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Training for caring

Patrick Brennan

In this article Patrick Brennan, who was Head of Care at a Special School and who spent ten years as Director of a one-year training course in Ireland, considers two separate aspects of training

There are no final solutions to the questions about training for those who care for others. It is a debate that needs to be ongoing. As new needs arise, new insights and skills will be required. No matter what these may be, it is and always will be central and critical to any such debate, carefully to understand the final 'objective' of such training. In our field of the residential care of children and young people, it is the child in care who must be the 'measure', the 'framework', the 'focus' of such training. It is by carefully studying and understanding who that child is, where it has come from, where it might be going, and the needs it has in the light of such a journey, that we need to design our training courses.

Two levels
It can be very broadly stated, that two levels of need can be seen. The first is fairly practical and easily understood. Children or young persons need to be physically and safely cared for; they need opportunities for intellectual development; they need stimulating and recreative opportunities; they need to learn and master personal and social skills that enable them to cope with the practicalities of daily living, and which give them easy access to much that society has to offer; and they need to develop vocational skills, some sense of responsibility and accountability that may enable them to seek and acquire worthwhile work. The second level of needs is much more complex and subtle. The very fact that children are in residential care itself is a disruption of what is seen as ordinary growing-up. It also denotes that family, neighbourhood and community have found it difficult, or indeed impossible to cope with them and to meet their needs. Invariably, it is their 'behaviour' that brings them to the attention of the authorities, either through missing school, disruption in the school, stealing, weird behaviour in fact, a whole litany of unacceptable or inexplicable actions. Here we are now talking about the inner world of the person seldom open to ordinary investigation, as so much of the need arises from pain, anger, hurt, loss, trauma often buried in the subconscious. It is buried there either because what gave rise to it happened in the earliest days of infancy, when the baby 'knew' that to be left alone was to die, or later in childhood when the experiences were so appalling and threatening that the child blocks out their memory in order to survive.

Two dimensions to training
This two-fold aspect to caring suggests two dimensions to training.

1. The first of these is knowledge knowledge about human growth and development, personal and interpersonal skills. It requires knowledge of the research and the literature. It requires practical skills and drills. All of these may be easily listed and agreed upon, and they form the subjects of a training course for example, psychiatry, psychology, sociology, social psychology, law, first aid, recreational studies, play and art therapy, housekeeping and homemaking. This is a list of subjects that may be added to, that can be divided up in terms of hours, and so a programme or timetable can be formulated. This is training in the strict sense where in terms of the eventual tasks, "knowledge about" and skills are determined and each and every student must reach and acquire a specific level of awareness and practice. So we have 'content'.

2. The second aspect is like the second level of needs in the child it is much more complex and subtle. How are the "knowledge about" and the skills to be brought to focus on and be at the service of grief, hurt, pain, loss, trauma, depression, self-harm, self-destruction, anger, depravity, terror, deprivation, denial? These are all emotions and feelings, the roots of which are buried in the past, overlaid with 'survival techniques', and often there is not only the lack of language ability to express them on the part of the child, but there may be complete denial, a blank as to the causes. To meet these dynamics, let alone seek to deal with them, requires more than "knowledge about" and skills. Knowledge about something exists at a completely different level from deep-seated feelings and emotions. Indeed, in this context of care and help, such knowledge can be remote and sterile. Skills deriving from such knowledge can be purely mechanical. It is not uncommon to find that such knowledge is in fact used by workers to defend themselves from the pain they encounter in the child there is much discussion and talking about the behaviours and problems, and no real empathy or personal encounter and engagement with the child. To illustrate this point, some years ago I was in hospital, seriously ill, anxious and almost tormented by the possible outcome. For seven weeks I was dealt with very professionally, but only once was I 'touched'. It was almost as if a fairly delicate piece of china of some value was being packaged. Yes, the knowledge about the china and the skill in packaging was there, but the awareness was not. After a while one just folds, packs and ties the string. This second aspect of training 1 would call the process as against the content.

This process aspect, as distinct from the content, is the way that the content is used to focus on this youngster in the here-and-now. The insights into family dynamics are directed at enabling the child to own, and purpose fully use for its own growth, the experiences it has had as a member of its family. The value systems and problem solving techniques acquired through 'culture' are examined in such a way that the child begins to discern what its own values are rather than being overlaid by passively accepted norms and systems. Looking at 'separation anxiety' is to invite the child to re-experience those moments in its own life when it felt abandoned or lost. Good knowledge and skills in hygiene and homemaking are seen and experienced as potentially carrying very significant messages for deprived and damaged children because these emotional dimensions are the priority, rather than just skills to be replicated. Such a process then, focuses on enabling the child to have experiential knowledge about itself first. The knowledge is internalised, it is incorporated into its very self. The process enables it to use the tools of "knowledge about" and skills, in developmental way, so that it becomes a process of self formulation, self clarification, with a re-ordering of emotions and a re-evaluation of past growth and experiences. It is a process of self discovery, where purposes and meaning, alternatives and decision making, enrich the child as a person. The child begins, perhaps for the first time, to see itself grow, to understand how this happens, to recognise what may have been (and may still be) blocks or denial, and how these may be dealt with. In this way, understanding, sensitivity, empathy, an inner authority, a reality and completeness in relationships, a certain robustness, are brought into our interventions in children's lives. It is basically the absence of these in the child's early and subsequent life that have brought it into care in the first place.

Meaningful moments
The basis of such child care is thus shifted from "knowledge about" and "things to do", to the making available to the child the human and professional integrity of adults who, because they see themselves more acutely and accurately, can discern those moments of enormous potential and meaning in their meetings and moments with the child. They can feel for and with the child, and yet not be overwhelmed by the pain and anger in the child. They can allow the child to be vulnerable because they know how to be vulnerable themselves, and the child then knows it is safe, and may begin to take steps in its own life journey towards a self formulation that is not only viable but valuable and rewarding. The child can see adults who respect and accept each other, adults who can disagree without their relationship falling apart or resorting to violence. Self knowledge gives insight. Self awareness enables one to discern the reality of another. Integrity equips one fully to confront root causes rather than simply address behaviour. This approach is much more exploratory than didactic, more to do with tutorials, seminars and counselling than with examinations, more to do with the real interpreted encounters between students than with exercises and role-plays, more the exercise of the individual than learning things to do with the children. It is a workshop of growth and insight, of exploration and analysis, drawing on the subjects as pointers to enlightenment. It is to enable the child care worker in turn to establish workshops of growth and development, of insight and healing for the child, where the main tool of the work is the self of the worker.