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Developmental stages of Child and Youth Care Workers: An interactional perspective

Thom Garfat

Child and youth care workers, like all professionals, do pass through developmental stages. The literature to date suggests that those stages be considered independent of context. Following a review of the literature, and based on the author’s experience, this paper offers a description of the developmental stages of workers which takes into consideration characteristics of the interactions between workers and clients.

Like all professionals, child and youth care workers progress through stages as they grow in their work with young people. Understanding these stages is important for a number of reasons. Training and supervision, for example, would be most effective if designed specifically for the developmental level of the participants. Interventions are most effective if chosen according to the workers ability. When a consideration of developmental stages, workers and others can become frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the process. This paper provides a review of the literature on developmental stages of child and youth care workers and then proposes a description of developmental stages considered from an interactional perspective.

The Literature to Date
As Anglin (1989, 1991) pointed out, there are some relatively predictable stages in the development of child and youth care workers. The key here lies in the word 'relatively' for the literature is neither complete nor consistent in defining the stages of worker development. However, some inferences can be derived from the information that is available.

Sutton (1977) in looking at child care workers in a residential centre under a rotational shift model, noted that they were eager and able to give much emotional support to children during their first year. During this time workers were, in her opinion, open to new information and new learning although they tended to approach administrators only when there was a problem. She also noted that they frequently would 'take on' some of the problems of the children. After a period of one to three years they started to show a significantly decreased motivation for the work and derived less satisfaction from it. She speculated that this may result from the fact that in the early stages of work with children, child care workers are able to have some of their own needs met but with time, as these needs are either met or decrease in importance, the work seems to take on less value.

In 1979 VanderVen, looking at the developmental characteristics of beginning and typically young child and youth care workers, identified the following characteristics as important in considering training for child and youth care workers: they are identified with childhood as a life stage; they are motivated by rescue fantasies; they need to be loved by children; they demonstrate an affective orientation; and they tend to have a commitment to a single approach.

Also in 1979, Sarata investigated the experiences of 22 married house parents during the first year of their employment and identified three specific stages individuals might pass through in their development as child caring persons. In the first phase workers were concerned with mastering the standard operating procedures of the agency; with knowing the rules and expectations. In phase two, workers began to compare their work attitudes, philosophy and performance to those of co-workers and supervisors. Finally, in the third phase, workers showed a preoccupation with their appropriateness for, or commitment to, the cottage parent role. Unfortunately, Sarata did not correlate these stages of development with events, history, training, education, or other variables only noting that all the workers passed through the same stages, although at different points during the year. By the end of the twelve months they had all experienced the three stages.

This finding would appear to be congruent with 'field knowledge' about beginning workers; that at first they are concerned with knowing what to do, then with seeing how they are doing compared to others and finally, once they know what is expected and have some experience of the job, they evaluate whether or not to stay in the field.

In 1987, Sheahan, Garber, Graf, Hoffman, Mitchell, Stingley & Taylor, based on their collective experience as child care supervisors over an eight year period, offered a three stage model for conceptualizing the stages of development of child and youth care workers. During the first (Beginning) stage they saw the worker as easily confused, befriending of children, reactive, dependent or fearful, personalizing of children's issues and over-involved. In the second (Critical) stage, the worker was seen as developing more refined language, less likely to get involved in power struggles, still personalizing resident's lack of progress, learning about the importance and impact of self, beginning to recognize projections and to think about the group as a whole. According to their framework, in the final (Consolidation) stage the worker developed 'self' boundaries, was aware of her own emotions and responded appropriately, thought through problems, was flexible in style and open to suggestions, and accepted where a child is, emotionally.

Hills (1989) in looking at the development process of students 'emerging as child and youth care professionals' proposed a five stage framework based on the work of Benner (1984). According to Hill's model, in the Beginner stage the worker relies on structured guidelines and context-free rules: applying rules as if they applied in all situations. The worker experiences own performance as awkward or unnatural, lacks confidence and does not have an internal frame of reference by which to judge performance. In the Novice stage the worker starts to recognize meaningful contextual elements and make connections between past and present experiences. The worker continues to rely on context-free rules, but is beginning to recognize some unique contextual factors. The worker’s confidence level remains low. At the Competent stage the worker is "context conscious"' (p.21), able to recognize situational elements but does not fully trust `intuition' (defined by Anglin, 1991 as in the moment recognition of patterns and similarities). The worker’s actions are characterized by deliberate planning around anticipated behaviors and an increased confidence confident. At the Proficient stage, the worker is able to perceive a situation as a whole, recognize familiar patterns and make intuitive decisions. Analytical problem solving is to plan the next intervention. In the final stage, Expert, the worker has a fully integrated understanding, can take appropriate action without seeming to consider alternatives and possesses strong theoretical knowledge and analytical skills. The views child and youth care practice as a state of being with, and experiencing the world of, children and youth. Hill argues that movement between the levels depends on experience which she defines, as 'the ability to derive new learning from personal participation in practical situations' (Davis, Hancock & Hills, 1987, p.22).

