Four parts magic: The anatomy of a Child and Youth Care intervention
Thom Garfat, Ph.D.
Abstract: Literature in the field of child and youth care is full of references to the nature of the child and youth care form of practice (Brendtro & Ness, 1983; Ferguson, Pence & Denholm, 1993; Hare, 1992; Krueger & Powell, 1990; Maier, 1987; Redl & Wineman, 1952; Trieshman, Whittaker & Brendtro, 1968). At various times, writers have described the uniqueness of the field (Krueger, 1991; VanderVen, 1991), and even it's `magic' (Garfat, 1988). Although a number of authors have attempted to describe the nature of the therapeutic, or interventive, process in child and youth care practice (Beker & Eisikovits, 1991; Durrant, 1993; Fewster, 1990; Garfat & Newcomen, 1993; Guttman, 1991; Krueger, 1988; Ricks & Garfat, 1989; Szajnberg, 1987; VanderVen, 1993) only a few have attempted a description of just what happens at that magical moment when a child and youth care worker intervenes in to the patterns, life space, or lived experience of a youth in group care (eg. Austin & Halpin, 1989; Freeman, 1993; Freeman & Jacob, 1994; Krueger, 1990).
This paper will attempt to describe what might occur for the child and youth care worker during that moment, which I have chosen to call the interventive moment, in recognition of it's similarities to the teachable moment of education and the existential moment of opportunity. In it I articulate a conceptual framework for the interventive process and a description of the experiential nature of that process as it occurs during the interventive moment. Hopefully, through this description some of the complexity and magic of child and youth care practice will be captured.
Four Parts Magic: The Situation
In the living room of an ordinary group home, situated on an ordinary street, in an average Canadian town, a male child care worker and three young adolescents, two male and one female, are gathered around the television. The television is playing, not loudly, and the child and youth care worker seems quite engrossed in the program. The three youths are not.
The child and youth care worker is sitting on a couch directly in front of the television. The two male adolescents are sitting in separate armchairs off to the right of the worker and the female adolescent is sitting alone on another couch off to the left of the worker. None of the youth are in the direct path of vision between the worker and the television.
One male youth, Mark, is rolling up small bits of paper and throwing them at Larry, the other male adolescent. Each time a missive is launched, the second youth makes quiet derogatory comments to the first. If the paper seems about to hit him, Larry bats them away, back towards Mark. As this exchange continues, the adolescent female, Maria, watches and at times she makes some quiet comment, as if to herself, but mostly she just giggles and responds intently with her eyes and facial expressions. Occasionally each of the male adolescents will look at her and then turn his attention back to the other youth. The exchange is neither loud, nor extremely animated. It is as slow and subtle as brushing flies on a Mississippi night on the balcony. The child and youth care worker seems quite oblivious to their actions.
As our action begins, Mark throws a small piece of paper at Larry, who bats it away towards Maria who is sitting on the opposite side of the room. It flies across the vision path of the child and youth care worker. The three youth continue with their exchange as the child and youth care worker, his attention attracted by the small flash of white which has entered his field of vision, attends to the situation.
Four Parts Magic: The Framework
There is a moment when the child and youth care worker notices the need, or opportunity, for intervention. It may be, for example, the need to stop a current behaviour, the opportunity to help a child understand her own internal dialogues (Fewster, 1990) or her connectedness to the systems of which she is a part (Garfat, 1993), or even the opportunity to intervene in the cycle of a maladaptive way of acting (Krueger, 1988). At that moment, as part of the process of deciding whether or not to intervene, the worker needs to notice the point of intervention which is of importance.
While this may seem like a simple statement and one that could `go without saying', it is the nature of us, as human beings, that we do not always notice or experience all the things which surround us — we have a natural need to filter out some of the possible sensing which is available. Without this ability we would become overwhelmed with our experiencing of our context (Guttman, 1991). Thus, the child and youth care worker must pay special attention to the environment and the actions-in-environment which surround her so as to be able to notice the things which occur. `Noticing' occurs both when the immediate stream of things is disrupted (Eisikovits, Beker & Guttman, 1991), and at moments when a particular event in the stream of events, comes to the child and youth care worker's awareness for other reasons. While awareness is an on-going process within child and youth care practice (Ricks, 1989), noticing is the activity which occurs when the worker's attention and awareness are focused on a particular, specific event. It may result from either conscious or unconscious activity.
A child and youth care worker is sitting in the living room of a group home, watching television with three youth. He is quite involved with the television show because it is one of his favourites. One of the youth is throwing rolled up pieces of paper at another youth who is responding by softly mouthing-back at the first youth. This activity is clearly distracting/attracting for the third youth who giggles whenever a piece of paper is thrown.
It is possible for the child and youth care worker to `not-notice' the activity of the three youths. He could, for example, be concentrated too intensely on the television or he could be desensitized to the action in the room through years of experience in similar situations or he could be tired, pre-occupied with other thoughts, or feeling sick and attending to himself. To be effective, however, he must allow the action of the youth to become the focus of his attention.
In order to create and take advantage of the interventive moment, the child and youth care worker must be able to notice it's existence. This requires a degree of self-awareness such that the child and youth care worker is able to be aware of what she is, or is not, noticing at any given point in time (Ricks, 1989). Maintaining awareness of multiple activities while attending specifically to one is characteristic of effective child and youth care practice. In effective noticing, the worker must isolate an event briefly from both its situational interconnectedness (eg. how the individual behaviours within a sequence are connected to each other) and from its global interconnectedness (eg, how a particular event is connected to the activities occurring in another part of the program). She must narrow her focus while at the same time allowing peripheral information to enter her experiencing so that she does not become detached from the other elements of the immediate context for which she is responsible. The challenge for the worker is to ensure that `noticing' one event does not cause her to be oblivious to others which may be occurring concurrently. Equally important is the challenge to be aware when her `noticing' function is dormant or not functioning effectively.
