Stages of Child and Youth Care Worker Development

Jack Phelan


Level 1 – The Capable Care-Giver

The basic dynamic that drives this stage is the issue of Safety. This is a fundamental step in professional development that lasts for 12-18 months for the new worker.

The tasks for the Level 1 worker include:

  • creating a safe environment
  • establishing external control where and when needed
  • using rules and routines to develop predictability
  • establishing oneself as a competent and trustworthy "carer"
  • handle aggressive threats and interactions with youth
  • handle aggression between youth
  • remove aggression as a dynamic in the environment
  • create strategies to establish one’s authority as an adult
  • avoid using threats or coercion to control behavior

The internal process for the new worker includes:

  • feeling unsafe, overwhelmed, outside of personal comfort zone
  • looking outside oneself for techniques and   to imitate
  • having frequent fight or flight reactions to situations
  • looking for safe youth to connect with

Supervisory Strategies Include:

  • needing to be seen as trustworthy and safe by the worker
  • model the safety and trust that the worker can achieve
  • be congruent, don’t be a "Monday morning quarterback"
  • minimize power struggles and coercion with the worker
  • focus on how to feel safe


Level 2 – The Treatment Planner and Change Agent

The challenge of this stage is for the worker to let go of the comfortable skill set that has been so useful in dealing with youth and to learn a new set of skills that will transfer control to the youth. The use of external control to create safety will be reduced and perhaps in some cases eliminated so that the youth can begin to develop the self-control needed to be successful.

The tasks for the Level 2 worker include:

  • creating opportunities for youth to be independent
  • relaxing external control, and eliminating punishments/consequences
  • can be comfortable with the uncertainty and confusion as youths refuse to be responsible for themselves and try to get adults to take over and make decisions for them
  • encourage experiments with choices, with the freedom to succeed or fail
  • being able to trust your judgement as you trust a youth to make good decisions
  • understanding how to use the environment creatively to challenge youth
  • use recreation and daily living experiences in a strategic and educational way
  • use theoretical knowledge and assessment concepts to create learning opportunities for youth
  • reduce the focus on negative behaviors
  • become capable of doing things differently when existing strategies aren’t working
  • fine tune the program for each youth, don’t expect the same ideas to work for everyone
  • as a team member, support other worker’s creative ideas and experiments
  • do treatment planning and individual programs
  • be a key worker and create relationships with youth

Supervisory Strategies Include:

  • encourage creative thinking, how can we let go of rules and consequences
  • develop strength based approaches that focus on the worker’s strengths as well as the youth’s strengths
  • establish a new level of learning, don’t support the reliance on external control techniques
  • support a differential view of the group, each youth needs a unique approach, and the group changes over time
  • evaluate the amount of self-control being transferred to the youth as an indicator of success in the work being done
  • support risks with the program rules and routines, don’t criticize failed experiments


Level 3 – The Creative, Free-Thinking Professional

The worker at this stage has mastered the basic safety and caring skills, and has developed the ability to use relationships and the internal motivation of the youth to create a focus on self-control.

The tasks for the Level 3 worker include:

  • Strategic use of life-space interviews, experiential learning and development of competence are embedded in all of the interactions of this worker.
  • This worker is articulate about the treatment that is happening and can design plans for both individuals and the group.
  • The new challenge at this stage is to be able to develop innovative treatment strategies and to modify the program where needed to fit individual youth.
  • This worker can use the experience gained with prior youth to fit new behavior into a context that isn’t formulaic but builds on this knowledge.
  • This worker is convinced of the importance of self-awareness and discusses his/her own issues as often as the youth’s when creating ways to support change.

Supervisory Strategies Include:

  • treating the level 3 worker as a colleague, who may want to learn supervision skills
  • assigning the job of mentoring newer workers
  • expecting this worker to evaluate existing program ideas and to suggest changes
  • creating a training workshop or writing about a child and youth care skill
  • re-designing a recreational program to fit youth’s needs
  • creating an innovative strategy for the group or individual