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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 / BACK
Listen to this

The missing team member

Joan Bacon and Larry Brendtro

The voices of young people are seldom heard in the tribunals of educational and treatment planning. With very few exceptions, the child or adolescent is only an object for our examination, and not a participating subject. Brian Raychaba has said that young people must become partners in their own healing. This will require the creation of new ways of teaming youth with professionals, much as we seek to do with parents.

What are the barriers that prevent access of young people to responsible team participation? As in any case of oppression, the subjugated are “kept in their place" by prejudicial stereotypes and rationalisations which justify paternalistic authority. Among these myths and misconceptions are the following:

Youth would not want to participate in team meeting anyway.
Typically, youth who try to avoid participation have had bad previous experiences with such meetings. Their meeting avoidance may be rooted in the expectation that nobody really cares what they think, and powerful adults will remain in control of what happens to them. With such youth it will be important for adults to take time and effort to rebuild the trust needed to overcome their reluctance to participate. Schultz tells of a psychiatrist who confronted a teacher about the absence of a student at a conference about the child's behaviour: “Doesn’t he know we are talking about him? If you were in that position, wouldn’t you rather be on this side of the door?" As Adelman and colleagues suggest"...there is an increasing body of research suggesting that many youngsters, even pre-teenagers and those with psychoeducational problems, are capable of participating competently in decision-making forums". If we do not bar the door, youth will enter.

Children would not understand what’s happening at the meeting.
Many adults have the same problem. Parents may not fathom the fine points of the team meeting: the procedures, the vocabulary, how the systems of a school or agency work, or what role they have In the meeting. The result is that parents tend to be passive participants or, like youth who have meeting aversions, simply avoid them altogether. Professionals are often just as confused when drowned in jargon or overtechnical vocabulary. When “insiders" use language as an instrument of power and domination, others are robbed of their right to understand and participate in important decisions.

It isn’t necessary for children to attend the meeting. Parents or other adults can tell them about it later.
Those locked out of the meeting run a great risk of misunderstanding what happened in their absence. Sometimes students receive almost no information about discussions held at the meetings. In other cases, the “designated messenger adult" brings a tale so cursive or distorted that the child cannot possibly comprehend what has transpired.

Second-hand information often stresses what the child has done wrong. Receiving only negative feedback from a team meeting discourages children and compounds the feeling that adults do not appreciate the child's efforts or feelings. Such miscommunications exacerbate conflicts between the child, the parents and other team members.

Having the child participate in the meeting will take too much time away from “doing the business" of the meeting.
Democratic processes are slower than snap authoritarian decision making. Gaining a group consensus is more cumbersome than top-down patriarchal management. However, any advantage of “boss management” is lost when it comes time to implement decisions. People are notoriously reluctant to support a plan in which they had no input. But when the team has a sense of ownership and understands the decision, the commitment to action has been built. When we “team up" without the child's participation, without considering the child's priorities or Interests, we cannot blame the child for being resistant or passive. While excluding the child may streamline meetings, it impedes implementation.

Students might become resistant, disruptive or manipulative and would upset the meeting.
Shea and Bauer found that some parents were reluctant to have their children present at conferences. They were afraid that the child might disclose private family information, that the child's presence might inhibit them or other team members from speaking openly, and that the meeting might be too stressful for the child. Other parents may fear that the child will show the same kinds of negative behaviours that required a meeting in the first place. Professionals also may be concerned that the child right say or do something embarrassing. The child's opinions and actions are less predictable than those of most adults and may not be couched in -terms and behaviours that are socially appropriate. As adults we must overcome the fear that we will be unable to “control" the child during the meeting, and become courageous enough even to risk being uncomfortable or embarrassed. it was, after all, a child who announced in the middle of an otherwise dignified and formal procession: “The Emperor has no clothes!" The candour of children can free us all from polite little lies that cloak the nakedness of our interventions.

Children need to be protected from information that might be damaging to their self-esteem.
Children are realists concerning their own performance and behaviour. Very young children are capable of making comparisons between themselves and others. Schools send all sorts of messages about winners and losers: report cards, tests graded on the curve, creative writing corrected with red ink, “special” curricula, and so on. Children are also aware of labels given them by their peers that are much more potent than the ones we use In meetings, many so colourful that we won’t repeat them here. Children and youth need reliable, factual information about their abilities and their disabilities. Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job of giving them accurate Information, Recent literature on helping students with disabilities bridges the gap between school and adult life and tells us that many students do not understand their disabilities. Yet such understanding is vital to students” academic and psychological growth, and can be provided to students as early as in the elementary grades. Keeping children out of team meetings may serve to enable undesirable behaviours such as avoidance, denial of responsibility, and learned helplessness, all of which further undermine self-esteem and contribute to discouragement.

This feature: An extract from Bacon, J. and Brendtro, L. (1993) The missing team member. The Child Care Worker Vol. 11 No. 3 March 1993, p.5. Originally published in Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.12

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