Because no moment can exist in isolation of the context within which it occurs (Garfat, 1992) any understanding of a moment, event or opportunity requires an understanding of it's connectedness to that context. Guttman (1991) has suggested that child and youth care operates in the context of the `flow of immediacies' — a stream of ever occurring events which pass so quickly that each tends to flow and overlap with the previous and following events. In order to make a decision about whether or not to intervene, the child and youth care worker must both isolate the particular event, or opportunity, from the other immediacies of the moment and, at the same time, connect it to the elements of the contextual environment which are of importance in understanding and analysing it.
In identifying the event of interest, she must concern herself with how the specific event is connected to the situational, global, and especially, the individual context of each child's own life history. Thus, in focusing on an event the child and youth care worker must simultaneously isolate and connect the event to it's context in order to experience the fullness of the event. She must determine how this event is connected to the multiple streams of immediacies that constitute the current context. For it is only through seeing the connectedness of the event to its context, that she will be able to make an effective decision about how to intervene into the interactive system in which the event is embedded.
The child and youth care worker in the living room notices the youths' behaviour and begins, in preparation for possible intervention, to connect it to the flow of other events. He knows that there are many ways to see the connectedness of this action/interaction.
He might see only the behaviour of the paper-throwing, or he might see the response of the second youth and notice how the response is maintaining the paper-throwing behaviour in a rhythmic interaction. He may notice that the third youth, who appears to be watching the television, is in fact deeply engrossed in the paper throwing scenario and is participating through non-verbal reinforcements to both the paper thrower and the other youth. The worker may also notice that the paper throwing increases, or decreases, as the sounds of activity from another part of the house change leading him to speculate on a possible connectedness between the paper throwing and activities external to the immediate situation. He may also notice that, as he is noticing these events, the events themselves change. For example, as he looks at the mumbling youth he may notice that the paper-throwing increases or decreases which might indicate how he, too, is part of the process which is going on.
In this sense, connecting is much like untangling the threads of an intricate maze wherein one thread leads to another which connects to a third and so on, until the threads weave back to the original one. The connections which one sees, depends on the thread that one picks up to begin with and how one focuses on the maze.
This process of connecting requires that the child and youth care worker be able to free herself from preconceived notions of what is, and is not, connected for as Durrant (1993) has noted, we see what we believe to be there. It requires the `suspension of our disbeliefs' so that we are able to allow other possible connections to emerge; one's we might not see if we limit our vision to preconceived perceptions.
Assuming that the child and youth care worker has noticed an event, or opportunity, into which it may be valuable to intervene, and assuming that she has built the connectedness of one event to it's flow of immediacies, she must now give meaning to that which she is experiencing. How she does that depends very much on who she is — how she thinks, what she believes, what she knows, etc. It is a process that may be conscious or unconscious and may involve cognitive or emotional interpretation (Artz, 1994).
For some, giving meaning to an event may only involve interpreting it in light of the immediate events without reference to any other knowledge or understanding: giving it no meaning other than that which is implied by the behaviour. Alternatively, it may involve bringing in previous knowledge of, or about, the youth involved and attempting to understand the current action in light of that previous knowledge. Still for others, a situation may be given meaning through the worker's emotional reaction to it as would be the case, for example, if she decides that certain behaviours mean trouble because of her fear of loosing control of a group of children. Giving meaning can be thought of as a process of making sense of an experience and the way that we make sense is a reflection of our own personal values, beliefs, history and way of experiencing.
In the living room the child and youth care worker considers possible meanings to the flow of events he has noticed. He knows that could give it meaning by interpreting it to be a response to boredom, a way of getting his attention or a way of engaging the third child. He considers each individual's personal or historical context in his meaning-giving analysis. Perhaps the child throwing the paper has a short attention span and is not able to watch a long television show; perhaps the show is provocative for him and he is trying to defend against the emotions which arise when he watches it too closely; perhaps he needs to be engaged with others in order to validate his existence; perhaps in his family of origin, this is how feeling or discussion was stimulated. He will give the same considerations to the actions of the others.
In the more global context, the worker might also interpret the meaning of the three of them interacting in this way as it results in his involvement in their interaction. Perhaps in this particular program, staff do not spend a lot of time in direct interactions with youth and this scenario is being played out as a way of engaging the worker. Finally, he may decide that he is simply an innocent bystander in a peer group scenario which represents the very roles each of them played in their family of origin.
Whatever the outcome of a meaning-giving exercise, the child and youth care worker must realise that she is creating a way of understanding which is her way of understanding and it may, or may not, be consistent with the reality of the child's experience. She needs, therefore, not only to be aware of what she is experiencing, but also of how she is creating her understanding, interpretation, and therefore, experiencing of the situation in the moment because it is through these processes that she will give meaning to the actions of others.
Speculating on the `meaning giving' of other
While the child and youth care worker needs to interpret the events of the moment, she also needs to attempt to understand the meanings given to the events by the other participants; for it is the meaning that they individually give to the events which will determine the value they attach them. Whatever the worker does, even if she chooses not to intervene, will be interpreted by the others within the meaning that they are giving to the events which are occurring. The worker speculates, however tentatively, through what she knows about children, the meaning of similar behaviours, their individual histories and her previous experiences of them. This is not to suggest that in doing so she will come to an understanding of the truth of their meaning. It does, however, help her to speculate about possible meanings and possible interventions which might be relevant, and how those interventions might be interpreted by the youth. The more a worker knows a youth, his history and previous experiences, the more likely it is that she will be able to speculate correctly on the meaning-making of the youth.