Phelan (1990) based on his experience as a college supervisor, identified three stages that a child and youth care worker goes through during the first three years of her development as a professional. According to Phelan early in the first phase the worker is overwhelmed, seeking pragmatic control techniques, and lacking in confidence. With progress the worker shows increased confidence, is more able to exert influence and is ready to begin the application of therapeutic techniques. During the second phase the worker is able to practice what has been learned in both school and experience, demonstrates greater competence, feels more confident and appears to see self as a competent technician. It is at this stage, he argues, that the worker can become "stuck' in professional development and runs the risk of engaging in constant repetitive interventions. Without further growth, the worker either stays at this level of development (paraprofessional) or begins to search for other work. In phase three, the worker becomes energized by the nuances of the messages from the youth, shows an appreciation of the need for skill, knowledge and self to be integrated in practice and respects the clinical expertise necessary to work effectively. The findings of Anglin (1989) on the perceived training needs of child and youth care workers as they develop over time in their roles would seem to offer some validation for Phaelan's framework.

The literature on the developmental stages of child and youth care workers, regardless of the description of those stages, appears to suggest that there is a logical developmental sequence apparently independent of context and contextual interactions which child and youth care workers follow in their progression as professionals. There is, however, another possibility, as suggested by Maier (1979a) in his response to just such an assumption. He suggests that the behavior of child care workers, as they pass through these stages, can be viewed in a different, more interactional light as responses to the context within which they find themselves.

It is possible to define developmental stages from a different perspective: one which takes in to consideration the worker's individual development over time and the contextualized interactions between worker and youth. Indeed, a worker's development can be seen as evolving within an contextualized interactional dynamic (McGrath, 1986; Maier, 1979b) and any approach to understanding the child and youth care worker's professional development would need to consider this interactional context.

Stages From An Interactional Perspective
Given that the essence of child and youth care practice, and one of the primary factors of the worker's experience, lies in the contextualized interactional relationship between the worker and the young person (Fewster, 1990; Garfat,1985), an approach to understanding development which acknowledges and draws upon the characteristics of that interaction would appear to be most relevant for child and youth care workers. The following schema, developed from the literature and the author's professional experience offers such a perspective, which, except coincidentally, is not dependent of length of time in the field, as are many of the other definitions of the stages of child and youth care workers.

Phase 1: Doing For. In this stage the worker, often insecure, frequently confused and overwhelmed, but deeply caring has a tendency to 'do for' young people. The worker’s primary concern is for the youth to have a sense of being cared for and appreciated. Wanting them to succeed the worker does things for the young person so that they might experience success rather than failure. There is a tendency to become over involved with the young person’s experience because the boundaries between self and other are diffuse. The context for the worker's experience is primarily internal for while depending on external structure for guidance in the fulfilment of tasks, the flood of personal 'experiencing' overwhelms the meaning and impact of the external structure (Goodman, 1991; Peterson, 1993). The worker’s interactions are driven by basic personal definitions of caring, which frequently involve making sure that the youth feels good about self, about the worker and about life. Sympathy, rather than empathy, characterizes the worker’s interactions with the youth and savior fantasies play a large part in the worker’s motivation to help.

Phase 2: Doing To. In this stage the worker is primarily concerned with 'doing to' young people. Believing that it is necessary for youth to have certain experiences when the worker thinks they should occur, interventions are based on the worker’s own interpretation of what the young person needs to experience. It is at this stage that one hears comments like 'she needs to learn that ...' or 'we have to show him that . . .’, when talking about young people’s needs. The worker needs for the youth to manifest change in order for the worker to feel confirmed. The boundaries between the worker and the young person may appear to be rigid but are, in fact, still diffuse and the worker's position in relation to the young person evolves from either intense personalization, frustration or an unsatisfied need to be helpful. Thus the worker, in interaction, may begin to adopt a more superior and directive role than previously, seeking to define self in relation to the youth in the context of program and individual goals.

