The CYC-Net Press CYC-Online




Learning child and youth care work in context: A case example

In this article, Mark Krueger uses case examples to illustrate the interactive qualities of teaching and practicing child and youth care work. Particular emphasis is given to the significance of actions, atmosphere, and current events in the creation of metaphor and meaning.

In child and youth care work, one has to sense as well as know what to do. Competent workers use their intuition, knowledge and skill to integrate care, learning, and counseling into daily interactions (Maier, 1987). They are with children and youth, learning and growing together (Baizerman, 1995; Fewster, 1990).

To provide a context for learning in the classroom, teachers often teach the way they learned to do and be in child and youth care. They demonstrate, interact, and engage in dialogue.

Henry Maier (1987), for instance, arrives early for a workshop to make sure the room or space in which learning will occur is properly arranged. To set the tone, he greets participants as they arrive, trying to get to know them the way youth workers might try to get to know new children. He welcomes them. "I’m glad you’re here."

During a workshop, he stands in a circle with the participants, shifting his position as he leads, guides, or observes. He sits or stands in the front of the group while describing a concept or technique, then pauses to invite discussion. He gives feedback. He moves from one group to another during a small group role-play or problem-solving exercise, helping out.

Gerry Fewster (1990) engages workers in dialogue and encourages them to learn from their experience with children. He frames and reframes with colourful images, debates with humor and wit, challenges, and speaks with passion.

Similarly, effective mentors and supervisors role model, demonstrate, conduct dialogues, and frame and reframe a situation to find common meaning. Like Maier, they welcome others to the learning process. They teach a technique by modelling it or by discussing a hypothetical case example. They accent learning during daily interactions by stepping back together, reflecting, and analyzing a situation to see how it might be enhanced or repeated.


I recently framed a 16-week class for ten students as a conversation. I prepared for the class by identifying the central concepts, theories, techniques and practices that I thought would be important to cover. The material was outlined in the syllabus with the qualification that it would not necessarily be covered as presented. It would come up, I said, if I could pull it off at the proper time in our conversation.

On the first day we sat together in a circle and began to get to know each other. I explained that we would try to interact with one another the way we wanted to learn to interact with groups of children and family members. We would listen to one another and support and confront one another with care. We would also hold each other accountable and try be dependable.
During the class, we used several methods to enhance our conversation.

Metaphors and frames for learning
Metaphors such as modern dance and basketball were used to describe the way workers integrated techniques and methods into interactions. Using the dance metaphor, for instance, we discussed child and youth care workers as moving through the day trying to stay in sync with children and youth’s rhythms for trusting and growing. We thought of the ebb and flow of the work, how child and youth care, like modern dance, was both choreographed and improvised.

At one point I suggested that child and youth care was mainly a process of self in action. Worker and child being real. Worker and child acting with purpose. Worker and youth becoming aware. Worker and youth in and out of sync with each other’s rhythms for trusting and growing. Worker and youth in time and space. And worker, through being and acting in harmony with self while integrating care and learning into interactions with, teaching, and empowering children. We discussed these ideas.

Throughout the class we tried to remember that children and youth, like ourselves, were unique developing beings and that each child or youth had his or her own special strengths and rhythms for trusting and growing. We explored the strengths of children at different stages of growth and learning and tried to gear our thinking about interventions accordingly.

We also discouraged one another from using stereotypes and generalizations. We did not label. All behaviours were discussed in the contexts of the situations that were presented in case examples, videos, and stories.

Activities and exercises
We role played (Maier, 1989) and problem solved. We practiced techniques such as praise and discipline. We also watched two movies about youth, wrote stories of moments of change, sadness, joy, etc., toured an agency, and discussed what we had experienced.

One day we practiced transitioning. We broke into two groups, one student in each group playing the role of a worker, the rest of each group pretending they were youth. The challenge was to move the group from the game room to dinner. The children gave the worker a hard time.

After we role played the situation, we talked about the importance of pace and timing in moving, the tone and atmosphere of the room, the meaning of the activities. Then we went back and practiced again with the awareness that smooth transitions were instrumental in helping youth cope with change and in creating a flow to the day.

Another day we role played a group discussion about drugs. One participant played the role of the worker and six participants played the role of youth. At one point in the discussion, one of the youth asked the worker, "What about you? I’ll bet you used drugs?" The purpose of the question was to put the worker on the spot. The challenge was for the worker to respond with a sense of sincerity, awareness, and self-confidence so the conversation could be shifted back to the youth.

The meaning of children’s stories
With the awareness that stories provide a context for interactions, we tried to understand the meaning of children’s stories (Bruner, 1990; Peterson, 1994; Saleebey, 1994). We asked ourselves: What does it mean to live in a world of violence? What does it mean to trust someone when everyone else has broken your trust?

What does it mean to put one’s head on the pillow at night and have thoughts of failure and abuse race through your mind? Do the headphones and music help drown out the thoughts? Does a dirty track suit serve as a security blanket for a sexually abused body? Is a gang symbol a symbol of belonging?