The worker might speculate for example that the paper-throwing child interprets his behaviour as a valid form of relating to another which signifies interest and the desire for connectedness, expressed through play. The third child watching and responding may interpret her behaviour as the right thing to do in potentially explosive situations and therefore have it constructed as a form of self-defence. The child making derogatory comments may interpret his behaviour as a subtle call for help from an adult, learned in his family of origin as the right way to get attention when the adult is involved in something important to the adult. Depending on the meaning any child gives to his or her behaviour, the child will interpret any intervention.
The worker knows, as well, that each child in this scenario is also giving meaning to the actions of the other child. The mumbler, for example, may be interpreting the paper-throwing as annoying, meaningful contact or play. If the child and youth care worker intervenes with the paper-throwing child as if the paper-throwing was a disrespectful and annoying behaviour and the mumbling child has the behaviour framed as friendly contact-making, the mumbling child may not support the intervention of the worker because of her experience of it as unreasonable in the circumstances.
Obviously, the degree to which one can effectively speculate on the meaning-giving of other is dependent on the degree to which one knows other. However difficult it might be, the worker must speculate on the meaning-giving of the others as a guide for helping her decide how to intervene.
Checking-in with self
Checking-in with self is the ongoing process of maintaining an active self-awareness throughout the process of intervention. It refers to the action of the child care worker in consciously tuning in to her awareness of what she is experiencing, and how she is creating her experiencing, at any point in time; noticing how she has constructed her experience of the moment and reflecting on her own internal processes. In the interventive moment, the child and youth care worker's focus is both external (eg. focused on the events and their connectedness ) and internal (eg. focused on identifying and understanding the assumptions which underlay her interpretations of those events). While attending to other, she must be simultaneously checking-in with self. Let's go back through the action in the living which has been discussed so far and look at how the notion of `checking-in with self' might apply.
First, the child and youth care worker noticed the activity in the room. On checking-in with himself, he searches for an understanding of why he noticed the events when, and as, he did. In doing so he might ask himself questions like the following. Why did I notice these events at this point in time? What caused me to become aware of the action of the children when I was watching the television? Why was this action important enough, to me, for me to notice it? Would another child and youth care worker have noticed the same thing? Am I noticing because I am annoyed to be interrupted? What am I feeling right now? How is my feeling state affecting my noticing?
In the next instant, as he was analysing how the specific event of paper-throwing was connected to other events, he was also in the process of checking-in with himself about the connections he was making. Questions like the following may have come to his mind. Is there another connection here I am not seeing? How am I limiting my seeing? What connections might someone else see? Am I thinking that the third child is connected because of how I feel about her? Am I thinking I might be connected because of my need to be important? How is my seeing influenced by this program, agency, philosophy?
In the third part of the moment described above the child and youth care worker was giving meaning to his experiences of seeing, feeling, experiencing. Again, the process of checking-in raises questions about why he is giving to the events the meaning that he is giving. The same is true about his speculations of the meaning given to the events by the other participants.
The point here is not to raise all the questions that a child and youth care worker might ask in any given situation but rather to emphasize that the process of checking-in with self involves a continuous questioning of self, and self-experience, by the worker. The questioning which occurs however, does not stop with the answers to the first questions because she must also concern herself with why she answered her own questions the way she did. Let me use an example.
In asking himself whether or not he noticed the children's behaviour because it was annoying , imagine that the child and youth care worker came up with the answer "No. Of course not." He then needs to question the validity of that answer — perhaps he is engaged in a process of self-deception because he does not believe it is right to feel annoyed. In reviewing his response he may decide to ask himself another question like, "would it be okay if I was annoyed?" Now, let's suppose that the answer to that question was "No. A real professional wouldn't let his own feelings interfere." This is a signal to him that he has strong personal values around the possible answers to his first question which he needs to evaluate in order to determine if he can rely on his first answer.
This probably seems like a long way to make a point,
but here it is: if, for example, a worker should discover that she
noticed something because of a personalized reaction to the event, then
any `problem' which exists may be entirely of her own creation and the
resulting point of intervention may be with herself, not with the
children. Thus the value of the exercise.
Checking-in with self is an ongoing process throughout the interventive moment. It is essential to, and an inseparable, intricate part of, it. It does not happen at a particular point; it permeates the total process. There is no point at which checking in with self does not occur, although there are points in the interventive moment when it might be more or less the central focus of the worker's reflections. It is placed at this point in this narrative only to take advantage of previous discussion to make demonstration. The reader should, however, think of it as a stream running through this paper from beginning to end. The reader will have noticed that I have not referred to the worker checking-in about how she is behaving or presenting herself, throughout this process. This will be covered in the next part of this narrative under the title of "monitoring self-presentation".
Like `checking-in' the process of `monitoring self-presentation' is a process which is on-going throughout the interventive moment. It is the process of making the external self — the presentation of self — the focus of one's introspection (Guttman, 1991). The worker must, while processing the interventive moment, pay constant attention to how she may be appearing to the other(s). How she responds, when she responds, the expression on her face, the tone of her response, the attitude she conveys, the position she is in when one responds — these are all aspects of the presentation of self which must be monitored because of their potential impact on the overall process of intervention.
In that moment when the worker first noticed that the youth were engaged in their interaction he began to monitor his presentation of self. Imagine if his body response indicated annoyance, or even anger? How might that be interpreted and or responded to by the youth? Imagine that his reaction conveyed curiosity. How different the impact might be. As he is attending to the events occurring in the room, to the connections between events, to the meaning he is giving to those events and is checking-in with himself so, too, is he attending to his external presentation of self throughout the process. He is trying to see himself as others might be seeing him; to be his own reflective mirror.
