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What do we mean by 'developmental'? — II

“Child and youth care programs – particularly the residential ones – are constantly encouraged to adopt a developmental approach. What does ‘developmental’ mean in our context?” This is the second of three parts. (See Part I here)

In Part I we considered the importance of being paced by the timetable of human development – and the urgency which this timetable imposes. Today we want to look at the developmental nature of our interventions with young people in difficulty.

You will find that most processes which are effective and appropriate have a life cycle of their own: they are dynamic, they are interactive, and so they grow and change. Processes which are not legitimate are static, they do not interact and learn, they stay the same.

In some programs we find a set of rules which seem to be set in concrete. "A youth caught smoking will be grounded on Saturdays." Easy. Nobody has to think beyond something so clear. There is no room for argument. We don’t have to trouble ourselves with the health issues, the addictive issues – or even any of the other difficulties the young person concerned may be having. This is an example of a non-developmental intervention. It is not going anywhere. It is not in any sort of dialogue with the child or the staff member. It’s not open-ended, doesn’t learn from experience. It doesn’t grow or change.

Such a simplistic smoking rule cannot be called an intervention. The very word ‘intervention’ means "to come into the middle of things, to get involved." And the point of this month’s article is to see how that involvement, in simple terms, has a beginning, a middle and an end.

A central aspect of development is time. Things develop over a period. Development takes time. It’s helpful for child and youth care workers to think of development (unfolding, differentiating, fulfilling) in terms of growing plants. We have all seen those graphic animations of plants growing from seed to maturity. We know that a developing plant has to move through each growth stage incrementally; it cannot skip a stage to save time; it has to "do" each stage. It might struggle at certain stages, lack water for a period, endure wind, be undernourished – and its ultimate condition may well be affected – but there are no short cuts. A sapling simply cannot function as a mature tree. And an underfed sapling in a harsh climate cannot too easily function as a sapling – it may well have to give up on some developmental work in order to just hang in there, to survive.

So the child and youth care worker will know that a youth who is having trouble with inner and outer challenges (like the underfed sapling in a harsh climate) cannot be simply "commanded" to behave as though nothing was wrong. For one thing, in relation to our knowledge of human development we must be realistic and appropriate in our expectations (as we discussed last month). Secondly, our intervention (which is to be a partnership of action between the youth and ourselves) must aim towards a future point where development can reasonably be resumed. And thirdly, our progress to this point will necessarily turn out to be a progressive path for both us and the youth – seldom do we see instant improvement. It will take planning, time and hard work – seasoned with some risk, some disappointment, and probably some modified goals.

Don’t avoid the hard work
Because we work in a tough environment with hurt, angry and scared kids, we naturally tend towards quick fixes. Getting involved (intervening) with these clients and their families is daunting and draining work and it would be natural for us to want to find an easier way than engaging and confronting. How often do we hear ourselves deciding to "have a talk with her" or to "impose a consequence" or "lay down clear expectations" as if one single encounter will magically make up for years of difficulty? Yes, we may threaten or cajole (using more therapeutic-sounding words, of course) but that just quietens the noise for an hour or an afternoon. Tomorrow the neediness will still be there, crying out louder, the anger will be sharper, the anxiety more obscured. Better to start today.

A good critical team helps us to recognise our attempts at quick fixes, and offers us support in defining our task more objectively and accurately -- and in getting started.


There are two stages to an intervention. The first stage is largely transparent to the child in that it consists of our contribution to his or her environment and general development. It is essentially the work of normalising their experience to the extent that there is no unnecessary or extraneous deprivation or provocation, and that ordinary age-appropriate skills and strengths are encouraged.

The second stage is to concentrate on the specific referral problems and/or those which may be dominant to the extent that they are impairing development or function and thus creating difficulties for the child and others – and then taking specific action to work at these.

Stage 1
1: Examine the appropriate levels of basic nurturing and emotional "hygiene" that we are maintaining for this youth. Easier said than done, and something to take much care over. When we look back over a crisis we often find that there was a build-up of frustrations and irritations which we didn’t at first notice but which might have been significant for the youth concerned: an expected letter didn’t arrive, someone called him a name, a poor math grade was coming down the tracks, he was told he couldn’t go into the TV room until 5 pm, another youth "borrowed" his shirt ... There is not a lot of visible "action" in these events and we might easily conclude that "a gratuitous aggressive act" resulted from the borrowed shirt! Our job is to familiarise ourselves with the raw material of a youth’s life if we are to be of any help in working towards important changes and growth. Think of this stage as "admitting the youth for observation" prior to an operation. We don’t want to make poor intervention decisions on the basis of our own lack of thoroughness or our ignorance.

This stage is about ensuring that ordinary needs are met and not frustrated, and that needless restrictions, conflict and contagion are avoided. The safety and protection offered by the environment are enough to engender trust and lower defensiveness – to the point that the youth can let some of his "stuff" go, freeing energy for the needed ‘remedial’ work. But while reducing a youngster’s disabling anxiety we are careful not to promote over-dependency or to weaken the vigilance or adeptness he needs to function within his roles in his own environment.

