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123 MAY 2009
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Why Theory?

Laura Steckley

I want to start my piece this month by revisiting a team meeting back when I was in practice. The team was coming together well, and we were getting closer to singing from the same hymn sheet in our practice. Not that everyone was doing the same things the same way, mind you, but we were getting closer to coming from the same place in terms of how we manifested our values and expectations in our day to day work with the kids. We were also getting our act together to better prepare for new kids coming in. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the initial plan for helping – I'll call him Daniel – make the transition into our unit and have a good start with us.

Daniel had a horrible history. His is one of the few histories I had to stop reading for a couple of days before I could face picking back up again. The expectation was for everyone to have read Daniel’s paperwork and come prepared to help build this initial plan. I was delighted when it became clear that everyone had indeed read his file, but we were all daunted by what we had read and the weight of responsibility for trying to provide a compensatory environment for this kid. Some of my colleagues gave tentative suggestions as to what we should do, and as the conversation progressed, a couple people appeared to become more certain about what Daniel needed. Unfortunately, they saw themselves on opposite sides of a divide. One felt that Daniel needed immediate, tight structure so that he didn’t start out thinking he could manipulate and get away with all he got away with in his previous placements. Another colleague was adamant that we needed to go in easier with Daniel, as Daniel had been forever labelled the “bad kid” and needed to feel that there were some adults on his side. We had gotten away from Daniel’s painful early life experiences and were drawing from conventional wisdom, as it was familiar and often seemed to work.

Most of the members of my team did not hold an educational qualification for this work, and looking back, it’s possible that none were well grounded in theory or research that was derived from residential child care practice. I don’t think I appreciated the relevance of this when I asked, “As a toddler, Daniel was left on the kitchen worktop (counter) for many hours. How might this experience have shaped his view of the world?”

There was a long silence.

I don’t remember the specifics of what my colleagues said when they did respond. They spoke about how upsetting that would be for Daniel but no one addressed the question. So I asked again, and they just stared at me. I’d like to think I had the fortitude to endure the uncomfortable silence for more than a few seconds, and it did seem like much longer, but who knows?

So I tried to better focus the question: “Imagine you were left on a kitchen worktop. Imagine how far down that would be when you’re that little. Remember how slowly time goes by when you’re just a tot. Add this experience to all of the other experiences of abuse and neglect that Daniel endured. How would you view adults?”

Again, I don’t remember the particulars that followed, but eventually I suggested that from an early age, Daniel learned that adults could not be trusted to meet his needs. And something funny happened. I think people felt like, “Duh! I knew that.” And I know they knew that the kids we worked with had a hard time trusting adults, and for good reason. But I wondered why that bit of knowledge wasn’t available in that moment, when retrospectively it seemed so obvious.

I wrote last month that I would turn my attention to the meaningful application of theory for May’s article. Theory can be thought of as a way of making sense of things; it helps us with the why’s and how’s of what we experience and do. Because this is a broad area with quite a lot already written on it, for this piece, I’m going to focus on the question of why. Why should we know about theories? Why should we apply them to practice? Why should we be concerned about students” struggle to do this, especially if they can demonstrate good practice?

It occurs to me that I may be singing to the choir here. If you’re visiting CYC-Net and reading this, then this may already be an answered question for you. My reasons for proceeding are twofold: first, knowing that theory is valuable isn’t the same as knowing why theory is valuable, which gets at the crux of this piece. Bringing understanding to a level where it can be articulated enables greater clarity and persuasion, which brings me to the second reason: there is a chance that folks round about you don’t value theory or are threatened by it. There are also many practitioners who do value theory and work to understand it, but they keep it compartmentalised in their mind without actually applying it meaningfully to practice. Some of my students tacitly understand the relevance of this or that particular bit of theory, but they struggle to explicitly make the link to their practice. Revisiting the “why is this important” can fortify the struggle.

Imagine you’re about to make a journey through an unfamiliar city – Tokyo maybe. Would you make this journey without a map? Particularly if you were trying to reach a specific destination and you didn’t want to waste time? Or put yourself or others in danger in trying to reach it? Would you use a map of a city you knew, simply because that was more familiar?

I would want a current, accurate map or maps of Tokyo that included streets, bus routes, train routes, areas to avoid, cultural norms – you get the picture. Providing a healing, developmentally enhancing environment for kids might indeed be harder than getting round Tokyo (I’m guessing, as I’ve never been there).

Additionally, it’s easier to see how the map relates to the city, and how one would apply the information on that map to the practice of travelling. In fact, we wouldn’t even think of the map as theoretical. If we define theory as “an analytic structure designed to explain a set of observations,” however, a map fits this definition. The map isn’t actually the city; it is a theory of the city. And it is an easy theory to test and challenge. It is also relatively easy to see its strengths and limitations.

