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The relationship boundaries that control programming

Jack Phelan

Abstract: The interactions between workers and supervisors, and supervisors and administrators, who may be at different levels of professional development, are examined. The developmental stage of each of the individuals in these interactions has a more powerful impact on the quality of the relationship than has been previously acknowledged. The awareness of how each person’s stage of professional development influences the supervisory relationship will greatly enhance the ability of staff and agencies to optimize rather than minimize the skill level of staff and the quality of the program.

“No matter how fervent our desire for team learning and collective intelligence, they are often undermined by the boundaries between people” (Roberts,C. 1994)

This author has developed a model to describe the process of new Child and Youth Care worker professional growth in a previous article (Phelan, 1990). That article describes a three-stage process of professional development for new workers. This article will describe a parallel process that occurs for supervisors and administrators which has a powerful impact on both staff professional development and creativity, as well as program sophistication.

In level 1 of the model, the new worker is attempting to become a competent care giver and trying to establish personal safety during the first year of practice. This stage of development is characterized by the worker’s efforts to create personal safety and boundaries for him/herself before being able to create any therapeutic relationships with youth and families.

In order to master the sense of being overwhelmed by the physical and emotional challenges of working with such a demanding group of youth/families, the new worker focuses on establishing external control and creating a safe environment for him/herself and the youths. The internal process for a new worker is characterized by frequent fight or flight reactions as he/she encounters intimidating situations. The usual pattern is a process lasting six months to a year during which the staff member comes to work feeling anxious and nervous about dealing with difficult interactions that are outside his/her personal comfort zone. Then, almost overnight, the worker realizes that the anxiety has dissolved and he/she experiences curiosity and positive energy on the way to work as he/she wonders what will happen next. This is a critical time in one’s Child and Youth Work career, because it is at this point that the worker starts to become a professional.

The level 1 stage of development is a mastering of personal safety and the ability to create safe interactions for others, a skillful use of external control techniques to contain the impulsive behavior that occurs, and the establishment of a personal adult presence that communicates both competence and authority. A competent Child and Youth Work professional will integrate these skills during the first 18 months of practice. An interesting limitation at this stage is that the new worker should not create a focus on relationships and will be most successful with a more generic “staff” identity than trying to develop more personal relationships with youth.

Supervision of the level 1 worker has to be sensitive to the need for safety and personal control. The supervisor can encourage the new worker to relax about making mistakes and to talk about the dynamics on the job (the co-worker, youth, place in the building, the routines) which feel safest for the worker during his/her day. Supervisors can avoid second guessing what the new worker could have done instead, or giving the right answer after the worker makes a mistake, so that communicating with the supervisor is seen as safe rather than stressful. The new worker will need to see the supervisor as the expert and personal relationship building is less useful at this point for either person.

The shift from level 1 skill into level 2 is perhaps the most important and also the most difficult transition in most professional Child and Youth Work workers’ careers. As the worker becomes competent and comfortable with creating external control, minimizing aggression, and using personal authority rather than threats and punishments to deal with resistance, he/she can easily begin to see the work as being fully concerned with order and good behavior.

The problem with developing good habits through the imposition of external control is that the learner has really only learned to respond to the external environment, and once the external environment no longer demands good behavior, (upon return to community and peers) the good behavior disappears.

Unfortunately, the level 1 worker may become too safe and comfortable at this point in his/her professional development and ignore the need to challenge him/herself to grow further. Many workers with several years in the field have stopped learning at this point and are what I would call competent non-professionals. The ability to control a group and create safe environments is a key step in assisting people to change, but it is similar to a teacher learning how to get a class to sit still and face forward, and then having nothing more to teach.

The shift into level 2 requires the worker to let go of the comfortable skills already mastered and to embrace the challenge of relaxing external control and supporting youth/families to take control of themselves.

Level 2 work is really the first opportunity to use theory and creative strategies in helping people. Professional CYC work begins here. The title I use for this worker is The Treatment Planner and Change Agent. This is the point where relationships can be used to enable both the youth/family and the worker to engage in the risky business of change. Level 2 workers automatically think about individualized approaches and discard general descriptions and strategies as they plan interventions. At level 2 the process of living alongside the youth/family also becomes a living with them and the boundary dynamics become more intimate and more clear at the same time.

