Helping professionals – Child and Youth Care workers, counselors, social workers, nurses, and others – need to relate and to work with children and adolescents as developing beings. Regardless of whether the young people are placed in the group setting due to personal complications, societal stress situations, or both, and whether they are registered in a residential program or for "ordinary" alternative care in a day care, latchkey, or other equivalent part-time setting, they remain youngsters with developmental requirements the same as those of their contemporaries who are in the care of their own families.
The author submits that it is important that we have progressed to the point where we think and speak of "children with difficulties" rather than designating these youngsters as "difficult children." The distinction is more than a semantic exercise. For example, when we encounter the old term, "learning-disabled children," we find that such categorization tends to narrow the child’s dimensions, as if the child were a differently developing person to be set apart in our thinking (and perhaps in how we respond to the situation) from other children.
Yet a developmental perspective also requires the recognition and understanding of each individual’s status and progression in various spheres of development. Above all, it is paramount for children striving toward mastery to experience solidly the personal involvement and continuous support of the caregivers, a point to which we shall return below. Such support includes acknowledged freedom to struggle on one’s own. Developmental progress emerges from the interplay between the individual’s developmental readiness and actual functioning amidst ongoing environmental challenge (Maas, 1984). It necessitates ascertaining specifically how each individual is functioning in his or her ongoing life situation—and what each one needs to experience in order to progress. Progression in competent development builds upon a sense of efficacy of that which has been learned, usually occurring by means of minute accomplishments and only occasionally on the basis of a major breakthrough. When individuals experience their own part in their mastery, they have learned (Bandura, 1977). Then, as in the old truism: what is learned is used.
It is important to remind ourselves that a developmental approach does not permit preoccupation with "deviant," "pathological," or "defective" behavior or development in the face of situationally ineffective, untimely, and other difficult responses. When an individual’s affect, behavior, and cognition are evaluated as distinct processes, care workers can rely on their knowledge of predictable patterns of developmental progression instead. For example, a ten-year-old boy’s tendency "to go to pieces" whenever he feels personal contacts or events are not manageable is sometimes designated as an "emotional disturbance," "regression," or behavior "stuck" at an earlier level, all of which denote "deviancy." However, the boy can more constructively be understood and observed as one who wants to master his ongoing life encounters but is at a loss when he finds himself incapable of conceiving and predicting what is going on. Consequently, he is unable to respond so as to manage his immediate life challenges effectively. He seems to need assistance in learning to predict and identify subtle opportunities or moments of change and what can be done within them. We can then turn to our developmental knowledge: How are such capabilities acquired and how can an individual’s capabilities be broadened so as to incorporate the required competencies?
This developmental perspective might be more understandable if we apply it to our own lives. When we find ourselves in extremely frustrating situations, we may make such responses as stamping a foot, kicking an object in our path, exploding with severe language, or freezing up as if paralyzed. Our response may be behavioral, cognitive, or emotional, more likely, two or all three of these (Maier, 1976).
In such moments, we do not regress. We mobilize our waning energy into bodily or symbolic bodily expressions. We act in a basic, fundamental way that usually assures us a launching platform from which to try again with renewed responses. What helps us as adults in these situations? It is the reliance on a level of functioning which is fundamental to us, equivalent to employing the first gear in a car when the motor (energy) sputters. Downshifting into first gear allows the motor to revive and, ultimately, to progress to smoother speeds, rather than to stall completely. The same holds for developmental functioning. Essential in this process of helping is the certainty that one is not alone, that care will be provided by a person who is significant to the child.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-Efficacy: Towards a Unifying Theory of Behavioural Change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215
Maas, H. S.(1984). People and contexts. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Maier, H. W. (1976). Human Functioning as an Interpersonal Whole: The Dimensions of Affect, Behaviour and Cognition. In Teaching for Competence in the Delivery of Direct Services. New York: Council on Social Work Education, pp 44-49
Maier, H. W. (1987) Developmental group care of children and youth. New York: The Haworth Press. pp 1-3