Given that context is partially created by the interaction between self and other, the presentation of self impacts on the process of intervention through its influence on the context within which that process is occurring, and through how the presentation of self is experienced, interpreted and given meaning by others involved in that process. Thus, the worker must concern herself not only with how she is presenting herself but, also, with the meaning that her self-presentation might have for others. This process of monitoring self- presentation is, like the process of checking-in, constant throughout the process of intervention and is directly related to the following strategy of `utilizing-self' in the interactive moment.
The utilization of self
The utilization of self, which may occur at any point of the interventive process, refers to the action of the worker in intentionally using some characteristic of herself or her experience to influence the process of intervention. The decision to do so is arrived at through a conscious consideration of the potential impact of such an action on the process in which she is engaged. It may involve the worker allowing her emotional experience to be exposed, as when she decides to show her annoyance through tone of gesture, because she believes that such an expression may modify the behaviour of an individual, for example, or it may involve deciding to present an appearance of confusion in order to elicit questioning from the youth. The utilization of self is an intentional action based on the worker's analysis of the situation, the possible meaning which will be given to her presentation of self by the youth and the goals she wishes to attain. This does not imply that the worker should allow all of her characteristics or experiencing to enter freely into the interaction as might be the case if she should react with anger before understanding the reason for that anger or the possible impact of the expression of that anger on the interventive moment. Such an unthoughtful presentation of self may negatively affect the process and is, at best, questionable clinical practice.
The worker in the living room has noticed that he is experiencing annoyance around being disturbed in his television watching. As he notices his annoyance, he reflects on the possible impact of using his experience as a part of the process of intervention. He considers the possibility that showing his annoyance may stop the behaviour because the youth throwing the paper comes from a family in which annoying the adult usually lead to punishment. While he knows that expressing his annoyance will probably stop the behaviour, he wonders about how his annoyance might be interpreted by this youth and the others. Would the youth, for example, interpret it to mean that the worker is about to punish him like all the other adults in his life had done? If so, how might the youth react to such an interpretation, and how would that help or hinder progress towards the goals of placement for this youth?
On the other hand, the worker wonders about the possible impact of not allowing his annoyance to be accented and, instead, allowed his natural curiosity to show. Would the youth interpret this to mean that the worker doesn't care about his behaviour? Could the youth be confused by this `different' reaction from an adult and how might the youth react to this different experience?
Finally, the worker reflects on who's needs would be met through this utilization of self: the worker's need for control, for example, or the youth's need for a particular experience.
Deciding whether or not to utilize self during the process of intervention is a difficult decision. It presumes that the worker knows herself, is in touch with her experience, is able to monitor and choose how and when she `presents self', is aware of the potential impact of the presentation of self on the interventive process and is conscious of the goals she is working towards with a particular youth. In the group situation, any decision regarding the presentation of self is complicated by the potential impact of such a presentation on the others who are involved, even peripherally, in the process. The effective utilization of self is one of the most advanced of child and youth care interventive skills.
Another ongoing feature of process in the interventive moment which permeates all parts of the process is attending to, and processing, concurrent feedback. Just as the worker is attending to the process of the interventive moment as it evolves, so she must be attending to any feedback from the unfolding process. As she speaks, for example, she experiences how her speech is impacting on the interaction and evaluates how the process of interaction is affected by that speech. This feedback gives her information about how she might continue or modify her current actions in order to reach the goals in which she is interested.
The importance of concurrent feedback during the process highlights the evolutionary nature of the interventive process. The worker, as a voyager in a constantly flowing series of overlapping and interrelated exchanges and events, attempts to create and navigate a pathway to a desired end. In doing so, she constantly modifies her approach, presentation and strategies while guiding the interaction towards that end which, itself, may change as the moment evolves. Attending to and utilization of feedback throughout the interventive moment facilitates this process. Let's return to the living room.
The worker noticed how the situation changed as he became aware of it and as the children become aware of his awareness. As their behaviour changes he identifies this as validating feedback and incorporates that information into any further actions. Having interpreted that the youth are interpreting his awareness as curiosity, the worker may decide to process with the youth the meaning of his curiosity and their response to it. On the other hand, if one of the youths responds with anxiety, the worker may interpret this feedback to mean that he should proceed cautiously in this situation so as to avoid provoking the youth. As he continues to intervene, he monitors the feedback and allows it to become part of his decision-making regarding what to do next.
Attending to and utilizing feedback effectively is, unfortunately, one of the most neglected of child and youth care skills. While on the one hand it provides information which the worker can use in navigating her way through the experience to a successful outcome, ignored, it can mean a missed opportunity to be effective. Too often, because the worker has ignored feedback, her interventions fail and she creates an outcome distinctly different than that which she desired. The effective worker must learn to attend to, and utilize, feedback which comes both from the responses of others to her actions and her own responses to her actions because feedback is, ultimately, both an internal and an external process. As she acts, her thoughts and emotional responses also provide her with personal feedback which she is able to factor into the process because of her awareness of self.
Deciding to intervene
In the concentration of the moment, the child and youth care worker must finally make a decision about whether or not to intervene, more than she already has by allowing her awareness to show. Her decision will be based on her analysis and experience of the moment, her checking-in with self, the meaning she has given to the events so far and the feedback on her noticing. It will also be determined by her consideration of the need for immediacy as in the case of a dangerous situation and the importance she attaches to this moment in the overall treatment goals for the children. She may decide to intervene because she believes the behaviour should stop. She may intervene because she sees this as an opportunity for learning even though there is no behavioural problem requiring intervention. She may also decide not to intervene further because her analysis indicates that no intervention is warranted.
