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53 JUNE 2003
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child care workers

Caring for the Caregivers

Michael Kerins


The Hannah More School is a private, non-profit psycho-educational day school serving more than 100 seriously emotionally disabled adolescents from the Baltimore metropolitan area. The school serves middle school and high school students with severe behavior and learning problems, psychiatric disorders, and a sense of defeat and hopelessness. In addition to intensive academic intervention, the school offers individual, group, and family therapy; speech therapy, art and music therapy; a behavior management system; and a pre-vocational program.

The academic and clinical staff work as a team to help the students overcome their learning and social-emotional difficulties. This emotionally disabled population can be very draining on the professional staff. To be effective, staff draw on all their knowledge, skills, and talents. Playing this “parenting" role challenges their emotional resources and can leave them feeling emotionally exhausted.

Pervasive philosophy

Since we subscribe to a philosophy of nurturing, we also believe in a supportive program for staff.

To support and nurture the staff, to show our appreciation, and to communicate that their work is valued, our administrative team has developed a program of staff recognition. The program is designed to meet the needs of the staff so that they can meet the challenge of educating and treating troubled, dependent adolescents. To do this, we identified three factors.

First, staff must feel supported in their positions. Numerous forms of support should address staff well-being, instructional guidance, and implementation of new ideas.

Second, staff should feel appreciated in various ways. Therefore, we developed an appropriate mixture of verbal, written, and tangible feedback methods.

And third, the staff needs regular outlets for personal concerns, feelings, and frustrations, whether verbal or physical.

The Program

Opportunities for staff recognition fall into three basic categories: group, individual, and special recognition.

Group recognition and appreciation
Group recognition and appreciation includes additional benefits offered to staff. One benefit is the Employee Wellness Program. Personal problems outside of the work environment occasionally interfere with an employee’s ability to maintain his or her perspective on the job. Through an Employee Assistance Program, confidential counselling services are made available to staff members outside of school. This service has proven invaluable to those who have used it. Another aspect of the well-ness program involves providing a monthly activity in which the daily work issues are set aside. The activity is generated with staff input and has included sports activities, music relaxation exercises, crafts, mall walking, trips to book stores, and artistic expression. It also incorporates an occasional “pot luck" lunch, which enables the staff to converse about interests other than their jobs. Staff members have even challenged each other to weight-loss contests and fitness activities.

Involving staff in both short-and long-range planning committees has resulted in a huge boost in morale. Staff realize the tremendous confidence that the administrators have in their professionalism, and this promotes staff/administration cohesion. Another benefit that helps support the staff is a policy that allows members to take a leave of absence to take care of a family illness or other family need.

It is remarkable how much perceptions of managers and administrators can change when staff see that there is an understanding of the needs of their families.

Individual recognition and appreciation
An annual staff-recognition award allows staff to vote for the employee they feel most deserves recognition. Criteria for the award are established by the staff personnel policy committee, and the recognition is presented at the annual graduation ceremony. In order to reward staff for their input toward these recognition and program changes, an employee suggestion program was created that provides monetary compensation for ideas that are implemented. One of these ideas was directly related to staff appreciation: The simple suggestion of setting aside one time each month to recognize staff birthdays not only earned someone a cash reward, it also established another organized way of showing the staff’s importance to the school. Finally, there needs to be a spontaneous show of appreciation for the staff by the administrators, and for the administrators to serve the staff. For example, at a community breakfast, administrators, dressed in chef’s hats, prepared a large breakfast for the staff. The smiles, memories, and laughter made the effort more than worthwhile.

Special recognition and appreciation
There is a need for staff to return from a vacation with the feeling that they were missed, that they are important to the school. This recognition can be as simple as “Welcome Back" balloons tied to each of their chairs. Other symbols of recognition used at the Hannah More School have included personal coffee mugs and sports bags with the school logo as a further sign of the importance of each and every one of them. This year each staff member who went on leave returned to find their own “Hannah More School” umbrella. This gesture is a very popular reward and one about which staff brag to other schools' employees. All of these special recognitions are co-ordinated with regular staff development, professional opportunities for advancement, and encouragement of ideas to generate a supportive atmosphere.

Overall reaction to the program

The benefits created by these efforts have been many. Staff generally feel more cared for, appreciated, and supported. In surveying the response from staff, these gestures have had a very positive effect on the school climate. Because administrators are seen in this more “human" light, communication appears to be more open and supportive. For example, the image of administrators in chef’s hats has repeatedly been brought up as a highlight of the appreciation efforts. It appears that it has been much easier for the staff to respond to an open-door policy when remembering situations like this.

The feeling of appreciation has a reciprocal effect on the administrators. They become more motivated to send birthday cards, to provide little gifts, and to give small treats when the reaction is favorable. The cost of such a project is insignificant given the positive return – for example, in minimal turnover in staffing and the pleasant employee climate.

The time, effort, and money that is contributed by administrators also are worth the investment to keep the employees feeling positive about their jobs.

Few staff feel that they are entitled to these things; instead, most recognize that there is extra effort put into each of these activities. The sick-leave bank, expanded child care opportunities, and tuition reimbursement are seen by staff as signs that administrators not only are reacting to staff needs but also anticipating them. Staff have expressed a feeling of involvement and importance in being asked to participate in the future planning and expansion of the school. There is a feeling of exhilaration when they see a plan on which they have worked come to fruition. This excitement becomes contagious. Mr. Gary Rostkowski, an employee of Hannah More for 15 years, explained:

"What has evolved here is an extended family of sorts. This is not your typical colleague to colleague exchange; there is a real depth to the level of caring at this school that extends well beyond the regular working hours. It’s sort of like a barn-raising activity. We all get together to build this structure, support each other, create and maintain the program and the community. It helps me to get to work each day and motivates me to put forth my best efforts even beyond the time when I’m no longer being officially compensated. If my employer can extend his or her hand to me and offer these options to make my job and my family more comfortable, then I’m going to extend right back and do all that can to improve the facility and maintain a high level of performance. This is what administration has fostered and developed."


Individuals have basic needs for approval and recognition. When an organization makes legitimate efforts to address these concerns, other daily gestures of support are seen in a more positive light. Perhaps there will always be times when our profession leaves us feeling under-appreciated. However, this program has proven that a creative program of staff support can help nurture care givers who daily face the challenges of serving troubled children and youth.

This feature: Kerins, M. (1995). Caring for the caregivers. The Child Care Worker. 13,(1). pp 7-8

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