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Training the untrained

CYC-Online talks to Jeanny Karth about introducing experienced but untrained workers to learning

Your training tasks include work with staff in organisations where there has not previously been any child and youth care training — either because of they are rural or geographically isolated programs or, for example, in an industrial school, they have previously focussed on purely educational curriculum. How do you approach training with such staff teams?

JK: We must not lose the good things they are already doing — or devalue their work by implied comparison with complex terms and concepts from “out there”. What we do have to do is listen to what they do, and then “reconnect” their ordinary and usually spontaneous activities with purpose and goals. “I saw that you walked with that child to school this morning; you could see that after yesterday’s argument she needed some special support.” This helps to introduce basic ideas of intervention. “If you hadn’t walked with her ...” This is important for the care worker’s confidence and self esteem, also. Here is somebody “from the profession” who notices and affirms what we do. There are so many examples of this, like sitting up with an unhappy child when the others have gone to sleep — things which they would consider good “mothering” and turning it also into good child and youth care practice.

Talking about someone visiting “from the profession” suggests the isolation of these workers.

JK: Some are simply isolated because they are hundreds of miles from nowhere. Others may be isolated because the large institution sits uncomfortably in the small town, or historically it has been culturally different. Or an industrial school has felt that it must necessarily isolate the town from the youth. So there are several perimeters of isolation — often of language or religion, often by the separate “culture” within the program. An important message for them is that, whether just over the mountain, in the next town or five hundred miles away, there are people just like them who work with children and young people, who struggle, just like them, in trying to understand and teach children ... and here are some things your colleagues are trying or have success with. I find that a desire quickly arises to meet and talk and be connected with colleagues. This is a good beginning for training.

What other initial challenges are there?

JK: Because the isolation tightens the ties within these programs and compounds the separation from families and communities, I suppose an important issue is to work at unpicking the idea of “these are our children” from “these are someone else’s children” and also to build in the reality that “tomorrow these children will be their own adults.” Our laws, for example, together with considerations of human rights, impose certain obligations on us when we work with other people’s children. These are central to us as professionals, but may well conflict with some of the local values. Our world today can be very different from rural and closed communities.

Do you find that the training can begin to cross these barriers?

JK: I often find that those Postman and Weingartner questions “What are you going to do with your pupils today?”, “What is it good for?” and “How do you know?” can help build sounder practice. People start to think beyond getting young people to play soccer just to keep them busy, and begin to understand some of the other possibilities ... helping this youth deal with losing, giving this one a chance to belong to a team, this one a challenge to learn a new skill and this one an experience of achievement ... We see care workers giving more thought to things they might do in the future instead of simply dealing with what has happened in the past. So, for example, to avoid this girl's anxiety in the morning, let’s wake her ten minutes earlier and work with her on tasks she struggles with, and this will make for a better day. Similarly, after school we can think more carefully about who’s available with what skills at what times to do things with children, rather than “send them outside to play” while we get on with chores.

Essentially, we know that resources are limited, but we can learn to use what we have in different ways; in the same way, we are not suggesting complicated new technologies, but adding things to what we already do — a sense of goal-setting, development, and so on.

There are, surely, some new formal methods and techniques to learn?

JK: Once the habit grows whereby we consciously plan (a) for the group today, and (b) for individual youths’ futures, these child and youth care workers can begin to use the powerful tools their colleagues around the world use. For example, good life skills programs open up whole new areas we must teach. I also like to contrast life skills with independent living skills, and care workers can build good “curriculum” around knowing how to fix an electric plug, iron a shirt, etc. (Often, especially with larger institutions, the children don’t get near the laundry or the kitchen, and opportunities for normal family and household learning get lost.)

But it is important to build up to more complex worker skills. Once we build the sequences around planning and purpose (“we do this in order to achieve this ... ”) we can build some interpretive skills around troubling behaviour (“Why do you think this child behaves in this way?”) It is helpful to workshop this, especially to illustrate that there may be many reasons for a particular behaviour, and to move beyond the simplistic interpretation of “naughtiness”. I try to emphasise that nobody does anything that isn’t answering some need, and we work at a number of examples. Swearing is a good example to show how one child may swear because his family swears; another because he is furious, and yet another because he loves to see your reaction.

The isolation problem is compounded here, of course. If there is limited knowledge, past or current, about the children’s own families, then workers are blind to much of the background which might be influencing the children’s attitudes or behaviour. Seeing only the youngster’s current circumstances (warm bed, good food, etc.), troubling behaviour is more easily seen as “naughty” — and “Why can’t you behave like the others do?” And in poor rural areas, the warm bed and nourishing food can indeed be rare enough and can easily mask other considerations.

Are these issues similar in the school settings which might also be new to training?

JK: There are some clear differences. For one thing, in the school, most of the staff have received some formal training for their work — namely teaching. The concept of child and youth care is completely new to them, or at least out of their reach in terms of their daily time-table. There are formal classes in the morning, formal games after school, and household staff after that. The added structure hides the hurting child, and in these schools it is often hard to find the connection with care work for troubled youth. It can be that a particular teaching staff has become very aware of the problems their pupils suffer, and they are very keen to learn about working with these. Others may be reluctant to let go of the structure.

In a sense, in the formal school structure one also has to start from where the staff are, acknowledge what they do, and lead them into ideas about child and youth care work. They don’t start from the same place as the “housemothers” in rural children’s homes, but when they are challenged by particularly difficult pupils, they can be drawn into working at this. My best experiences have been when a real life situation has arisen when I have been in one of the schools, and when it has been possible to model practice and draw others into this. Learning by doing or by watching is miles better than, for example, being challenged with a question like “So what would you do with a youth who ...?”

From these beginnings ...?

JK: Introductory training experiences like these are good bridges to the established training courses. These child care workers and teachers, when they start on a formal course, will meet some of the ideas and issues which have been introduced in these beginnings — they will meet and recognise some of the concepts and hopefully feel more comfortable in mainstream training courses. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Jeannie Karth, a practitioner of long standing, is a trainer and consultant with South Africa’s National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW)