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69 OCTOBER 2004
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working with families

Some key characteristics of Child and Youth Care Workers

Maxine Kelly

"Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice; boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails". This Nursery Rhyme euphemistically implies that the stuff of which little girls and boys are made determine specific gender-based character traits. As Child and Youth Care Workers grow professionally and expand their scope of care to working with families, some thought must be given to the stuff we’re made of, to the characteristics that will guide us to new levels of professionalism. In Meaning Making and Intervention in Child and Youth Care Practice, Thom Garfat (2003) outlines twelve characteristics of Child and Youth Care Workers who are able to use daily life events effectively. This article examines three of these.

Many of my Child and Youth Care Worker experiences have preceded my theoretical knowledge. This has often led to reflective “Oh, I sees" and even more “Oh, no's". Still, at the core of my calling, I’ve been aware that in order to be effective as a Child and Youth Care Worker, there had to be more than a passion for helping, more than a patient temperament, more than developmental theories. While Child and Youth Care Workers frequently use daily life events in working with individual children or groups of children, our scope of intervention and treatment has slowly expanded to encompass work with families. It is in this transition to a systemic focus that Garfat’s (2003) characteristics are most poignant. For me, they’re the stuff of which a Child and Youth Care Worker is made and articulate the Worker's cross-reference between Theory and people-centered Practice. Three of these characteristics are particularly germane at this point in my career. They surface as I reflect on my past experiences, my present circumstance and the person I’ve become, as well as their relevance to me as a life-long learner. Of course, my understanding of these characteristics is limited by current awareness, making everything “learning in progress”, a concept not new to our profession. As we define how we work with families all of the characteristics invite a fresh, new look. Professional and personal reflection for me were stirred by:

Have a way of understanding how change occurs
Some years ago, the school district in which I worked distributed copies of Who Moved My Cheese (Johnson, 1998) as a way of introducing us to planned organizational change. In spite of the institutionalized attempt at preparation, change was still painful, and collectively resisted. While the book offered directives for the process, few of us related the plight of mice to our work and personal lives. My life experiences tell me that change is less of a sudden occurrence and more of process. It follows that “change occurs slowly and in many ways that are not simple and linear" (Phelan, 2003, p.69). Understanding how change occurs in a family is rooted in understanding the family as a system, their rules, roles, patterns, rhythms, and specifically how that system maintains its integrity (Phelan, 2003, p.70; Garfat, 2003, p.10). When the Child and Youth Care Worker understands these values, they put “relationship in the forefront, and make it the scaffold for all interventions" (Leaf, 1995, p.112). Thus, an understanding of the system and a relationship with the family becomes a way to leverage the system and create system-supportive interventions to destructive patterns. The framework for understanding the process of change includes the “processes of Noticing, Reflection, Preparation and Intervention (Garfat, 2003, p.24)". Garfat (2003) points out that the content of interventions is often determined by the Child and Youth Care Worker (p.24).

Are actively self-aware
Active self-awareness suggests constant scrutiny of both our conscious and available self, and the less accessible “sub-conscious" self. This process requires deep introspection. But what does this have to do with working with families? If we consider ourselves “products" of our families, Fewster’s (1990) words have relevance: “When we look to our values and beliefs and the assumptions which underlay them, we are exploring the territory of self and self in relationship (Garfat, 2003, p.12)". Active self-awareness then, sets the stage for understanding the origins of our own beliefs and values. Ricks (1989) claims that this historical and contextual self-awareness in turn influences our actions within the client family. (Garfat, 2003, p.12). Active self-awareness allows us to understand our relevance to and impact within the family system (p.12). Garfat (2003) explains this clearly: " ... family is, more than anything, a feeling, an experience, an experience of self in a particular context. As we explore this territory, as we place ourselves in the position of being with the young person and family, we open the opportunity to know a little more of their experiential world. (p.3)". I find this ethnographic approach to working with families fascinating because I know that as Child and Youth Care Workers we cannot ourselves remain unchanged by our work within families. Active self awareness facilitates change.

Are able to connect the immediate with the overall
The Child and Youth Care Worker approach to working with families might well present families with opportunity for change that is within reach. Having experienced the stress of an office based systemic approach that left the family feeling cornered and overwhelmed by quickly forgotten homework assignments, I have found much freshness and relevance in this approach. Intervention – one of the steps in the process of change – allows the worker the facility of immediacy, so that behaviours and emotions are still crisp, and observations are direct, and palpable. The Child and Youth Care Worker may use any number of “tools" to intervene in the behaviour as a precursor to change. When we intervene, we draw parallels between the immediate and the overall. “Interventions that are effective are related first to the immediate action and connected to the overall goals, not about previous events" (Garfat, 1998, p.16). Connecting the immediate to the overall demands that the Child and Youth Care Worker be actively self aware, and have a good sense of each family, their system and their patterns of interaction (p.17). Intervention that effectively connects the immediate to the overall requires the Child and Youth Care Worker to have high levels of both cognitive and emotional skills since there is little time for “mulling" over behaviours and cross checking theories (p.18). It is my impression that immediacy might serve as both a hindrance and a catalyst for change, and it is the skilled Child and Youth Care Worker who is able to make solid connections to the overall so as to stimulate change.

There’s no doubt, that given different opportunities and experiences, the priorities in these characteristics might change. The characteristics are however a great point of reflection and an outline for assessing personal and professional growth as we work with families.


Garfat, T. (Ed.) (2003). A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. Child & Youth Services, Volume 25, Numbers 1 / 2. N.Y. Haworth Press.

Garfat, T. (2003) Meaning Making and Intervention in Child and Youth Care Practice. Paper based on workshop presentation made at the SIRCC Conference, June 2003

Garfat, T. (Ed.) (2004). Intensive In-Home Family Support. Toronto. Canadian Scholars” Press

Johnson, S. (1998) Who Moved My Cheese. New York. G. P. Putman's Sons

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