It will be immediately clear that this task is not merely routine but an intensive and individualised task. This child's needs are not the same as that child's needs. Many will challenge this with cries of ‘inconsistency’ or arousing the jealousy of other kids. My experience has always been that if we are careful to match the ordinary needs of our clients, they don’t much mind the personalisation of others' programs. (And if ever I am wheeled into a hospital with heart failure I shall be grateful to get into Cardiology and not Obstetrics!)

2: Attend to capacity: While we "normalise" the life space of the young person, we also look at his or her own attainment of "normal" identity, skills and resources. Nothing special, but does this sixteen-year-old have a reasonably average sixteen-year-old self-image, information, comprehension, personal capacity, access to resources ... ?

The chances are high that the ‘referring problem’ we have been asked to help with is grounded in a poor sense of well-being and personal value, a limited knowledge of rights, opportunities and resources in community and society, and a barely rudimentary repertoire of responses to daily problems and challenges.

While all this seems obvious, the point is that we should remember the image of the underfed sapling in a harsh climate. If the youngster is going to be a participant in the intervention (remember the principle that we are to do things with youth, not to them or for them) then an essential part of our intervention is constantly to be moving him or her forward in terms of strength and skill.

When you examine the troubling behaviour of a client, you will often find that this is characterised by a hostile, defensive, conservative and stubborn position which seems to be saying, "This is my way, this is where I’m sticking, these are all the cards I have in this game and I’m not giving any one of them up, I’ll manage with what I’ve got."

And, in turn, a static (non-developmental) view of intervention is for us to list the youth’s characteristics and to believe that this is all we have to work with! If we believe this, then we have already given up on the child. It’s game, set and match. We find ourselves believing the report that arrived with this kid – the one which said he’s no good, he doesn’t fit in here any more, we don’t want him.

That is not child and youth care work. Our starting point is to believe that people can grow and change, and then to uncover and present to the child new possibilities – both within and around her. We should be at least nibbling at the edges of the young person’s interest by the end of the first day, then starting to disprove her belief that things never change ... and soon moving to where every day can be different. (Remember the view of Heraclitus that no person can ever cross a river twice: because the second time it is not the same river, and the second time it is not the same person!)

It is not hard to find ways of adding to this youth’s life, enhancing knowledge and insight, building strengths. If we want to restore equilibrium in his or her life, adding to one side of the balance is as effective as reducing the load in the other side. We must see ourselves being busy with this sort of detail, and never satisfied with what it says on the label which inevitably comes with the new client.

And the test of a good program lies not in the behaviour of the children towards the staff, but in the behaviour of the staff towards the children. Take a lesson from the nurseryman to whom we bring a sick plant. He knows plants. So he says: "The pot is a bit small, so let’s re-pot. This plant likes acidic soil, so we will add that. Let’s take the risk of exposing it to a little more wind for a while – it doesn’t like it but it will clear some of this fungus. It’s not getting enough sun. We’ll clip off some of these dead pieces, give it some fertiliser ... and not too much water ... and we’ll get it going quite nicely again."

"Getting it going quite nicely again" is about the best slogan I can think of for child and youth care. Translating the youth’s "stuckness" into a sense of renewed movement is a great gift we have to offer.

We may approach this with great energy, yet to be realistic we also remember Redl’s warning that the most difficult child to work with is the improving child. How hard it is for him to let go of his old ways before he has confidence in new ways. Our intervention is not only about building new conditions and presenting opportunities; it is also about making it safe to try new things out, to fail without the failure being such a big deal, and then trying again.

Where are we going with this?
There is no doubt that child and youth care workers are often presented with serious and challenging behaviour. The safety of the client and those around him is then a dominant factor in planning an intervention. Often we do have to impose restrictions and limitations on the movement and behaviour of a young person. There may have been years during which a youth built up a pattern of assaultive, anti-social, risky behaviour which we have to stop. So we close a door, clamp down, restrict, turn a key.

The static (non developmental) intervenor may well say at this point, "Well, we solved that problem. That fixed it. That fixed him!" But we can never leave it there. All we are doing here is stepping into the old power and conflict roles which have failed in the past. We forget that our ultimate aim for our clients is maturity and autonomy, not obedience and entropy. Stopping something is never the end; it can only be a beginning – else why did they send this kid to us and not directly to jail? Whenever we undertake an intervention which is conservative rather than developmental, we owe it to the child to regard this strictly and urgently as a temporary or "holding" step. When we restrict or limit, or punish or deprive, we must then ask, "Where are we going with this? Where can this lead?" Where do we start? Where do we want to be tomorrow? How far could we get by next week? ... so that we are not still here next week.

Stage 2
I don’t much want to get on to Stage 2 today. These articles are not so much about intervention as they are about development. It is enough for us to know that there are stages, for that implies our need to move onwards.

The interesting thing is that if we "do" Stage 1 well enough, there is very often no need for Stage 2. If we spend time and effort in getting involved (intervening) with youngsters, thoroughly enough to know the circumstances of their lives, to understand the meaning of their destructive feelings and behaviour, to affirm them as people, to complement their capacity to move forward, and then to "walk the walk" with them as they resist and then respond to new possibilities, Stage 2 often takes care of itself.

More, a good Stage 1 will change us as well — definitely loosening up our conception of what is "wrong" in the first place, and certainly freeing us up to consider a whole bunch of alternative "treatment goals". Be prepared to be surprised at where the kids can get to. That youngsters can function is more important than how they function. And when they can once again function, their development can resume its course.