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Training child care workers: Three essentials

There is the story of the new child care worker, fresh from school who, after 6 months on the job, is frustrated and tending toward cynicism — because he can’t transform residents into the ideal stereotype he brought with him into the job. Or the story of the child care worker who becomes confused, disillusioned, and doubtful of her own abilities — because she finds the youth more hostile and distrusting than she thinks their past experiences should ever have led them to be. Or that of the worker who leaves the agency before a year is up — because, in just a few months, he has exhausted all the "caring" energy he has, trying to do the job all by himself.

These are not stories of failure or shortsightedness. They are simply the human experience of real people who find themselves faced with challenges unlike any from their past, yet have little but their past experience as a guide toward handling them. These are stories of people who are just doing what they’ve always done as helping persons, but who sadly discover that — in this instance — it doesn’t work. As a result they experience disillusionment, uncertainty, cynicism, physical and emotional exhaustion.

As one involved every day in the training of child care workers, I would argue against the notion that training, like some magic elixir, is the single solution to such problems. On the other hand, I would just as strongly affirm that all training programs for child care workers (whether provided before or during employment) must in some fashion take such issues into account — and, indeed, offer more than short-term, quick fix solutions for them.

The beginning of a solution for me is to identify some essential themes for the training of child care workers. These are themes — which, regardless of the specific purposes or content of a given program, should always be implicitly present in training and at times made explicit. As a unit, they become a statement of philosophy and serve an integrating function — both for understanding a variety of techniques and developing a variety of skills in child care.

These essential themes are:

Self-exploration and personal growth
Child development theories, diagnostic and case planning skills, crisis intervention techniques — these are just a few of the many knowledge and skill areas that must be included in the education and training of child care workers. Yet, granted the need for training and competence in such areas, the effectiveness of the child care worker is, in the end, determined by a rather internal reality: i.e., who he or she is as a person.

Training programs that side-step this reality are ignoring what has already been recognized by the profession: that "becoming an effective child care worker is a developmental process involving the whole person." (Beker, CCQ, 1979)

In a word, training programs must engage child care workers, not as technicians, but as people. Furthermore, training programs must do so within a framework that is no different from that which workers themselves present to the young people in their care: i.e., the challenge to look at themselves as they are and to grow where change and growth are called for.

Child care personnel, rather than doing something to or for residents, are ideally working with youth on a mutually established agenda of self-understanding and growth. Training programs that, in turn, do not seek in some fashion to do the same with regard to workers are selling these people short and ultimately the children as well.

Some of the nuances of this training theme are: fostering lifelong intellectual curiosity; nurturing a willingness to examine (and abandon, if necessary) long-held value-laden views; paying equal attention to the process and the content of learning; sharing personal anxieties and strengths; establishing the training experience as a stimulant to overall personal growth rather than as a mechanical transfer of information and technology.

Like any other relationship, the child care worker-resident relationship, if it is to grow, involves growth on both persons’ part — not just growth by the child. It is in the nature of relationships to be so. Lest anyone forget, the training experience should reinforce this truth with workers.

Creation of the powerful environment
In his 1979 work, Caring for Troubled Children, James Whittaker speaks of the "powerful environment." He uses this phrase to describe a continuum of services all working together in integrated fashion in the interests of troubled youth and their families. In this context, residential placement and in-home services are not viewed as either-or alternatives or as competitive services, but as two parts of a multi-component services system which stands as a "powerful environment", ready to respond to individual and changing needs of clients.

The same notion is aptly applied, I think, to child care workers and, therefore, their training. Increasingly, child care workers need to be seeing themselves, not simply as one-on-one caregivers for residents, but rather as active contributors to each resident’s powerful environment. Such an environment is one in which every part of the child’s world — agency, school, family, peer group, neighborhood, and so on — is working in their interest. The total environment becomes a force toward the child’s growth, development and success. It is in this context that the child care worker must place his or her own involvement with residents. Indeed, because of their daily, ongoing contact with the residents, perhaps child care workers have the lead responsibility for orchestrating the creation of a powerful environment for each youth.

There are child care workers who have the bad habit of being possessive of their helping role with residents in their care. They care so much for the residents that they forget that others can, too — and indeed, must — if the child is to have any reasonable opportunity to succeed. An essential part of any training of child care workers must be to relieve them of this attitude — and this burden.

There are workers, too, who cannot tolerate a particular family on visiting days, because their contact with their child constitutes such an interference with "what I’m trying to do with her." Perceiving their own job a bit differently might lead workers in a different direction: that of spending energy in helping the family to become active participants in the caregiving process — so that treatment program and family contact reinforce each other as co-agents in the child’s powerful environment.

In this instance, a worker’s skill is measured, not so much by his own positive relationship with a particular child, but by his ability to manipulate the larger environment in a way that supports the child’s growth and success.

Routine use of support systems
The concept of support systems is commonplace in the social sciences — and follows logically that of the powerful environment. Its direct implications for child care worker training are these: that, as a matter of routine, child care workers must learn to use support systems for themselves, must contribute to other staff’s support network, and must teach the youth in their care how to do the same. Use of support systems must become an integral part of the child care worker’s specific expertise.

Earlier in this article it was stated that the child care worker essentially has him or herself as the basic tool for helping youth. However, this focus on self is never to be seen as the self alone. Effective child care cannot be done alone. In all human development, growing and support go hand-in-hand. The presence of a support system is certainly no guarantee that growth in individuals will occur; but neither is growth possible without a support system in place. Indeed, appropriate use of support systems is a life skill — one that child care workers need to be sensitive to, both for themselves and for the youth in their care.

The training of child care workers must include attention to support systems — helping workers both to understand and use a variety of support systems, to build them where needed, and to teach youth how to make appropriate use of them in their own lives.

Like many parents, there are workers who often are hesitant to admit to their peers their own shortcomings or uncertainties about the children in their care. When it comes to how they handle children, they’d rather go it alone, displaying the image of total confidence, competence, and success.

However, such is not the real world. Clearly, one’s value and legitimacy as a parent or child care worker is not synonymous with competence. Seeking support from others, revealing ignorance or uncertainty to peers: these are vital ways of learning and have potential for expanding both the confidence and competence of workers. Furthermore, in the process, a model — essential for their own success — is demonstrated to the youth in care.

Training is certainly an appropriate, if not ideal, means for fostering this attitude and approach in the use of support systems.

Training: It’s essence
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is noted for his statement that "all real living is meeting." This statement suggests that the essence of life is in relationship or the interpersonal experience.

In some fashion, all real training involves meeting. Training of child care workers, in addition to expanding specific knowledge and skills, must become a means for engaging people in a process of "meeting." Such a process involves meeting themselves — their present and future selves — openly and confidently. It involves acquainting people with the skills required to create a powerful environment, one in which every "meeting" between child and environment is tested for its potential for positive impact on their success. Finally, it involves encouraging workers to meet others, their peers especially, in a supportive way — and to help youth in their care to do the same.

These themes are, for me, at least a partial answer to the problems illustrated in the stories opening this article. These themes are, to my mind, essentials in the training of child care workers.

Liberatore, Richard (1981) Training child care workers: Three essentials. Child Care Work In Focus, NOCCWA Published with permission: Academy of Child and Youth Care Practice