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7 AUGUST 1999
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What child care administrators need to know about work on the front line

Sabitha Samjee, Himla Makan, Anne Pierre, Molly Myeza and Juanita MacKay

Philosophy, vision and mission
The success of every organisation depends heavily on the way it is structured and managed in terms of its policy and philosophy. Today we all need a vision. Visions are the road-maps of the mind; they are the destinations towards which everyone is travelling. Without vision, we must depend on others for motivation and guidance; without it, we wander in the dark.

Organisations themselves need visions. It is essential for everyone in the organisation, from top to bottom, to share a vision of where it is headed and how it plans to get there. Visions are sometimes called mission statements. It is the responsibility of each administrator to lead others towards the organisation's vision. Your job as a leader is to help others to see the vision, to want it and to reach it. You must do this because all members of the team are needed to contribute to its success. As a leader you must be able to describe accurately the vision of your organisation in words that can be understood and passed on to others: your organisation is strong when all team members strive for a common goal.

Role management
A primary task of the administrator is to manage the various roles of team members. With a thorough understanding of what each role contributes (potentials, skills, specialisations), and of the differences between roles, the administrator promotes effective and professional team functioning.

Administrator's role
Child care administrators (directors, department heads, supervisors, etc.) are generally seen to be middle managers, people who concern themselves with policy decisions, resource development, programme formulation, planning and maintenance of organisational systems, as well as with middle management functions such as negotiation, advocacy, reporting and recommending.

Child care workers' roles
The quality of child care practice is the mainstay of any child care organisation. Whereas child care administrators provide overall organisational management, child care workers provide the direct, specialised service in the management of the children's development and treatment programmes. While the child is resident, the child care worker assumes the role of 'significant adult', ensuring that the physical, social, cognitive and spiritual needs of the child are met. Theirs is a professional role. They work with difficult children and youth. They have great responsibility and accountability to the children, the parents and the community. They are under tremendous pressure to be successful life space practitioners and good role models. They are certainly not 'glorified nannies' or housekeepers waiting the in background to make tea and sandwiches for visitors!

Interdependent roles, shared tasks
Despite their different roles, administrators and workers are interdependent. Child care workers have to do their jobs according to the mission statement and their stated roles and tasks. But they cannot do this unless they are provided with the tools of their trade, with information, and with support. The administrator provides the budget, the facilities and the programme in return for performance and cost-effectiveness. In fact, the more these tasks are shared and mutually agreed and understood, the more efficient is the organisation. Unfortunately, with most organisations, budgets are drawn up (often on a simplistic basis such as a percentage increase on last year's costs) by people far removed from the direct work with the children and families. Child care workers would have much to contribute to the budgeting process, with their hands-on experience and their front-line responsibility. Certainly in residential child care facilities, budgeting is not a purely economic process, but integral to the weighting, valuing and emphasis of direct programmes. (See the box “Iron hearted" at the bottom of this page.)

Administrators, your Child and Youth Care workers are skilled and interested: involve them to the advantage of all concerned, the organisation and the children. Child care workers also have clear expectations of you, the administrators. Try to hear these, and make it possible for them to express them. Often workers feel that managers have no understanding of the demands of the job on the ground. For example, “Take this child to the hospital" is not just a single, simple task. The transport arrangements, the time spent waiting with the child and collecting medicines, the ripple effects on the duties and timetable of colleagues back home, relief staff arrangements ... these are all things which we expect the administrator to understand and help with.

Staff development: The L.E.A.R.N. principles
We child care workers would like to be managed in terms of the five 'LEARN' principles: Leadership, Expectations, Acting as though you care, Respecting employees as professionals, and Never stifling personal growth

Leadership includes leading by example, and by teaching staff to think for themselves. A manager who is inefficient lowers all standards of excellence and creates mediocrity in both organisation and staff. Employees respect excellence and efficiency – which includes being competent, skilful, capable and productive. Efficiency not only saves time; it makes more time to satisfy the other levels of employee satisfaction. Good leaders don't order subordinates around; they build a positive climate of responsible decision-making and responsibility throughout the organisation. Instead of saying “Do this" or “Do that", rather ask 'What do you think! Try it and let's see how that works." Over time both staff and children treated this way will learn to think for themselves, to ask questions, to examine alternatives and learn yet more from their experience.