Phase 3: Doing With. In this stage the worker becomes more concerned for interventions that involve 'doing with' youth. Becoming more of a facilitator (Anglin, 1984) with the youth of the youth’s experience of self, the worker tends to involve young people more in the process of decision making about intervention plans, goals and routines. The contextual position of the youth is seen more systemically and work is directed towards helping the youth develop a fuller perspective of self as part of that system. The boundaries between worker and young person are clearer and the worker is less likely to become frustrated at a lack of progress, having withdrawn from the previous intense personalization of the youth’s progress. Process has started to become more important than outcome. The worker relates to work context primarily as it supports or impinges upon this focus.

Phase 4: Doing Together. At this stage the concepts of doing for, to and with, become superceded by a concern with co-structuring (Peterson, 1993) the interactive therapeutic experience with the youth towards an outcome more in keeping with the youth’s experience of self in the context within which interactions occur (Fewster, 1990). The worker's contextual awareness (Hills, 1989) and sensitivity allows for the creation of specific responses and interventions based on an individualized, youth-centered contextual analysis. The worker is now able to allow failure without self-criticism (Krueger, 1988) or over personalization. Because the worker is less invested in outcome and more invested in the process of the total development of the young person, the internal dialogues the youth creates with self in order to act in a particular manner (Fewster, 1990) become an area of focus in their interactions. How the young person is with the worker, becomes a metaphor utilized for working with the youth’s interacting experience with other elements of the youth’s life context. Reflective learning and transformational experiences (Ainsworth, 1984; Maier, 1987; Mezirow, 1981; 1991) become more important to the worker than behavioral outcomes.

The worker is able to draw on previous learning and utilize it instantly in the immediate interaction (Goodman, 1991; Wozner, 1990). While the worker may appear to act without consideration of alternatives, in reality alternatives are considered and processed almost instantaneously. The worker’s own role in creating the context of the interactive experience (Baizerman, 1993) becomes an important factor in strategizing for desired outcomes (Goodman, 1991). Transference and counter transference experiences become mutual learning opportunities.

This is a stage of intense creativity and intellectual activity for the child and youth care worker who is more likely to work in the creative arena of methods such as story-telling (Burns, 1990), creative arts (Juul & Schuler, 1983), metaphors (Peterson, 1988; Peterson & Fontana, 1991), music (Mainprize, 1985), writing (Ramage, 1992), or other non-traditional approaches in order to help the youth understand how the youth creates or structures personal experience. Boundaries between the worker and youth are managed flexibly by the worker and modified according to the perceived therapeutic value for the young person. The worker sees self as a therapeutic tool, is very clear about the difference between personal issues and those of the young person (Freeman, 1993; Garfat, 1993; Ricks, 1989) and is able to generate the supports necessary to function effectively (Hills, 1989). The worker functions in rhythmic harmony (Freeman, 1993: Baizerman, 1993) with the youth in their joint context. Self, other, context and intervention are intricately entwined for the benefit of the young person.

In conceptualizing the worker's development according to how the worker positions self in relation to the contextualized interaction with the youth, as suggested above, we become more focused on the characteristics of that interaction. Thus the developmental stage of the worker becomes defined in the context of interactions with the young person rather than apparently independent of it. Movement between stages represents a transformation in how the worker perceives, and acts within, interactions with the youth, in the context in which those interactions occur. The worker, in essence, experiences a transformation of perspective (Ainsworth, 1984; Demers, 1990; Maier, 1984, 1985; Mezirow, 1981, 1991). Being, and doing, are modified as a result of this transformation of perspective.

As mentioned previously, movement between stages has typically been seen as linear. Workers spend time in the field and gradually, with the proper support (Phelan, 1991), move on to a new stage of their development as professionals. However, just as transitions in life stages are typically marked by transformative events (Maier, 1985; Mezirow, 1990), so workers’ development and movement between these various stages might be considered to come about because of transformative experiences in the relationship between themselves, the young person and their joint context. Thus experiences which create the context for transformative learning (Mezirow, 1981) to occur, as suggested by Ainsworth (1984) and Maier (1986), have a important place in the development of child and youth care workers.

Child and youth care workers do pass through developmental stages. But those developmental stages cannot be conceptualized independent of the characteristics of the interaction between worker and client. The foregoing has attempted to offer a somewhat different perspective which takes some of the characteristics of that interaction into consideration.


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