In the living room, the worker may come to the conclusion that the behaviour is harmless, normal and does not need to be interrupted; he may construe it as normal adolescent play, for example. He may decide to intervene because he sees this as an opportunity to further the development of one or more of the youth in question. He may also decide, however, having discovered that he was going to intervene because of his own annoyance, that this is an opportunity to teach the children something about how people respond to their own feelings or their own interpretations of what other people mean by what they are doing.
In the process of deciding to intervene the worker questions the reasons why he came to the decision to intervene. By checking-in with himself, he attends to the values and beliefs which are surrounding the situation (e.g.. children should be seen and not heard), and the personal motivations he may have for wanting to intervene (eg. I'm going to stop this before it goes any further — I'm too tired to deal with more).
Through this process of checking in, the worker determines if her motivation for intervening is `in the best interests of the child' or in the interests of the herself. In other words, who's `business' is motivating this intervention? The decision to intervene, therefore, is based on a complex analysis of the event, her interpretation of it and possible desirous outcomes. Having decided to intervene, she must now decide which intervention to use, and how to use it.
Before finally choosing an intervention, the worker must decide where she is going to place herself in making her intervention. Essentially, she must decide whether to intervene from inside the stream of events she is noticing, or whether to intervene from outside of that stream. It involves a decision about how much, and in what way to join with the youth in their experience. In some cases (eg. creating an empathic or nurturing response) the worker may decide it is appropriate to join in the flow. In other cases (eg. exercising authority) the worker may decide to intervene from outside the flow. In deciding to step into the flow, the worker makes a decision to become an active part of a joint experiential moment with the youth in which worker, and youths, enter a shared experiencing. If she decides to enter into the flow, she then has the added task of monitoring her experience of the flow, and directing that flow towards a desired outcome.
In deciding to intervene from outside of the flow, the worker positions herself as a monitor and facilitator of the youth's experience from the outside-in, maintaining her own experience as separate as possible from the experience of the youths. In some respects it evokes the notions of doing to, and doing with, youth which is one of the major questions in how a child and youth care worker functions in the interventive moment. The outcome of the decision about where to position herself is reflected in the experience of the youth. If the worker intervenes from the outside-in, the youths may have the experience of separation from the worker. If she decides to intervene from inside of the flow of immediacies, the youths may have the experience of rhythmic connectedness with the worker.
Which position to intervene from is a decision based on both the professional and personal preferences of the worker. Each has it's place at certain times in child and youth care practice. The key is in maintaining the skill and flexibility to be able to intervene from either position, as the situation requires.
In the living room, the child and youth care worker has decided that there is value to be had in intervening and has arrived at the point where he is deciding where to position himself for that intervention. He considers the possibility of remaining somewhat detached from the flow of events and knows that he can intervene by, for example, simply making a request for the youth to stop their behaviour or by simply turning up the volume of the television. He considers the possible meanings of that action which may be given to it by the children.
He also considers the possibilities available for joining in the flow and intervening from that position. It would be possible, he realises, to join in the activity by throwing a piece of paper himself, thereby creating a different flow which he might turn into a shared game. Then, from this position of being part of the flow, he could move to demonstrating, and getting the youth involved in, origami.
In thinking about this choice, the worker thinks about the youth's history — two of them, for example, come from families in which play was missing as part of the interactions between youth and adult. He thinks also about the possible meaning this action would have in terms of how these youth think about the boundaries between themselves and other workers and how this type of action would be considered in the context of the program's philosophy. He wonders too, about the other factors involved in making this decision — would he be able, for example, to operate effectively from within the flow of events, would it confuse the youth, would it increase their excitement too much, how would it impact on his relationship with them.
Deciding on a position from which to intervene is a decision affected by the lens of the child and youth care worker and her orientation towards work with young people. It should also be, however, a decision based on answering the question, "Overall, what is the most effective position from which to intervene, with this youth, in this particular context?" With the same group of youth, in a different context, the choice she makes may be different. In the practice of group child and youth care, the worker moves in and out of the flow of events, as circumstances require.
Choosing an intervention that fits
The process for choosing an intervention for a particular situation has been discussed in the literature (Garfat & Newcomen, 1993; Eisikovits, Beker & Guttman, 1991; Krueger, 1988). Essentially it involves the question of `fit' (ie. what intervention will be most appropriate for this child, in this situation, at this time) worker ability (e.g. can I carry through on the intervention effectively) and context (e.g. is this intervention congruent with the philosophy of this program?). It is impacted by the worker's clinical lens (e.g. the philosophy through which she sees, experiences and interprets events and interventions), the need for immediacy (e.g. the dangerousity of the situation) and the desired outcomes/goals and the relation of these to the overall goals for the youth.
Choosing an intervention is not necessarily, although it may be, a simple process of determining how to stop an event. While there are many interventions possible in a given situation, each will be interpreted differently by the youth involved and considering how an intervention will be interpreted must be a part of the choosing. It also involves the process of considering possible alternative outcomes from the intervention. Part of the effective practice of child and youth care involves being able to generate alternate responses to the same situation. The goal, obviously, is to choose from among available options, the most effective intervention, for this event, in this particular context.
The worker in the living room considers the possibility of simply asking the youth to stop the behaviour. Such a simple intervention is, he knows, based on numerous assumptions — that the intervention will work; that the children will care about what he wants; that the behaviour will not escalate as a result; that such an intervention will not evoke pre-abuse memories in one of the youth; that the intervention will not reinforce the behaviour, for example.
Alternatively, based on his analysis, he may decide to intervene indirectly through changing the channel on the television. Again, numerous assumptions underlay this intervention — that the behaviour is a result of not being interested in the current program, that the change will serve as an effective distraction or that the television is actually of interest, for example.
Any intervention is based on assumptions that the worker makes based on her analysis of the current events. That analysis is based on her previous experience, her knowledge of youth and herself, the meaning she gives to a situation, her understanding of how she is experiencing the situation and the lens through which she experiences it. Ultimately, the choice of an intervention is a personal/professional choice. Professional, because it is based on the worker's best professional judgment as to which intervention will `fit' the best and personal, because ultimately the worker must choose an intervention which `fits' for her, given her skills, abilities, values, beliefs and ethics.
An intervention is an action undertaken to impact on a specific interactional system with the intention of facilitating a change in the functioning of that system. Once the worker has gone through the foregoing process, she comes to the point where she must act; she must intervene. How the intervention is delivered will have a great deal to do with its effectiveness. How she speaks, positions herself physically and moves with the intervention are all important. The delivery must be congruent with the intent of the intervention. The worker who wants a child to stop a behaviour and presents the demand as a request, for example, provides a potential mixed message which will confuse the child and interfere with the interventions effectiveness.
In the living room, the worker has decided to intervene because he has decided that this event represents an opportunity which is consistent with the overall goals for the children within the context of the current program. He has recognised this as an opportunity to do something different together. Having decided to intervene from within the flow of events, he now ponders whether to intervene directly of in a more indirect fashion . He knows that how he intervenes will affect the success of the intervention in helping him to reach his desired goals. If his style shows frustration because he was enjoying the program the children might assume he is angry with them and in reaction get in to an argument about leaving it on. If he does it with a humour, they might think that she thinks they are foolish. Having made his decision, the worker intervenes by making his first move of stepping into the flow of events. Once part of the flow, he evaluates the youths reaction to this phase, and satisfied with their response, effects the next stage of his intended intervention, monitoring their reaction, his reaction and the resulting changes even as he is facilitating the intervention.
* * *
Four Parts Magic:
God, I love this show. Especially the female cop — she's so beautiful with those green eyes and red hair. Tough and intelligent, she's . . .
. . . what was that? That flash of white — like a piece of popcorn. What's going on. God, I've been so engrossed in this show I wasn't paying attention to what's going on right here. I should know better than to watch Picket Fences at work. It's more for me than for them. I always get so caught up watching that woman that I drift off. What are these kids doing? I'm not going to over-react here. Relax, Thom. Pull out of the television slowly — you don't want to create a reaction. Whatever is going on might be just fine. Everyone is still where they were a few minutes ago — was it a few minutes? How long have I been out of touch here?
Mark is tossing bits of paper at Larry. Why is he doing that? He doesn't usually do stuff like that — he's normally quiet and complacent, that's one of the things we've been worried about. He never does anything wrong. Or have we just been missing it? Is this new or is this just my first time noticing it?
Larry doesn't seemed too disturbed by it at all.
He's just batting them back at Mark, but he's making quiet comments —
that's not a good sign — he often does that just before he erupts — I
don't want that to happen. Hmm, a little anxious Thom? Stay calm. I
wonder where that comes from for him. It's like a well filling up and
then suddenly he overflows. I better slow him down before he gets `too
full'. But he's not there yet; he's not showing the physical agitation
that precedes one of his blows.
But where's Maria in all of this — just sitting there? Oh, I see, little smirks and giggles, she's helping to keep this going all right. That's something she's a real master at — pretending she's not involved in something that she actually keeps going and then playing Miss innocent when it's discovered. As if she didn't have any responsibility for what happens.
Whoa! Where did that feeling come from? Am I mad at her? Annoyed because the show was interrupted and blaming her? No, it's about me all right. I hate that kind of behaviour — reminds me of the kid in my elementary school class who always used to get us all in trouble and then play innocent — finally had to beat him up. Got to watch that. She's not that kid and I'm not a kid either. That's my business, not hers. I can't let old childhood stuff get dumped on her. Mark that for supervision but for now keep it in check and don't let it come out here. I wonder if any of the other staff have that feeling about her or if it really is just me? I can't use it if I can't understand it. Stay focused on connecting the pieces, Thom.
They aren't glancing at the television so it's probably not related to the show — damn, I wish I could watch the end of it. It would be so easy to just ignore this or tell them to stop. If I ignore it, Larry's going to get too full and if I confront it Maria's going to deny it so either way, forget the show. Is that what's important here, the show? No. No. That's just a minor annoyance. Let it go. They don't seem to be changing as I watch them, so maybe I'm not a part of it, although I am trying not to be too obvious. What was it that the supervisor said — watch from the corners of your vision until you're sure what's going on — unless it's urgent — which this isn't. At least, not for the moment — Larry still looks cool. I am worried about him — left over from the last time I saw him blow — he hurt me, himself and George. Am I scared? No, just anxious. Stomach's a bit tight but it's okay. Call it caution and pay attention to it.
There's nobody in the rest of the house so whatever's happening here must be related to them, me and this room — nothing else — unless it's connected to the fact that there is no-one else in the house. Could be that makes them nervous. They are all abused kids. Hmmm, I want to bring that to the team. We should really think about the idea of having one staff alone with kids — both for the kids and for the staff. The last thing I want is a false accusation. They're hell to deal with — I remember when Sharon was accused of . . . Leave it alone. Stay focused here.
So, Mark and Larry have got a little rhythm going here and Maria's feeding it. Yup, Mark just glanced over at her and Larry did a second ago, she's locked into this alright. I wonder how she got in, or if she was the original stimulus — whoa! Where is that behavioural talk coming from? Dump it. But what about me? How am I a part of this? Or am I?
