a worker.
To increase effectiveness the child and youth care worker, rather than feeling like a participant in a system that is self-serving, may choose to work towards becoming a political change agent. For example, rather than complaining about the elimination of a program the option to contact the news media and publicly advocate for the continuation of the service, to participate in a cost-benefit analysis of this program, and to release these results to the public can be constructive alternatives. Thus involvement in political change strategies may assist in maintaining a level of idealism and active commitment to services for children and families regardless of the program content.
The idealism of beginning practitioners is an attribute that can provide energy and drive in advocacy for children and families and in working with demanding and difficult clients who, because of their experiences, are resistant to developing relationships with professionals. Keen, fresh perceptions can serve to revitalize an existing program. However, a critical aspect is the skill with which new workers share these perceptions and suggestions for change. Too much enthusiasm may be perceived as criticism of the program’s inadequacies, thus putting other staff on the defensive. The challenge for the beginner, then, is not just to identify program areas that need changing but to advocate for these changes in a way that staff feel supported rather than criticized. Over time, novice child and youth care workers will come to understand the adage, “real change takes time." Moreover, they will likely discover how best to work with colleagues to influence policy and program in order to bring about realistic and effective changes which in turn bring better service to children, youth, and families.
Conclusions and implications
Issues and challenges facing beginning child and youth care practitioners have been presented. Awareness of these issues and challenges may assist in facilitating a smooth transition from the years spent in study and academic preparation to employment within the work foree. The following is a list of suggestions which may assist students about to undergo this transition:
1. Join a Child Care Association. Often child and youth care workers work in isolation and need the support, professional identity, and information provided through contact with their professional community.
2. While you are a student, begin a professional network that will help you with your job search and support system after graduation.
3. Do not expect to have all of the skills necessary for the ever-changing role of the child and youth care worker. Chart a course for your continued personal and professional development. Evaluate whether you have the skills needed and, if you do not, ascertain where and how you can obtain them.
4. Have your name put on mailing lists for training seminars, workshops, conferences, and retreats.
5. Become proactive in soliciting support and feedback from your supervisor and from your colleagues concerning improvement in practice skills. Often colleagues will resist giving unsolicited feedback, yet when approached will offer valuable suggestions and insights.
6. Develop interests and friendships outside of work that provide support and help replenish your energies. This will assist your need to create a balanced lifestyle, and provide a “clean break" from the job.
7. Find people to talk with who understand and support your work. When things are going well and when problems arise, have someone you can share with who will listen, share ideas, and offer supportive understanding.
Note: The authors wish to acknowledge David Greer, Carey Denholm, Alan Pence and Chris Balmer for their editorial assistance.
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This feature: Moscrip, Sharon and Brown, Adrien (1989). Child and Youth Care: The transition from Student to Practitioner. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4;1 71-80.