Child and Youth Care Certification programs, which exist in many parts of North America, evaluate practice at this level. Many newly graduated CYC workers question why they can’t be certified purely on the basis of their educational credential, and the answer is that until their development is at level 2, they won’t be able to competently use the theory learned. Certification as a mature practitioner can only be demonstrated after the skills of a level 1 worker have been transformed into level 2 skills.

The tasks for a level 2 practitioner include relaxing external control and supporting choice and experimentation for the youth/ family members. Relationships become the main ingredient in all interactions and every person is seen to require an individualized approach. This is the stage where theory is finally applicable and treatment discussions can be quite complex. The books that the new graduate so easily ignored get dusted off and reread.

Supervision for the level 2 worker supports him/her to use fewer rules and punishments and to create relational bonds to support youth/families to risk changing. The supervisor can focus on the worker’s strengths, doing little correcting or second guessing. The level 2 worker should be supported to risk trusting youth/families to experiment and learn for themselves without worrying about being criticized for things not always going well. A level 2 practitioner, after 12 – 18 months of experience, especially with a supportive supervisor and good role models among colleagues, moves smoothly into becoming a level 3 professional, what I have termed “the creative, free – thinking professional”.

The level 3 worker can create strategic life-space interviews, develops innovative treatment plans, has the characteristics of a reflective practitioner, and discards formulaic approaches to difficult situations. This worker has an “observing ego” and a “conscious use of self” ability in all his/her interactions. At staff meetings this person talks mostly about self and not about the behavior of the youth or parents.

Supervision for the level 3 person is based on a collegial relationship between two competent practitioners. The level 3 worker is encouraged to develop his/her mentoring skills, to write for professional journals, to create workshops. Designing new programs and strategies is a useful challenge for this worker and programs where these people work are very fortunate.

As level 2 or 3 workers become promoted into supervisory jobs, they find that these developmental steps occur all over again. (When level 1 workers get promoted to supervisory jobs, as sometimes happens, there are severe limitations created for the whole program). The new supervisor experiences a developmental process which mirrors a new worker’s development. All of the previous stages get re-cycled for the supervisor.

The new supervisor, who earned respect from his front-line colleagues, suddenly finds that this doesn’t follow him/her into the new position. The new “level 1” supervisor is faced with interactions which mirror the experience of a new worker. He finds his authority challenged and his sense of competence (personal safety) to be undermined. The level 1 supervisor easily falls into using control techniques and getting into power struggles. Relationships now have become dangerous as people seem to become manipulative in expecting special treatment from the new supervisor. Level 1 supervisors require sensitive supervision from their administrative bosses, because they fear criticism and worry about making mistakes.

Level 1 supervisors need to be encouraged to feel safe to learn the job, to see their boss as the expert who will have any answers that they lack, and to learn how to handle and motivate people, just as the level 1 worker needed to learn this on a different front. Personal relationships with subordinates should be discouraged at this level for the new supervisor, until they master the ability to create a safe environment for him/herself and the staff. This developmental step mirrors the experience of a new worker and takes about as long to master.

Level 1 supervisors who have been doing the work successfully, with good supervision and role models among colleagues, move relatively smoothly into Level 2 skills.

A Level 2 supervisor is someone who uses very little external control, threats or rules to create motivated workers. This supervisor supports his/her workers to be creative, to learn and grow and treats each worker as an individual. They rely on relationships and personal connection to deal with challenging situations and seem to handle things with confidence and a velvet glove. This supervisor is not threatened by new ideas and easily supports experimentation and creativity. Level 2 supervisors, with good supervision and role models among colleagues, move almost naturally into becoming Level 3 supervisors.

A Level 3 supervisor is a creative and free-thinking professional who not only motivates staff, but inspires them to stretch and grow even beyond what they believe is comfortable. This supervisor has a “conscious use of self” that is reflected in how he deals with people in all situations. The Level 3 supervisor creates dynamic programs and creative uses of resources where others weren’t able to move ahead. He is a mentor both inside and outside the agency.

