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11 DECEMBER 1999
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Self-awareness in the child care worker

Steve Young

An essential quality in any child care worker, says the author, who was at the Olalla Center for Children and Families, Toledo, Oregon USA

Child care work demands a high degree of personal investment from those who endeavor to provide quality therapeutic care and treatment for children. It is no easy task to master the numerous and complex skills required in this type of work. Unfortunately, it is not possible to learn of all of the skills required in an academic setting. As a result, child care workers must acquire many skills through direct contact with children, and by observing fellow child care workers and other professionals in the field. Since many necessary skills cannot be developed without first-hand experience in dealing with children, many mistakes are bound to be made by the beginning child care worker. Obviously, not even the most experienced child care workers can avoid making mistakes from time to time. Fortunately, most children are resilient enough to handle some mistakes from those who care for them without any lasting detrimental effects. So, the problem is: “How do we acquire the skills we need while minimising the mistakes and increasing the speed and ability with which we learn and develop these skills?" It is my experience that increasing self-awareness is a primary means through which skills can be developed and non-therapeutic infringements can be avoided in dealing with children. First, I would like to share some ways in which self-awareness may be increased, and later, to discuss some of the areas in which I feel the need for self-awareness is most important.

Increasing self-awareness

  1. Write a daily log or journal. This is a good way to keep in touch with your feelings as you think through the day and keep an account of things you liked and disliked. It is also a good method of measuring your professional development as you look back through your journal and read the different types of issues and problems you have dealt with. You may also be able to note any patterns in the way you have dealt with problems such as burnout, etc.

  2. Observe others. Observation of fellow child care workers, other professionals and parents is one of the best ways of picking up techniques or methods of dealing with children. Something that works for another child care worker won't always work for you, but it may be worth a try.

  3. Ask for feedback. The ability to give and receive feedback from fellow workers can be one of the most valuable tools a child care worker has – and one of the most difficult. Giving purposeful and constructive criticism in a non-threatening manner is not easy in a profession like ours where workers put so much of themselves into their job performance. Receptivity to others – the ability to both consider and implement suggested alternatives – is also a trait that is not easily acquired, but one that nevertheless offers an excellent way of improving your personal skills.

  4. Supervision. The ability to use supervision is also a difficult skill to develop. To allow yourself to be open and honest with your supervisor may be to expose your weaknesses. Yet, it is also a way to allow yourself to be human, and to deal with any problems which may interfere in your handling of children and to receive suggestions and support in your efforts to become a more effective child care worker.

  5. Be a participant-observer. Don't become so involved in participating in activities with your kids that you lose the wider view of what's going on. Observe the effects of your work. List the things which seem to work for you and look at what you have problems with. Break down the problem areas and try to figure out what's going wrong. Ask co-workers to observe you in the areas you have trouble with, and then to give you feedback and suggestions. Track which kids you work best with and which you have more trouble with and ask yourself why. This may also be a good topic for supervision.

  6. Participate in training. This is an excellent way to learn new skills and to test out your ideas with other care workers.

  7. Role-play. Role-playing provides a great way to practise skills and yet not have to take the risk of having them backfire with “real children". It also provides an opportunity for receiving feedback from colleagues, especially if videotape facilities are available. Videotaping, whether of role-playing or actual interaction with kids, allows you to view yourself and how your actions and reactions affect others. It also can be a lot of fun!

  8. Listen to the kid. Often kids will tell you what you're doing wrong – and also the things you do that help them. You might even try telling a kid that you're interested in becoming a better child care worker and would appreciate any suggestions he might have. You might well be surprised at the suggestions and insight a child can offer.

Areas of self-awareness
The primary vehicle through which growth is encouraged in a child is the relationship between the child care worker and the child. When child care workers fail to cultivate their self-awareness, they jeopardise the potential of their relationships with the children in their care. Therefore, introspection must be an essential part of the child care worker's job description.

Strengths and weaknesses
At the core of the introspective process, the child care worker has a need to be aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses. A consciousness of personal limitations and capabilities is a sign of a seasoned child care worker. When this sort of awareness is present, the worker can avoid letting a child push him past his limits, and is much more likely to achieve his fullest potential as a helping agent. Many of the children we work with have accumulated more hate and anger than we have patience to deal with. One of the purposes of teamwork is being able to count on support and assistance when our reserves of patience and energy are getting low. If we fail to rely on teamwork and ask for help when needed, then we risk becoming too emotionally involved to remain objective. This lessens the accuracy of our judgement and decreases our ability to meet the needs of troubled children. I think that the self-awareness of knowing when we need help end being able to ask for it is a sign of strength, rather than weakness.

