CYC-Online 93 OCTOBER 2006
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Thinking theory, doing practice

Jackie Winfield

Positive Behavior Facilitation (PBF) is a comprehensive approach to understanding and intervening in the behavior of youth. This article describes the components of PBF.

Thinking Theory
Sometimes, theories provide us with useful ways of understanding the world. Many of them are fascinating, some are bizarre, none represent the one and only truth. Theories are an abstraction of the world, and as such, can never provide a holistic framework for understanding events, particularly events involving the social world. No human being or human phenomenon can be completely described or explained through any single theory, because the real world is a highly complex place filled with highly complex individuals and the relationships between them.

Child and youth care work is not a theoretical exercise. As any new parent or child and youth care worker will tell you, no amount of reading or attendance at various courses can prepare one for the realities of actually taking care of a child, or group of children.

A Theory
For example, if there was a set of instructions (or a theory) for the rather mundane task of changing a child's nappy, it might read something like this:

Step 1: Make sure that you have a clean nappy, wipes and the necessary cream available.
Step 2: Lie the child on a suitable surface. Do not leave the child unattended as she/he might roll and fall.
Step 3: Remove the dirty nappy.
Step 4: Clean the child.
Step 5: Apply the necessary cream.
Step 6: Place the clean nappy under the child's bottom and fasten comfortably.
Step 7: Dispose of the soiled nappy.

The Reality
This sounds quite simple! However, real life rarely runs as smoothly as this. At times, the child may be crying or screaming (because the surface is cold, the dirty nappy is uncomfortable, the skin is chaffed, your hands are cold, the child wants to be held, is hungry, tired ...), and this could be accompanied by wriggling, kicking, trying to pull the nappy off, tensing the muscles, or curling up. As the fresh nappy is placed under the child, she relieves herself on the nappy, with spillage on the “suitable surface” and her clothing. Now the child is wriggling in the mess and you’re trying to clean everything up! Two hands are just not enough! Eventually you manage, and then, realise that now you need another nappy. You can’t reach the fresh nappies without leaving the place where the child is lying but she could fall if unattended. So you pick the child up and carry her while you get the fresh nappy. Of course, there’s the possibility that the child may relieve herself again at this point and now you’re in a right mess. Let’s not take the scenario any further (even though you still haven’t managed to get a fresh nappy on the child), but just add a few other children needing assistance, the telephone ringing, a knock at the door and the fact that you didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Nappy-changing is not a simple seven-step exercise once it includes real people in real life. The lived experience is far more complex and demanding than the neat little theory or procedure, and as such, requires a great deal more than the ability to memorise a list of facts or concepts or steps. This is the reason why one cannot learn to do effective child and youth care work through purely theoretical learning. One can only learn to do child and youth care work by doing child and youth care work, through appropriate application of appropriate theory. True learning involves experiential learning and includes practical placement work with real children and real colleagues in real organisations in the real world, with all their “and our “individual and interwoven complexities.

The Role of Experience
Human beings learn, grow and develop through new experiences, and through their capacity to attach new meanings to old experiences. Child and youth care learners who are committed to their own development (as all child and youth care workers should be) need to seek opportunities for new experiences, to move out from their comfort zones and take the risk of entering unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations where they might feel insecure and incompetent.

Practical work should be so much more than a mere accumulation of a minimum number of hours spent at a particular place. Time spent is not necessarily equivalent to experience gained. Certainly, time spent is a factor, but it is the quality of that time, how it is used and made meaningful that is more important in terms of experiential learning. For example, most child and youth care workers would agree that it is not possible to build a strong relationship with a young person in one day. However, spending months or even years with a person does not necessarily mean that a strong bond has been formed either. One might spend hundreds of hours at a placement but merely repeat the same superficial experience of day one many times over. Repetition is not the same as experience.

Learning Lessons
Experience and reflection on that experience should encourage the development of new insights so that one learns from one’s mistakes (and successes), and is enabled to do things more competently and confidently next time. How one does child and youth care work should be quite different by the end of a practical placement to how one did it at the beginning. If we think for a moment about the nappy-changing experience in the earlier example, we would expect that you might do things a little differently next time. Perhaps, you would make sure you start off with more than one nappy and lots of extra wipes available. Perhaps, you’d tell your colleague that you'll be busy for a while and he should deal with the other children, the door and the telephone. Perhaps, you'll bring a change of clothing next time. Perhaps, more experience with and knowledge of this particular child might mean that you sing softly or give the child a favourite toy to hold for comfort or distraction. Perhaps, you'll make sure you go to bed a little earlier so that you’re not exhausted and irritable. All of these would indicate some level of learning from experience.

Engagement in Learning
Aspects of one’s growth and development should be identifiable by self and others because true learning is made visible through action, and child and youth care work involves lots of action! The value of any practical placement lies not in the accumulation of hours signed in a log book, but in the willingness of learners to seek new opportunities for experience and the recognition that this may be uncomfortable and even, painful. Furthermore, learning from experience requires one to step outside of that experience and reflect upon it by oneself and under the guidance of a more experienced worker process of supervision. Learning is not a passive exercise where knowledge is provided from the external world. True learning requires the initiative and active engagement of the entire self, and through such engagement with theory and experience, the self will be challenged and stretched. Such is the value of practical work and experiential training.

This feature: Winfield, J. (2005). Thinking theory, doing practice. Child and Youth Care, Vol. 23 (8), pp.22-23

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