To return to the opening quote in the article, let us now look at the boundaries between people. A level 1 worker can be successfully supervised by either a level 2 or 3 supervisor, since both can understand and see beyond the learning that is required. A level 2 worker can be a challenge for a level 1 supervisor, since the new supervisor is focussed on control, while the level 2 worker both doesn’t require this and actively resists it.

A similar dynamic exists for the level 1 supervisor and the level 3 worker. Fortunately, the supervisor has the experience of once being at least a level 2 worker, so this conflict can at least be acknowledged, if not handled effectively all the time.

However, if the new supervisor was promoted from a level 1 expertise base or brought into the field from some other discipline, the level 2 and 3 workers will have little room to negotiate professional freedom. This is a dangerous situation for both the program and the agency. The ceiling that will be created by this relationship boundary will effectively “dumb down” the program into one that can only focus on external control. The supervisor isn’t personally safe enough to allow for anything beyond conformity to be reinforced in both staff and youth/families.

Level 2 supervisors will also have challenges with level 3 workers, because they will have difficulty encouraging attitudes and behavior beyond their own professional experience. The best combination here is a level 2 supervisor who once was a level 3 worker. The ability to be administratively responsible for someone who is actually more capable than you are in their job requires skills that most of us don’t possess.

A Level 3 supervisor is worth his/her weight in gold, but they often decide to move into administrative positions, where the process begins once again.

When a supervisor gets promoted into an administrative position, the developmental journey begins again. The first year or more is spent feeling overwhelmed and unsafe. The new administrator needs to create external control over the environment and to create a presence as the boss, the adult, the authority. Personal relationships with underlings can be dangerous and need to be minimized. The re-cycling of the developmental journey continues.

As we revisit boundaries between people and relationship dynamics, a Level 1 administrator will work well with a level 1 supervisor, but will be threatened by a level 2 or 3 supervisor who wants to create risks and move into new territory. The professional freedom permitted by a level 1 administrator is not going to satisfy skilled supervisors. There will be situations where supervisors will be required to explain why people aren’t conforming to expectations. Staff will be discouraged from moving in creative directions, which will frustrate skilled practitioners.

The level 1 administrator, if they have been a level 2 or 3 supervisor, can often live with the risks created by skilled staff, but if a new administrator hasn’t achieved this development in his/her own career, or comes from a discipline which doesn’t understand the Child and Youth Work approach, then we are again faced with a “dumbing down” problem and everyone has to conform or leave.

As we examine this chain or mirror of relationship boundaries and connections, we can see how it is easy to end up with a program that stresses external control and conformity, even though we know how unproductive this result really is. Each person at different levels in the chain is struggling with stages of personal development that can’t be rushed or skipped over and the limitations at each stage can easily create unnecessary limitations for other people. Youth and families, the ultimate victims of the “dumbing down” process, have little opportunity to exhibit personal choice and freedom and so respond with frustration, which increases the apparent need for external control to the untrained eye.

This relationship mirroring at each level of the agency and within all of the interactions between people, is most clearly seen at the team meeting. When there is a discussion about a youth or family, an agency that is at level 1 will only focus on the negative behavior of the youth/family and how to control it. The agency that is working at a basic level 2 stage will focus on the positive behavior of the youth/family and how to encourage and support it. The agency that is working at a consistent level 2 stage will focus on the useful behavior of staff and how to increase it. The agency that is working at a level 3 stage will focus on the successful and unsuccessful behavior of staff and how to understand it.

This article has tried to describe organizational dynamics within a context of professional staff development dynamics. Hopefully, the issues described will ring true for practitioners with several years experience and will provide some context for both new and mature staff to guide them in supervisory interactions and reflections upon their own practice. My belief is that we can consciously control some of these boundary difficulties through personal awareness and deliberately supporting each other in our developmental journeys. Our collective intelligence can truly be harnessed to deliver creative, affirming programs.


Phelan, J. (1990). Child care supervision: the neglected skill of evaluation. In J. Anglin, C. Denholm, & A. Pence (Eds.), Perspectives in professional child and youth care. New York: Haworth.

Senge, P., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Smith, B., Kleiner, A. (1994), The fifth discipline fieldbook, New York: Doubleday.

This feature: Phelan, J. (2003) The Relationship Boundaries That Control Programming. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, Vol.16 No.1