How come Larry shot that paper over towards Maria, it doesn't seem to be part of the flow of things — he seems to just bat them back at Mark. It could be a way of trying to get her deeper involved — a reaching out. But it did fly across my face — could he be inviting me in without making it obvious to the others? Is he trying to get my attention. Maybe he knows he's 'filling up' and trying to avoid the overflow — I'll talk to him about that later. Mark that, Thom. If that's what he's doing, it's a good sign and he deserves recognition — if not I can still share my wondering with him and see where that takes us. Perhaps later tonight.
So, why is this going on? And why am I wondering
that? Does it matter, why? Would the other workers care why; or would
they just stop it? Are these kids just bored? Oh, boy. If that's true,
I've really been avoiding my work. Some child and youth care worker I
am. Come to work and watch television and ignore the kids. Just like
everybody thinks. A glorified babysitter and don't even do that well.
Whoa, Thom! What's that about? Feeling sorry for yourself again? Just
watch the rhythm and stay with the present — worry about your career
later. And maybe spend a little time figuring how come your mother's
voice just jumped in to your head — that's the kind of stuff she says.
She's never satisfied! I'm having trouble letting go of this. So, don't
let go. Leave it there and monitor it. If I spend too much time in my
head like this, these guys will be out of the house before I notice it.
Pay attention but don't get lost. Stay focused here. In this present —
get grounded. Press your feet on the floor. Good.
Maria. I'm sorry I have that reaction to her. She's just doing what she learned. It was the only way she could stay safe. As long as she could keep her mom and dad fighting they weren't beating on her. No wonder that she just replicates that here. But why now? Could she be sensing some of Larry's build-up. Or maybe it's just habit — not everything is a problem, Thom.
And why is Mark doing this? He's seen Larry blow up before and it scared him last time. And why now? This is the first time I've seen him bug another kid — so, maybe he's trying on some new behaviours. Mind you, this is also the first time I've ignored them all like this, too. Perhaps those are related. Perhaps they were all uncomfortable with the show. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with my feelings towards that female cop. Maybe I was letting too much show. Ouch. That is possible. Okay, so we're all in this together.
I wonder what they think they're doing — what meaning all of this has for them? I wonder if Maria is protecting herself or if she gets pleasure in keeping this going? And why are the boys doing it? I know Larry can't help himself, yet. I've never seen him be able to resist a situation when it's offered to him. He's like a fish with a worm. Nothing sinister — just always hungry and naive. It's his way of being in the world. It seems to be the only way he knows to relate to people. He waits until someone shows a little provocation towards him — and god knows that's frequent around here — and then he keeps it going until he explodes. It's his way of letting off steam. We've talked and he says he would like to change but says he can't. I believe that — he doesn't know how to do it differently. Maybe this is an opportunity to show him how to divert his focus. Maybe that's what he tried to do by batting that last piece in front of me?
That's a nice optimistic thought, Thom — second time you've had it. Are you sure it's not just wishful thinking? Only one way to find out but not too quick. Not yet.
There's no reason to panic here. It does remind me of other times when things went too far when ... Never mind that — this situation is different. I wonder how this all got started? And Mark? He likes to bug people. Just like his dad. I saw him in that family meeting and I wanted to choke him. A constant barrage of digging at other people. Digging away until the whole family wants to kill him. And Mark's learned the same pattern. Half the time, I know, he doesn't even know he's doing it. I guess that's why I tend to go a little easy on him.
This doesn't look like a dangerous situation, but it will be a problem if it goes on too much longer. Right now, though, it's still an opportunity and I think I'll take advantage of the opportunity before it becomes a problem. Under-utilized opportunities can become problems, somebody said. But first I need to check-in a little.
How am I doing? I'm okay. Calm, not rushed. I seem to have sorted out some of my feelings about what's going on and the kids. I'll have to watch some of those — especially the feelings that came up about Maria but that's under control for the moment. Am I annoyed? No. I am feeling a little guilty though, but that's probably good for me. I shouldn't get so absorbed in something that I don't pay attention to the kids. But whatever I do here, I'll have to be careful that it's not driven by guilt — I tend to go overboard when that happens.
I can see that they know that I'm aware of what they are doing now — they're trying not to show it but the gestures are a little more ritualised now and they've all glanced quickly my way in the last few seconds. So, they are waiting for me to respond. Well, that answers that question.
Either they wanted to get my attention and they did or they weren't thinking about it and have just noticed me noticing. Either way, I'm hooked into it now for sure and they're waiting. I guess my curiosity must be showing — but is that all? Given everything I'm feeling/thinking, I wonder what else is showing and what they're making of it. I think I must be looking pretty calm and that's good. The last thing Larry needs to see is anxiety; or Maria, frustration about the television show. She's got a low enough opinion of herself already. She doesn't need to think that the television show is more important than her. I think interest and curiosity is the best thing to present. I don't want to stop this in an authoritarian way. I've done that before with Mark and he blew up — and I know the others will rush to his defence. I don't want to create an us-them situation. God knows we have enough of those in this program. I want to talk about that at the next team meeting. But for the moment ...
I am going to intervene here — the only questions left is how, and from which position — inside or out. I know I could stop this just by turning up the television — well, maybe not stop it but change it, that's for sure. But how would that be interpreted by them? Just another annoyed adult in their lives. They don't need that. And we are trying to teach them that not all adults are alike — not that you could tell by how some of the other workers intervene. But that goes to the team meeting too.
