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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
Listen to this


Up a tree

Jennifer Kettle

Interviewing prospective staff for a residential setting can be challenging. I almost feel sorry for the potential employees as they are subjected to the “three on one” interview. I always briefly remember my own interview when I was much greener than most of our potential candidates are today. Now older, and supposedly wiser, I am a manager. When I look at the interview process I am convinced that I would not have passed these same tests had I had been subjected to them fifteen years ago. I am left to wonder how subjective the process is and what it is is exactly that we are looking for when we interview to have people come work in a group home.

The interview we use follows a fairly standardized format; questions on basic safety, philosophy, theory, and then the dreaded scenarios. The scenarios will often get changed and you can sometimes hear of recent happenings in a program based on what is put out in the scenario section of the interview. One such scenario involves a youth climbing a tree outside the program and refusing to come down. The potential staff is told that this is occurring on a busy street and that the public is slowing to watch. The prospective staff is simply asked, “What would you do?” The answer to this question, in conjunction to the others, will help us determine if we should hire the prospective staff.

It is interesting that not even the management team who does interviewing agrees on what would be the best response. One manager has stated he would climb the tree to be with the youth in the moment. Another has stated that she would not climb the tree due to obvious safety issues. A third staff said that she would become creative and create a reason for the youth to come down. The prospective employees have generated a range of potential answers such as the classic “I would call my supervisor–- easily translated to “I have no idea”. Others come up with potential interventions, such as play a game that they will want to join in, ignore them, climb the tree, talk them down or call the police. I find it interesting that generally no one gives themselves permission to ask the most important question, “why is the youth up in the tree?” Most interviewees will stumble through the question having not yet learned that the most important part of the answer would really be generated by our knowledge of the young person.

So what is the right answer? Of course that is impossible to answer without knowing more about the situation. What happened for the youth to climb the tree in the first place? Maybe he was bored, maybe someone hurt his feelings, maybe something happened such as having a family visit cancelled. The reality is that we could hypothesize for days but without more information it would be very hard to plan an intervention. The place to start would be to talk to the young person. Is it really fair to ask a prospective employee to conjure up an answer without relationship or knowledge of the youth?

Sometimes I take a moment to look at what would be my answer to the scenario of the tree. It is interesting to me that my answer has changed over the last fifteen years. When I first started I would have been up the tree. I would have seen this as necessary and I would have wanted to “save” the young person. I can envision myself sitting in the tree, chatting with the youth, gently probing to find out why the youth is in the tree. In my mind, I talk the youth down and tie it to some greater lesson. Of course, this envisioned response is flavored by the experience I have gained over the last fifteen years. I often fail to remember how my lack of experience left me feeling lost and unsure of what to do. I know that now my first step would be try to connect with the youth. I also know that my response would be affected by what the youth gave me in return. Maybe the young person needs space, or I might try to engage the youth in a conversation about what is going on and try to help the youth reach a solution to the dilemma, or maybe I would seek assistance from someone else if I thought they could help. The reality is I am not sure what my response would be without being in the situation.

Knowing all this doesn’t necessarily help when I am trying to evaluate potential new employees. What are we looking for in the answer to this and other questions? We seek to have someone who shows awareness of the safety issues, who will try to find a way to get the youth out of the tree. Hopefully the employee will show empathy and creativity. At the end of the day we look for an employee who is willing to try and connect with the young person and can show how youth care work relates to the real world.

I am reminded that selecting the people who will work with our youth is a lot like working with the youth. There are no easy answers. Like working with the youth, we use our knowledge, experience and instincts to determine what the best course of action could be. In the end there are no guarantees but the skills we have acquired help us and we can be reasonably sure we select the best and the brightest” someone who will figure out how to get the youth out of the tree!

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