If a youth keeps returning to a detention centre because he can get three squares and a dry bed, what is it like where he lives? How does culture define a youth? If a child’s relatives do not believe in self-disclosure outside the family, what does it feel like to be asked to disclose in a peer group or therapy session?

For a youth who has been rejected as a runner by a drug lord because the youth is old enough to be prosecuted, what kind of crazy world does this youth live in?

Telling our own stories and talking across the spaces of experience
We told our own stories. Using a writing exercise, we wrote about moments of happiness, sadness, enthusiasm, success, failure, and loss. Then we talked about how these moments influenced who we are and how we interpreted events.

We talked across the spaces of our experience (Sarris, 1993). We said: "This is what it seems like to me. What does it feel like for you? When I was in that situation, here’s how I reacted. How would you react?"

Then we explored situations such as: a youth lives in a neighborhood where several of his friends have been shot, or a child comes from a "to be" vs. a "to do" culture (Weaver, 1990), or a child’s been abused by the person he loves. And we asked, "What is this experience like in comparison to my experience? What can I learn from my experience that will help me understand?"

We acknowledged that actions count as much as, if not more than, words. For example, when a youth and a youth worker are playing together and laughing, the shared rhythm lends to the formation of their connection in the moment (Krueger. 1994; Maier, 1992). When a youth "is in another youth’s face," what appears to be the start of a fight might instead be part of a street ritual that is a competition of wit rather than fists.

We tried to determine how actions, surroundings, and words contributed to or inhibited growth. We asked, "How do facial expressions, motions, and words support or contradict the interactions?"

We discussed how sometimes nothing is more telling than a sigh or a smile. Or, an action such as: He swept the floor. He got up from his chair. He joined the activity. She moved closer to the other girl. He started to backpedal.

In practicing techniques, we tried to get a sense of how actions fit with a story of a moment or event or activity. When is it time to step in or stand aside? When is it best to say something or not to say anything? What’s the story here? Is their/my behaviour consistent with what happened or is happening? Are we (I) responding with forethought and intuition to support or advance or change the action?

We discussed how space influenced our interactions. Special attention was paid to temperature, lights, sunlight, open, and closed windows, etc. Although there were limitations, we made the best of our surroundings.

As the teacher I tried to set a positive tone. I smiled and spoke enthusiastically, and the students seemed to respond. When someone seemed down or disinterested, we changed the approach or subject to get his or her interest. We tried to engage everyone in our discussions. Sometimes we simply respected each other’s space and left one another alone.

Current events and model programs
At the beginning of most classes we spent a few moments covering current events. I asked the participants to read the paper and watch the news, then we talked about key issues in schools and neighbourhoods and families — issues such as guns and violence, school dropouts, and teen pregnancy. We also discussed examples of exemplary practice — good schools, programs, and workers. We tried to envision ourselves as part of this larger world of youth work. We searched for solutions to problems and took notes on how to integrate the successes into our own repertoire of approaches and techniques.

We also broke into two work groups and designed two model programs: a community center and a shelter. I encouraged the students to be idealistic and to build in what they had learned from the course. The outcomes were excellent. We all agreed these would be good places for youth.

Holistic learning
Finally, with the awareness that child and youth care interactions are complex, we tried to look at the uniqueness and interrelatedness of micro- and macro-events. It was if we were looking through a kaleidoscope. As we sifted and sorted through our experiences during and in between classes, certain patterns or insights often emerged. "Yes, now I can see what you mean," we said.

The class ended with the feeling that the dialogue would continue among ourselves and with our colleagues and friends. As time has passed, I have had several new enlightenments that have been stirred by experiences I had in that class.


Baizerman, M. (1995). The secret of life. Child and Youth Care Forum, 24(3), 209—210.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 Fewster, G. (1990). Being in child care: A journey into self. New York: Haworth.

Krueger, M. (1994). Framing child and youth care in moments of rhythm, presence, meaning, and atmosphere. Child and Youth Care Forum, 23(4), 223—229.

Maier, H. (1987). Developmental group care of children and youth. New York: Haworth.

Maier, H. (1989). Role playing: Structures and educational objectives. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4(3), 41—47.

Maier, H. (1992). Rhythmicity: A powerful force for experiencing unity and personal connections. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 8, 7—14.

Peterson, R. (1994) The adrenaline metaphor: Narrative mind and practice in child and child and youth care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9(2), 107—122.

Saleebey, D. (1994). Culture, theory, and narrative: The intersection of meanings in practice. Social Work, 39(4), 35—39.

Sarris, G. (1993). Keeping Slug Woman alive: An holistic approach to American Indian texts. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weaver, G. (1990). The crises of cross-cultural child care. In M. Krueger & N. Powell (Eds.), Choices in caring: Contemporary approaches to child and youth care work. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

This feature: Kruger, M. (1996). Learning Child and Youth Care Work in Context: A Case Example. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 11, (2). pp 1-6