I think I can turn this into fun and help them all to learn something about themselves and other adults at the same time. But how will they interpret it if I don't criticize them for fooling around? Will it be too much unlike the behaviour of the other staff? Well, not all of them, Carrie likes to play with the kids too. I wonder what she might do with this situation — she's so creative. Maybe I can get creative here, too. It is something I've been wanting to work on. I think I can leave them alone for another few seconds while I think about this a little. I don't want to be behavioural, that doesn't fit for me. It objectifies the kids and I feel like a cop. I want something more systemic and caring.
So, what else? What might Carrie do? Probably turn it into a game of catch, or paper-making or even take sides and play with it as a team sport. Now there's an idea. What if I turned this into a team sport? No, it would get out of control because I'm not sure if I could manage it well. On the other hand, it could be an opportunity to try it on.
But what might they learn if I did this? Just that they can get me involved by acting up — that's probably the kind of thing Bill would say. But is it wrong for them to learn that? If I'm correct that they have intentionally invited me in to the flow of things, then maybe they are hoping to learn that I can get involved without it being a big deal. I'm going to go with the idea that they are inviting me in. I'm going to join in somehow — I hate always intervening from the outside and I do have a tendency to do that because it always feels safer. Ah. Fear and the art of intervention.
So, how can I join in and make this meaningful for them all. I want Larry to learn that he doesn't have to get "too full", and perhaps Mark can get a look at why he's always bugging people and find an alternative way to get connected and Maria, well, maybe she can find out that she doesn't have to be afraid. Okay, that'll do. No, I want them to know something about how I'm reacting too. I want to get them in to an activity — take advantage of the energy — and be able to process this with them during the activity. Help them discover that they can be together in a more constructive way. Use this as an opportunity for exploration and learning.
So, what to do? And how?
Four Parts Magic:
Intervention and Reflection
So, I got up and walked towards the television rolling a ball of newspaper in my hand. Of course the kids stopped what they were doing and watched me — every step of the way — which I felt confirmed my guess that they were waiting for me to do something. I tried to keep my steps light, but I was a bit nervous, you know. I mean I was trying something different here and I wasn't sure how it was going to work out.
When I got to the television, I reached down slow and turned it off. Then I turned around to face them and as I did I tossed the piece of paper at Larry. He got a surprised look on his face but he recovered quickly — I think I broke into their flow at that point. Larry batted it at Mark who hit it back at me and I hit it to Maria and so on.
While this was happening — the paper-batting, I mean — I said:
"Hey, you guys. I was so absorbed in the television I forgot where I was for a few minutes and if you hadn't have batted that piece of paper in front of me I probably would have ignored you all until the next commercial. And that's not okay. But as soon as I saw that piece of paper I thought `Popcorn'. So ... let's all go make popcorn. I can watch this show another time — on my time, not yours. So, what do you say? Popcorn?"
You know, they looked at me like I was crazy and for just a second I was afraid that I had blown it and was getting ready to move on to another approach and then Maria started to laugh. Then Mark and Larry did too and they all started throwing things at me — paper and pillows, like. Well, then I started in laughing too, because I was relieved that this was going okay and the next thing we were all in the kitchen making popcorn and talking about how they had got my attention without any difficulty at all. We also talked about how they got in to that rhythm without talking at all and, you know, all three of them had different reasons.
Mark had started it all, he says, because he was bored. Larry just fell in to it because there was nothing else doing and he was feeling a little pissed-off with me so batting the paper felt like a bit of acting out. He says he saw Maria watching them and caught her eye and that's how she got involved. She says she was trying to get my attention because she was afraid it was going to go beyond the fun stage. Anyway, right or wrong, the point is, they all had their own reasons and they had a way of understanding why they were doing what they were doing.
When I got up to go to the television, though, they all thought I was going to get angry, which is really interesting because they all had their own reasons for thinking that, even though they all thought the same thing — my anger — was what was going to happen. Maria said her dad always used to walk slow like that just before he blew up; Mark said he figured he was in trouble again because he gets in trouble so much from other staff just for `playing' and Larry figured they were in trouble for interrupting. I think that really says something about my, or maybe our, work with them and how they see us all. I mean I know it's normal for kids to project but for all of them to think my behaviour meant trouble ...
Well, it was only afterwards that I realised how anxious I had been during that intervention. I mean, my thoughts were going a mile a minute and I was afraid things were going to go wrong because the last time I had intervened with Larry was the time he blew up and I guess I was feeling pretty responsible for that. I wanted it to work this time so that we could get back on the right foot. I talked to him about it after and actually thanked him for helping to set up the situation where we could start over again. He denied it but I could tell he knew what I was saying.
I learned a few other good lessons that night too. Like how much I can get engrossed in television, or; how much of my own stuff comes up whenever I intervene; or, that it's worth thinking about what someone else would do. That's why it was a good idea that I thought of Carrie. But, you know, in retrospect, I knew what to do as soon as the paper flew across my vision — I mean, that's when I first thought about the popcorn. Or was it just an idea that I ended up justifying ...
I also realised that I've got a lot of issues with the team and I have to start dealing with them before they get bigger. And I've got some feelings to sort out. But, you know, I guess the biggest thing I learned from all of this, is that if you're willing to go for it, you can think as you intervene and it doesn't end up being too stiff like some people say it will. I mean, I didn't feel any less spontaneous just because I was thinking, checking-in, feeling and stuff. If any thing I felt a little freer — more able to take risks — because I knew what risks I was taking — or at least I knew more about them.
I gotta tell you, though, there really is something unique about this work. I'll probably never really know what happened, will I? It's like it takes one part thinking, one part doing, one part courage, two parts good luck and four parts magic.
I love it!
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This feature: Parts of this were originally published in the Child and Youth Care Forum and the Journal of Child and Youth Care.