CYC-Online 119 JANUARY 2009
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Negotiating the Life Space (1)

Jack Phelan

(Part 2 here and Part 3 here)

I am thinking lately about this fundamental ingredient of Child and Youth Care practice. Like most important concepts, it is more complex than it appears, and we often merely take it as a given, without spending much time thinking through the implications embedded in Life Space work.

Practicing our profession in the life space of other people is a clearly different approach to delivering human services than the office based approaches of most practitioners. Child and youth care is done most effectively in the natural places that surround us, not in a neutral or artificially constructed place. The lack of control of environmental dynamics and the stress of mutual experience make Life Space work equivalent to “working without a net”. New practitioners are acutely aware of the dangers inherent in such places, while skillful, mature practitioners are aware of the opportunities readily available.

I want to spend this installment discussing new workers' struggles with this Life Space dynamic, and will use future columns to elaborate on how life space work becomes a friend, rather than an alligator to be wrestled to the ground.

Newer Child and Youth Care practitioners are quickly overwhelmed and intimidated by the onrush of sensory stimulation, inter-personal bumps and clashes, lack of obvious order and generally sparsely equipped environments that they are suddenly surrounded by. My belief is that it takes six months for newer workers to gain enough personal safety to reduce their own anxiety to manageable levels, and another six months to skillfully manage the tasks inherent in living well in whatever life space they are working. At the end of a well supervised and relatively supportive first year of practice, the newer worker often feels like he/she is starting to win the battle.

There is a fitting in that is required early on, which new workers must do, yet there does not seem to be any pat formula or diagram for them to follow. The cultural and social demands of this Life Space are both mysterious and in your face, providing little room for reflection and thoughtful answers. Residential care workers will find that the first reply to a friendly overture as they join a group of teens will be “Who the (fill in the locally favorite expletive) are you?”. Community based Child and Youth Care practitioners, as they stroll innocuously around the local neighborhood, will get similar questions and suspicious looks from both young and old. Family support workers, once they get past the initial barrier of what did we do to deserve you, will get challenged with questions about how their background or training has any relevance at all to what the family really needs.

Newer workers respond to these personally challenging and sometimes perplexing demands by feeling even less safe and competent, retreating from the life space environment. Newer residential workers can hide in the office or avoid challenging situations until they have figured out how to fit in, unfortunately sometimes becoming too similar to the youth by talking or dressing less like an adult. Community worker can stay In the storefront, waiting for people to drop in to this more culturally neutral environment, or only wander the neighborhood with a more experienced colleague. Newer Child and Youth Care family support workers are often relieved when families do not seem to be home, or certain more difficult members are absent, and rely on a prepared agenda to get them through the home visit.

Life Space work during the initial year of Child and Youth Care practice, is more about the new worker getting comfortable and overcoming competence fears than it is about a strategic use of life evens to create change. Yet the time will come in each worker’s professional development when they could not imagine any better place to work with people.

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