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ONLINE JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 4 MAY 1999 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

PRACTICE

Purposeful engagement

Brian Gannon

There are times when we have to engage formally and urgently, as in confrontation regarding serious issues or problems

Last month we talked about establishing relationship with youngsters in order to "get close enough" to work with them. We referred to "the smiling dentist" – the "this won’t hurt you a bit" smile with which children (and adults!) are lured into the chair. But there are many cases when we don't have the time to build this relationship and must engage more formally in order to deal with specific problems. Perhaps these are behaviours which are bringing him into conflict with others – drug taking, assaultive behaviour, stealing or truancy – or preoccupying personal difficulties such as crippling unconfidence, withdrawal, fears. Most parents, teachers and child care workers feel awkward about having to confront difficult or troubled youth. One can so often expect hostility, denial or open challenge. Also, it is uncomfortable to raise possible conflict issues while trying to build or maintain a relationship.

Day one
Those responsible for planning the placement or receiving a youngster into the programme bear the first responsibility for engagement when there is a clear referral problem. It is not enough for the referring agent to say vaguely "I’m sure you’ll be happier at Such-and-Such Centre" or for the admissions staff member to comment on the delightful view from the bedrooms! Our ethics require that the youngster is fully informed as to the purpose of the referral and the nature of the programme. Avoidance of the issues which led to the placement will only raise anxiety. The child will wonder "who knows what" about me and what my problems are? There should be no surprises after the placement, and it should certainly never be left to a line staff member to breach a subject which is really central to the placement. On the first day it should be made clear that "Here we work with young people who are in trouble with drugs" or "Our staff here help with family problems/aggression/stealing ... whatever." The message must be clear that "We will be talking about and working at these issues in this programme." Another value of such an up-front approach is that the staff are seen to be responsive and hospitable in spite of whatever problems brought the child to the centre. There is a level of commitment and acceptance implicit in the respect and encouragement shown by staff members at this stage.

Different approaches
Usually young people who are admitted to a programme because of their difficult behaviour have been through the whole gamut of blame, punishment, labelling and rejection. It is important for staff to know not only what the problems are but also how these have been dealt with previously, so that we never appear to be offering only "the mixture as before". We are often tempted to step into the same old roles which have failed before — authoritarian, parental, adversarial, accusing, disparaging. This offers nothing new, and no hope to the child, who thinks "You’re all the same" or "Here we go again ... " The youngster will simply assemble all of his old ammunition from the previous war, and all we will do is inherit the old hostilities and mistrust. Dumb move. We must think harder! The "strengths" approach, for example, asks us to reframe positively as many behaviours as we can, finding qualities which can be turned to good rather than blame. Acts of daring can be construed as courageous, "not ratting" on fellow gang members as loyalty, confronting behaviour as assertive, and so on. This is not verbal trickery; these qualities are indeed strengths, and probably very necessary coping skills in the young people’s world which we can consider plusses in the treatment plan. The "neutral ally" or "coach" approach puts the child and youth care worker in a supportive role alongside the child, so that together they can work at meeting the expectations of the programme or the community. The staff member is thus seen as on the young person’s side, not opposed to him or "in his face". Good activities curriculum shifts the focus altogether away from the problems, the idea of which is to rapidly change the youngster’s own self-image, his expectations of himself, his position in the group. Careful placement in an activities group can change his status, for example, from a failed, hostile outcast to a skilled and reliable team member. So we don’t have to play the parent or the school teacher or the policeman. The non-oppositional approach is a great aid to engagement. Standing beside a youngster is always better that standing eyeball-to-eyeball in front of him.

Getting to the point
We must resolve the demands between building a relationship before tackling client goals – and getting straight to the client work because of time and fund constraints. This will naturally depend on the nature of the work to be done, for example, the level of trust needed. However the quality of daily activity in the programme is the key to all engagement issues — especially those which are formal and urgent. A good programme will always be simultaneously building positive skills and attitudes and building relationships between adults and youth. Doing tasks, playing games, and sharing the day’s timetable will build bonds at the same time as promoting a feeling of competence and well-being. (In an article I recently read of Sam Ferrainola, the principal of Glen Mills Schools, standing in the lunch queue alongside his juvenile offender students in the school cafeteria. This is engaging!)

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As was suggested in last month’s article, such a positive and active milieu will often achieve even complex client goals by itself. An empty daily programme which does not consciously plan these levels of activity and doing things together, will probably fail on client goals anyway.