Valid theories about human behaviour, development and healing are, of course, much more complex; they are often avoided or compartmentalised as a result. It’s important to remember that we all already have theories about all sorts of things, including what kids need. They may not be well developed, robustly analytic or even present in our conscious awareness, but they nonetheless inform our actions. Colloquially, such a theory might be expressed like, “He just needs a firm kick up the backside,” perhaps revealing a deeper belief that kids need to experience the pain of punishment in order to learn from misbehaviour. Now most of us, I think, would challenge such a simplistic and destructive theory about what kids need (at least in our better moments).

So theories are not only important in guiding our practice, they need to be explicit so that they can be tested, revised, linked with other theories, or abandoned. I’ve worked with some very capable practitioners who had excellent intuition in working with kids. They had what is called tacit knowledge: a process used in making sense of (in this case) their practice, but that they couldn’t actually articulate, explain or evaluate.

Polyani, who coined the term and developed related theory, gets to the heart of it in his famous quote, “we can know more than we can tell.” We cannot do without intuition, and we will always have elements of our understanding that are tacit. Not everything can or should be derived from reason and not everything can or should be explained. However, we also cannot rely wholly on our tacit knowledge and intuition is not enough. Sometimes conventional wisdom, tacit knowledge and our intuitions are just plan wrong; all of the time, they are incomplete.

The theories we learn and/or teach about are also sometimes wrong (or partially wrong), and they are also incomplete. However, they have the added benefit of the expertise of many people, as they have been publically tested, revised, built upon and linked with other theories. They are predicated upon more collective, and collectively analysed, experience and evidence. These theories can also help us to know better what we already know, bringing that tacit knowledge to a more conscious and explicit level. This is important for a number of reasons. One has to do with helping residential child care practitioners developing a stronger voice and professional identity. As I mentioned last month, many of my students speak about how their expertise in contributing to the assessment process is overlooked or discounted. An ability to coherently and persuasively argue not only what a child needs, but why he needs it can contribute significantly to increasing our influence with fellow professionals. It also can strengthen our positive influence on practice and cultures within our own units. People are much more likely to be persuaded when they are given a clear and cogent reason why than if they are simply told that a particular way of doing something should be considered.

For example, the members of staff who were finding themselves divided during the team meeting might have been aided by a theoretical grounding. The “tight structure” guy appeared to perceive the “staff are on Daniel’s side” argument as being about feeling sorry for Daniel. He clearly felt that this was detrimental to Daniel and was the reason for previous failed placements. An understanding of the notion of internal working models, derived from attachment theory, might have helped us shift from an either/or position to one that helped us look at how Daniel might start to experience adults as trustworthy, predictable and fair. Such an approach could have begun to integrate the “truths” of both arguments, and challenge their limitations. Explicit discussion of theory also helps to bring about greater levels of team congruence, for when people are explicitly discussing what’s on their hymn sheet, they’re more likely to sing from the same one. This only works, however, if people are open to exploring their own and others” understanding, using theoretical lenses in the process; it doesn’t work when theory is used as ammunition.

Relevant theory can help us to maintain reasonable expectations in the moment, as illustrated last month by the man and his toddler in the garden centre. It can also help us to maintain hope and high expectations for young people’s futures, as we are continually developing a better understand the functions of resilience and the impact of a strengths based approach. It helps us to avoid taking aggressive behaviour personally, and enables us to maintain a more constructive, child-centred perspective. In so doing it also fortifies our reserves of patience. Again, the example of Daniel can illustrate this. As we embarked on our journey with him, we “knew” that the development of trust was going to be slow and difficult. However, an understanding of the Arousal/Relaxation Cycle and the Positive Interaction Cycle, for instance, could have grounded that knowledge in the vast number of times an infant needs to have his needs met and experience himself as positive in order to develop “secure” attachments. Compensating for a lack of these experiences takes an even vaster amount of needs-meeting, positive experiences and an avoidance of those that reinforce a destructive internal working model. No easy feat. The power of the minutiae begins to make more sense when viewed this way.

A final benefit of shifting knowledge from tacit to explicable is that it serves us better when we’re under pressure. Clarity and understanding are some of our best defences against our own tendencies to shut down or react with counter aggression. In thinking about that meeting, maybe this is why the tacit knowledge of trust wasn’t readily available to members of my team. I suspect they felt under pressure in that moment to come up with a “right” answer.

When a young person is coming at us a hundred miles an hour, the work we do to better understand serves us in the moment to respond helpfully rather than to simply react. It doesn’t happen in a linear, reasoned way – we don’t have time to stop and think about attachment, interaction cycles or internal working models – and perhaps not in a way we fully understand or can explain why or how, but in a powerful way nonetheless. The clearer we are able to understand and articulate that understanding outside of that pressurised moment, the more likely that information will serve us, spontaneously, in the moment.