It is important to recognise the diverse origins of child and youth care as a profession. The early pioneers came from the fields of medicine, education and psychology, primarily, with some from sociology, social work, nursing and general arts educations. This eclectic history is still reflected in the make-up of the field today, particularly amongst the educators and agency directors who tend to be older and who reflect on the fact that many formal child and youth care educational programmes are relatively new.
I see five key elements of the child and youth care profession. Taken together, these five characteristics differentiate this profession from other allied human service disciplines. Although some of these characteristics are shared with some other disciplines, this particular cluster is unique to child and youth care work.
1. Child and youth care is primarily
focussed on the growth and development of children and youth.
While families, communities and organisations are important concerns for child and youth care professionals, these are viewed as contexts for the care of children and young people. For us, the development of children and youth is the very heart of the matter.
2. Child and youth care is concerned with
the totality of a child's functioning.
The focus is on young persons living through a certain portion of the human life cycle, rather than on any one facet of functioning, as is characteristic of some other human service disciplines. For example, physiotherapists and physicians are primarily concerned with physical health, psychiatrists and psychologists with mental health, probation officers with criminal behaviour, teachers with cognitive development, and so on. Only the emerging field of gerontology appears to share child and youth care's concern with the totality of a person during one portion of the life cycle. With such a holistic perspective, we specialise in being child-focussed generalists. We cannot work alone, and need to work closely with a variety of other professionals.
3. Child and youth care has developed a
model of social competence rather than a pathology-based orientation to
This is sometimes referred to as a “developmental perspective". Child and youth care workers believe that children are doing the best they can at any given moment, and that we can best assist the child by working towards the “next step", by building on existing strengths and abilities. The writings of such pioneers as Pestalozzi, Montessori, Korczak and Makarenko demonstrate this orientation.
4. Child and youth care is based on (but not
restricted to) direct, day to day work with children and youth in their
Unlike many other professionals, child and youth care practitioners do not operate in a single setting, or on an interview or sessional basis. We work “at the coal face", as they say in England (or “in the trenches", as they say in the U.S.), at all hours, and we work in residential centres, schools, hospitals, family homes, day care, on the streets, etc. Although child and youth workers also assume professional supporting roles, such as supervising, directing, training, policy-making and researching, they remain grounded in the direct care work.
5. Child and youth care involves the
development of therapeutic relationships with children, their families,
and other informal and formal helpers.
Such therapeutic relationships lie at the very centre of our work, and they combine the richness and intimacy of the “personal" with the rigour and goal-directedness of the “professional". The development of such therapeutic relationships requires an integration of a complex constellation of knowledge, skills, and elements of self. In short, it requires a high level of personal/professional development on the part of the worker.
In brief, child and youth care is work with children and youth, as whole persons, in order to promote their social competence and healthy development, by participating in and using their day-to-day environments and life experiences, and through the development of therapeutic relationships, most importantly the relationship with the particular child or youth who is the focus of attention. (The word “therapeutic' is taken to mean “having healing or curative powers; gradually or methodically ameliorative".)
But how does the curriculum for child and youth care work differ from that for social work, for example? I have heard a variety of views on the different emphases between social work and child and youth care, most of which are generalisations which do not hold true in every programme or every jurisdiction. However, they may indicate a leaning, or difference of emphasis, between social work and child and youth care. Some of these differences include:
I have come to think that, fundamentally, the reason for tension between social work and child and youth care work (and such tension is discernible to some degree in all of the countries I have visited – England, Hungary, Israel and Sweden, as well as in the US and Canada and, it seems, in South Africa as well) is the presence of two underlying and eternal ways of understanding human society and social change. This is simply an intuition of mine – I do not know if it fits with your experience.
On the one hand we have a belief, dominant in social work and in people attracted into social work, that human beings are essentially good, and that if we can only restructure society, (for example, create equity in our legislation and policies; eliminate poverty; give primacy to social concerns over economic ones; and give more influence to social workers and their clients), all will be well in the world. Thus, if this is the underlying belief, mobilising adults (who have votes and potentially strong voices) for social change is likely to be the most effective strategy to achieve the profession's goals and aspirations for society. Thus, social work tends to be quite good at managing and influencing political dynamics. On the other hand, we have the belief, dominant in child and youth care work and in those attracted to child and youth care work, that people are essentially good, and that if we can only help them to achieve order within themselves and in their daily lives (for example, develop a sense of personal esteem, relate to others more effectively, gain competence in some area of work or learning), all will be well. In this approach, influencing young people while there is maximum opportunity for personal change is likely to be the most effective strategy to achieve the profession's goals and aspirations for society. Thus, child and youth care work is not focused so much on managing the political dynamics as on facilitating growth, development and the learning of life skills.
Of course, as I know full well, having served for five years as the head of a department in one, that universities are far more political than developmental or therapeutic by naturel Thus the successful evolution of child and youth care within the university as a full and equal partner can be made easier or more difficult depending on the stance assumed by those who are more politically motivated and involved.
In its healthiest manifestations, the two viewpoints or models outlined above can combine to offer a powerful “one-two punch" or win-win" dynamic for social change. In its most dysfunctional manifestations, these two perspectives and approaches can engage in a life and death battle or no-win struggle with each other. If you can permit me, as an ignorant outsider, to comment on the possibilities which may exist in South Africa, I would venture the opinion that a conscious acceptance and celebration of this difference and the diversity of approaches would be most in harmony with the vision and mission taking shape within the country as a whole. Heaven knows there will be more than enough for both professions to do in the years and generations ahead. It really doesn't make sense, to my mind, for one approach to try to control or dominate the other, and the real losers of such a struggle would always be the children and families we are supposedly there to serve.
To my mind, the two professions are very complementary, and there is clearly a greater need than we can meet for graduates from both approaches. At the same time, there is a degree of incompatibility between the two approaches, and attempts to combine child and youth care preparation within the social work orientation, both in Great Britain and North America, has resulted in the child and youth care role being devalued and de-emphasised, with the result that children and young people are not well served.
The apparent similarities between the two professional approaches can be misleading. While both work with families, for example, the social work profession is involved with the family per se, as a social agent, ensuring that the family receives appropriate social benefits and that the family unit is not abusive to any of its members, and so on. Child and youth care workers with university-level training, on the other hand, are involved with families where there are children or youth involved, and are trained in addressing the developmental issues and day-to-day dynamics of relationships, within both the home and the community environment, on a flexible schedule, as determined by the nature and intensity of the needs of the particular family.
Similarly, while both need to learn communication skills, the types, purposes and contexts of communication are so different that the appropriate teaching format and course content need to be significantly different. In other areas, such as human growth and development, social work is only interested in, and only has room for, an overview or introduction, while child and youth care workers require an in-depth understanding combined with intensive integrative practice experience at the interpersonal level.
Similarities not real
In summary the apparent similarities between social work and child and youth care are just that – appearances rather than realities, and one needs only to compare the overall quality of child care programmes being provided in places with well-developed child and youth care educational programmes (i.e. in most of Europe and parts of Canada, especially British Columbia and French-speaking Quebec) with those where there are few or no such programmes (i.e. the U.S.A. and Great Britain). While many social work leaders would like to see social work education provide the type of training characteristic of child and youth care/social pedagogue programmes, the fact is that, in practice, such a focus tends to be watered down and displaced by the demands for more generic preparation of a much broader scope.
The ultimate and major reason for supporting a university-based child and youth care degree programme is that it is better for children and young people to have well-trained child and youth care workers and well-trained social workers.