Mark Krueger and Carol Stuart
Each interaction or activity in child and youth care work occurs in a unique context (Arieli, 1996; Baizerman, 1993; Fewster, 1990; Garfat, 1995; Jacobs, 1996; Krueger, 1998; Maier, 1995). In general, there are three interconnected ways to think about context.
First, there is the meaning that youth and workers bring to an interaction or activity (Bruner, 1990; Garfat, 1995). The meaning of a meal or a bedtime or a game of basketball, for instance, is different for each participant based on, among other things, his or her prior experiences of these activities. If a youth is not used to eating meals with others, the meaning is different than for a youth whose family attaches a great deal of significance to mealtimes. If a youth has been sexually abused in the middle of night, the meaning of bedtime is different than the meaning of bedtime for a youth who has slept in a caring household. If a youth is not very good at basketball, the meaning of basketball is different than the meaning for a youth who has succeeded at basketball.
There is also the meaning that the worker brings to the interaction, which is based on his or her prior and current experience of what is occurring. A worker might bring a sense of confidence and a noncompetitive spirit to a game of basketball that allows the youth to have a different experience of playing basketball. A worker who has been sexually abused brings a history and awareness of nighttime fears to the action of tucking in a youth.
Second, there is the atmosphere in which an interaction or activity occurs (Childress, 1996; Krueger, 1998; Maier, 1987). Atmosphere includes tone, mood, space, light, sound, smell, movement, and a variety of other factors that can have a significant effect on interactions. For example, the dining hall can be noisy or quiet and the basketball court too small, or the right size for the number of participants. Overhead lights can be bright and radios loud, or lights can be dimmed and radios soft. Voices can be raised or lowered, the smell can be pleasant or offensive, the place can "feel right or wrong," and so forth. Workers and youth create and change atmosphere with their feelings, moods, and attitudes. For example, they can be excited or frightened, enthusiastic and encouraging, or bored and discouraging.
Tempo, pace, and movement also create atmosphere. Workers and youth walk briskly or run from one place to another. They speak fast or slow, sit quietly or work vigorously. Sometimes workers intentionally interrupt the tempo of an activity to challenge youth to solve a problem or open them to a new experience. Or they change the pace to find the pulse of the group (Maier, 1992). Sometimes workers react physiologically to the sensations in an atmosphere. Sensing something isn't right, they change the atmosphere. They lower or raise their voices, open a window, run with a youth, or move with a group from one room to another.
Third, context includes the nature of the activity. If the task is too difficult or not challenging enough, the context is different than when the task is challenging but not overly taxing. The nature of the activity is different when it is shared versus not shared. Workers change or adjust the activity to meet the needs of the youth based on their assessment of the meaning, required skill level, atmosphere, and anticipated outcome. For example, a worker changes from baseball to kickball after determining that the skill level for baseball is too complex or challenging for a group of youth at a particular point in time, or the worker finger paints instead of using brushes because he or she has determined that finger painting is more consistent with the goal of the project, which is to allow youth an opportunity to express themselves freely.
Krueger, M. and Stuart, C. (1999) Context and competence in work with children and youth. Child and Youth Care Forum, vol.8.no.3.
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