Knowing what you expect from them gives most people a desire to contribute. Show them the finish line. Not knowing where this is makes many people unfocussed and ineffective. More, let them know the value of their contribution. Can you expect them to put out a high level of productivity if they do not feel involved in determining and planning towards the end result? Allow your child care workers to participate in setting expectations. When they learn to ask questions like “What do we need to happen here?", “What do we have to do to reach that goal?" and “How well did we do?" you know you are building motivated and satisfied child care workers. Rewrite job descriptions, rearrange work flows, give more responsibility for problem solving, and provide recognition for work well done. Loosen up and liberate the potential of your child care workers, and you will be rewarded with higher morale and productivity.

Act as though you care
When employees feel that they come first with their managers, the children will feel that they come first with their caregivers. It is much easier to give when you are receiving. Get people involved and listen to them; there is no better way to make them fed that they belong. When employees are not asked for their opinion (or worse, when they are asked and then not taken seriously) they become disconnected from the vision. They don't participate in the future of the organisation. Keep staff informed, so that they always know what is going on. Without this they won't know of the organisation's progress, and they won't know how to help. Worse, they will feel left out and disempowered – exactly the opposite of what you want in your staff.

Respect workers as professionals
As you respect individuals for their contribution to your programme, you create a more respectful environment We respect people by acknowledging their field of knowledge and experience, their special skills and achievements. Every encounter, meeting or consultation is an opportunity for this. Respect can also be shown by upgrading the workplace. The physical environment you create can be interpreted as a measure of your respect for those who work there. A fresh coat of paint, more light and interesting artwork, are always good ideas. So is asking people if there is anything they would particularly like in making their workplace more pleasant. Respect can best be shown by treating people as professionals. Hire them professionally, talk to them as professionals, ask opinions as of professionals. When you provide a professional atmosphere, employees will act and respond accordingly.

Never stifle personal growth
A final step towards motivating staff is to create opportunities for personal growth. Never let them feel that they are at the ceiling of their career or profession. In those circumstances people lose personal vision; they stagnate and languish. See in which directions they feel like growing – it could be a direction in which your programme needs to grow. If you spend all your energy containing people and keeping them from growing, you have spent all your energy. The exciting thing is that when your staff grow and your organisation grows, you have to grow. When you create growth for others, you create it for yourself too. So when you have provided the first four steps in this LEARN process, just keep on going.

All of the above discussion emphasises the responsibility we share – not only for the continuing growth and healthy functioning of the staff, but also of our whole organisation – for the sake of the children. The children continue to change, too. Many institutions (both administrators and staff) are unwilling to work with new “categories" of troubled children and young people. Most people who are not trained are fearful of working with difficult youngsters who present with problem or “challenging" behaviour. The result is that many children remain unhelped, kept unnecessarily long in places of safety or even in prisons. The demands made upon the child care service in our country today are serious enough for us to take child care teams seriously. Listen to what they have to say about the realities of practice on the front line.


Child care workers are most easily frustrated when administrators are seen to put the organisation ahead of its real function. Children are sometimes treated as though they are there for the sake of the institution, rather than the institution being there for the children.

This scenario may sound a bit petty. In fact, it is. The clothes iron in the cottage is broken. Before it can be repaired or replaced, the child care worker has to go through a long cross-examination as to how this has happened, who broke it, how, why ... This procedure may involve two or three people in the administration and then even go to the Board and its Finance Sub-Committee. It comes all the way back to the child care worker who gets lectured on how much irons cost, being responsible and accountable if ever it breaks again, etc. All this can take weeks. In the mean time anxiety in the cottage goes sky-high – there is more conflict at peak periods, the children try to borrow the iron from the next-door cottage who are fiercely reluctant in case they have to go through the same process ...

Too late! The driver has become impatient and the kombi has left for school. For the second time this week children are late for school. The headmaster punishes them and complains to the director of the children's home. Angry and embarrassed, he calls in the child care worker and the children, and there is talk of spoiling the good name of the programme. The cottage is pronounced 'unstable', and both staff and children are alarmed.

Because the iron broke!

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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