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34 NOVEMBER 2001
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Notes on using plain language in Child and Youth Care Work

Jack Phelan

The basic premise
Treatment language reflects frameworks that do not have a “fit" for the kind of work which Child and Youth Care practitioners do. The language of psychology, social work, and mental health does not resonate with the day to day experience of doing effective Child and Youth Care work. As Child and Youth Care practitioners use this jargon to discuss their work, it requires a translation that lessens their ability to describe the impact of Child and Youth Care work and creates an impediment to achieving professional power and capability.

The result
By trying to assume the frameworks of these other approaches, the treatment plans that Child and Youth Care practitioners create are simplistic and circular; e.g. the youth needs to attend school regularly and control his aggression. Often the written descriptions of our work goals could just as easily have been written by the youth’s mother. We have a stated purpose of being central to the treatment team and having a holistic view of the client, but we don’t articulate our role in the process.

Some observations for discussion
The approach taken by psychological language is that diagnosis and problem identification by an “expert" is a key step. Often, we end up having little more than an elaborate description of what is wrong after all our thoughts are noted. Typically, after listening to the rest of the treatment team congratulate themselves for recommending expert “answers" for the Child and Youth Care practitioner to implement, the Child and Youth Care response is to believe that none of these people would survive even one day as a Child and Youth Care worker.

The response to the “I have the answer for you" message is “no you don't", yet this isn’t dealt with openly. A big reason for this passive-aggressive stance is that the language to reply is not available to the Child and Youth Care practitioner.

Child and Youth Care work is a living with/self in action approach to creating growth in youth and families. The judgements about how and when to create challenges and opportunities during the course of a day is a complex skill. We need a way to communicate this complexity and to generalize the underlying principles to learn from each other.

Much of the theory about therapeutic intervention is resisted by Child and Youth Care practitioners, because it requires accommodating this new info into existing experience and it doesn’t resonate with experience. I believe that this is caused more by language than by the usefulness of the theory.

Experienced Child and Youth Care practitioners value discussing real case examples with other workers at the coffee break more than the workshop session they are attending. The language is better and the discussion is more believable.

Creating a language
The use of personality growth frameworks from Erik Erikson are very helpful to create examples for a Child and Youth Care language that deals with using external control to develop trust and predictability, the use of choice and challenge to support strength and power, the development of self-control and connection to others as stages of growth. We can shift out of the existing terminology which uses phrases such as autonomy and initiative into more day-to-day terms like strength/power and self-control without doing any damage to the integrity of the theory. This is one of many examples of principles and frameworks that can be used to describe the work being done, and which can create accurate communication and learning.

The framework proposed
The Child and Youth Care Worker is not a therapist or a counselor in the traditional sense, but rather an “experience arranger", someone who creates opportunities in the real world for people to experience themselves as competent and successful. The use of strategically planned and spontaneous events in the life space to support the other person to change toward a more competent and hopeful picture of him/herself is the main tool of our profession.

The sense of safety and trust required in the process will be a direct result of the relationship quality between the Child and Youth Care and the other person. This foundational process has long been recognized in our field and is the focus of much of the recent literature.

The risk of shifting out of a belief (hopelessness, failure) which has been ingrained through life-long reinforcement can only be attempted in a very safe and accepting relationship. The “counseling strategy" used is to assist the person to become aware of the thoughts and feelings immediately experienced prior to the arranged task or event and to support reflection after the event, so that the competence experienced is not lost or misinterpreted. This requires a skilled worker who is in the life space and often a co-experiencer, not an office bound and non-involved commentator.

The everydayness of our work can mask the very sophisticated and complex interventions that we do. Our need for an appropriate language to articulate this complexity is paradoxically entwined with a need to keep it simple. Child and Youth Care professionals can do this, as we resist the urge to upgrade our status at team conferences by joining in the distancing jargon of other groups. Our increased ability to reflect the work we do will also expand the influence of our youth and families in determining their own destiny.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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