Another important area in which to be self aware of is that of our personal values. This means several things. How we were raised is not always the best way of meeting the needs of the children we work with, as the needs of emotionally disturbed children are often different – or more extreme. Yet our upbringing is an integral pan of our personality, a strong influence affecting how and what we do. Thus, all child care workers need to be aware of their prejudices, their stereotypes and past experiences, in order to prevent these influences from adversely affecting our interactions with kids and coworkers. Also, we should remember that our personal notions about children are often based on our own limited information or lack of experience. This necessitates our being open to suggestions and new ideas. Our consultation with co-workers and other professionals and supervision can be helpful in checking out our personal ideas and methods.

Objectivity in relationships
The next 'self-awareness area' to discuss is what is often referred to as 'professional distance'. Personally, I have no use for the term, since 'distance' has implications not always conducive to a helping relationship. It is also a term sometimes used as an excuse (or a defence) against involvement which is essential for effective work with children. However, there are some areas involved in relating to children, referred to as 'professional distance', which are very important in child care work.

The first of these is not allowing a child to become over-dependent on you. Child care workers should be enablers. That is, we should help enable the child to meet as many of his or her own needs as possible, rather than trying to do for the child that which he is capable of doing for himself. Otherwise we may encourage over-dependence and limit the child's ability to reach his fullest potential.

We should also avoid over-investment in or over-identification with a child leading to the point where our objectivity ceases and the child's pain becomes our own. If most of our needs for acceptance and love are not met outside of our work, we are seriously endangering and limiting our ability to work with and deal rationally with such emotionally disturbed children. An example is a child who may be meeting staff needs for acceptance and love. When that child begins throwing chairs and cursing, he becomes a threat to the staff's needs, which in turn decreases their ability to deal rationally and therapeutically with the child. An implication of this, is that when child care workers fail to be aware of how their own needs are being met, this may limit the amount of abuse they can tolerate.

As most child care workers in residential settings know, the ability to handle therapeutically large amounts of abuse from the children they serve, without over-reacting or becoming counter-aggressive, is a requirement of the job. A major cause of 'burn-out' in child care workers can often be directly associated with a failure or inability adequately to meet personal needs, whether this is attributed to the institution, the individual child care workers, or both.

Another reason it is essential not to depend on the children we work with to meet our needs is that often their needs have been seriously neglected for so long that they are unable to give anything back in a relationship. We must be careful not to be less accepting of these children because of what they have or do not have to offer us in return for our investment. Asking for more than the children can usually offer only fulfils their expectation of rejection or feelings of worthlessness.

It is also necessary that administrators and supervisors be aware that the needs of the child care worker must be adequately met to enable them to best provide for the needs of the children. This idea has many implications, especially for staff morale in an agency. Child care workers cannot adequately provide for the needs of the children in their care if their own needs are being neglected.

The last area I would like to deal with involving the need for self-awareness, concerns roles. The better child care workers understand their roles, the more secure they feel in responding to the children and the more accurate their judgement is of the most therapeutic way to meet each child's needs.

Child care workers assume many roles, which include: Provider “of both physical and emotional needs; Protector “of the child against himself and his environment; Friend “someone who listens, tries to understand and cares; Teacher “of life skills. Objectivity, together with the ability to be a participant-observer, is necessary for an accurate judgement of the most appropriate role to assume.

Which role is best is determined by several things. Each child's needs are different and the types of interaction they require are often just as diverse. Different situations will also require you to assume various roles. For example, a group in a cottage who are testing limits do not usually need to be responded to by the 'friend', but rather by the 'protector' who provides security. A child testing your relationship probably does not need the 'teacher' to lecture him, but someone who will provide limits (security) and at the same time show concern and acceptance. Increasing self-awareness does, of course, involve a degree of risk-taking.

Generally, the more aware we become, the more we realise how little we really know. We may find out things about ourselves that we don't like. Then again, we often discover many strengths and abilities we never knew we had. One of the great things about child care work is that kids tend to keep us honest. They can be very astute and are surprisingly accurate in their observations of adults easily seeing through most disguises we may put on.

To be effective, we must be real. This is one reason why many child care workers experience much personal growth through their work. In exploring what works with children, we must look at ourselves and at the dynamics of human interactions. We begin to learn more about all the things that are important in relationships and to incorporate these things in our own lives.

It is in this process of developing as child care workers that we discover that what we learn applies not only to working with children, but to living in general. For what we find lacking (and must therefore develop) in our children are life skills: how to take care of yourself and how to care for others, how to love and how to be loved, how to respect others and how to be respected, and so on ... So we are teachers of life skills, and as all teachers know (or soon find out), in order to be effective you must know a lot about what you are teaching.

You are confronted by questions you don't yet know the answers to, but don't be afraid to admit you don't know. Listen, observe and be open to learning from your children, their parents, your fellow child care workers, and, most importantly, yourself.

Reprinted from Child Care Work in Focus. Copyright – The Association of Child and Youth Care Practice.

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