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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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How do you know if you are a competent CYC supervisor?

Jack Phelan

When people get promoted from front-line practice to a supervisory position, they immediately look for a book which describes how to do the job well. Unfortunately, there is not such a resource that I am aware of, so new supervisors stumble around, trying not to look nervous, and masking their fear of being exposed as incompetent. It takes about a year to get through this anxiety.

New supervisors feel unsafe, and spend a lot of energy creating a focus on rules and good order to help allay their own tension. This translates into an emphasis on behavior, both staff and youth behavior, and experienced staff get quite irritated when getting direction from a rookie supervisor (even if the new supervisor was formerly an esteemed colleague) who needs structure for reassurance.

Competence emerges after this period, and this stage of professional development is my emphasis here. The CYC supervisory group is the key determinant of whether an agency actually creates a CYC treatment environment or merely controls and maintains youth. Focusing on behavior, external control and good order is not competent CYC practice, yet many supervisors are quite satisfied with this result.

Management of problems and control of negative behavior become the simplistic mantra of agency administrators, and it is the responsibility of CYC supervisors to push back against this energy and create an effective treatment program. This is easier said than done. There are three major ingredients that create this treatment focus, and the CYC supervisor is responsible for all of them.

First, the CYC supervisor must have a theory of CYC practice that he/she can articulate and implement within the staff group. Implicit in this first ingredient is the necessity for the supervisor to have both CYC training and experience. Therefore, people with other professional credentials cannot merely assume that they can use non-CYC models and adapt them. This may sound radical to some readers, but no other professional group would allow supervisors who did not have pertinent experience and training.

Where do you figure out which theories are useful for your agency and program? Right here on CYC-Net is a good place to start. Then you need to convince the other CYC supervisors in the agency to do likewise, and when you are ready, the CYC supervisory group needs to meet with the agency administration to discuss models of CYC practice.

Secondly, the competent CYC supervisor must clarify his/her own beliefs about change and what creates change in people, then determine how to build this into your program. Being able to articulate the difference between compliance and real change, motivating staff to be willing to shift the power balance to allow for choice and internal motivation, and modeling the same with your staff is the eventual goal.

Third, building competent staff through a long term development program that supports staff at every developmental level , resisting creating an emphasis on simplistic routines and rules that do not allow for individual differences, both for staff and youth, and developing a respect for CYC practice in the agency as a complex, sophisticated discipline that is not just common sense and good enough parenting, while struggling with the everyday realities of turnover and lack of resources.

Competent supervisors are comfortable challenging bad practice and expecting creative, flexible programs that do not rely on quiet times, morning long cleaning routines, mandatory study hours and prescribed recreation for all, while not condoning indiscriminate TV watching or unlimited video gaming. The use of punishment and reward should only be typical for new youth and less skilled staff, and the expectation that all the beds will have military corners will be abandoned. What is expected is that all youth and staff will feel safe and challenged to grow, a difficult balance to maintain. The three expectations listed above are key foundational pieces, because without a theory to use as a map, without a belief system about change, and without agency support, it will be difficult to sustain the focus required to be a competent CYC supervisor running a useful, effective program with capable staff.