CYC-Online 139 SEPTEMBER 2010
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CYC supervision: Some thoughts on developing newer workers

Jack Phelan

I am making some assumptions in writing these notes:

There is an underlying developmental framework that should be commonly known in order to use this approach effectively. It is the personality development theory of Erik Erikson, which describes the basic stages of growth starting with Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, and Initiative vs. Guilt. All of the workers should be able to describe and discuss how growth occurs in this picture of human development.

Supervisors will be able to use both the length of a person's experience as well as behavioral observations to assess the stage issues and areas for challenge as they proceed with supervision and development of staff.

The initial stage of development for new workers, which lasts 9-15 months, is the stage of Trust and Safety. The new worker is immediately assailed with a barrage of behaviors, emotions and contradictions which challenge his or her prior life experience and can often seem to be overwhelming. There is a clear need for the worker to feel safe inside of him/herself, which creates anxiety and despair. The new worker often feels “thrown to the wolves” during the initial weeks and months on the job. Whether the setting is group living, community family support or school-based, there are similar feelings of inadequacy, shock, denial and risk in most new staff. The task for a supervisor during this period is to focus continually on issues of personal safety, trustworthiness, reasonable perspective and goals for self, and self-awareness of the fears that attend new workers. Supervisors can carefully choose words and language that emphasize safety and trust, rather than other issues during talks and help the new worker to have realistic goals for him/herself. Supervisors and more experienced co-workers can discourage new staff from trying to imitate staff who have already mastered this stage and can do things with the youth or families that are only possible at higher stages of personal development.

A typical experience for new staff is to announce a new routine, lunch or bedtime, while the more experienced staff is standing nearby. The youth respond well to the request and the new worker feels capable. The first time the new worker tries to request the group to shift into a routine task without other staff presence, there is often a much less cooperative response. The new worker is also the target of testing behavior, which is the method used by the youth or family to decide how reliable and safe the new worker will be. Unfortunately, this is a bad time to test this, because the developmental stage of safety is not yet at a healthy balance.

It is misguided to examine the behavior of the client and to look at strategies for control at this point. It is much more useful to discuss the feelings and behaviors of the worker and the need to develop trust in his own ability to create safety for himself.

One of the usual mistakes made at this point is to develop methods of physical containment and control of the youth and thus supervisors deliver “physical restraint” workshops.

As was said in another paper, this gives the new worker one tool, which ends up being overused because when all you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Physically larger workers tend to be more challenged because aggressive approaches are expected from them by both adults and youth.

The worker who is dealing with feelings of being unsafe or who doesn’t trust the environment creates a parallel process for youth and families, or at least doesn’t do anything to re-channel the parallel process which occurs as he/she interacts with others.

If the youth or family already feels unsafe or little trust, then there is a dynamic heading in a negative direction which the new worker is sharing.

These issues cannot be ignored in the supervisory process and indeed are very useful to address in developing professional Child and Youth Care workers. The supervisor also must be aware of any lack of safety or trust between him/herself and the worker and realize where he/she can change his/her own behavior to develop better trust and safety.

Supervisory issues for the newer worker, (9-15 months of experience or experienced workers during the first 3 months of employment at your agency):

The goal for a new worker should be the increasing ability to run the daily routine, to set limits and create safe boundaries for him/herself and then all of the youth or family members. New workers can eventually feel comfortable and strong in crisis situations and capable of effectively handling not only the usual struggles of interacting with difficult people, but also the surprises that occasionally arise.

The supervisor and all the Child and Youth Care team continually assess each youth or family to determine how much external control and safety is required in order for them to function well. There is as much need to know the other person's stage as to know one’s own. As was stated earlier, each youth and family has to be approached as having unique needs. There is often an issue with the matching of compatible stages, but supervisors have to clearly support workers to try to match the youth or family, not the reverse.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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