Notes on using Plain Language
in Child and Youth Care Work
Created by Jack Phelan
The basic premise
Treatment language reflects frameworks that do not have a "fit" for
the kind of work which child and youth care practitioners do. The
language of psychology, social work, and mental health does not resonate
with the day to day experience of doing effective child and youth care
work. As child and youth care practitioners use this jargon to discuss
their work, it requires a translation that lessens their ability to
describe the impact of child and youth care work and creates an
impediment to achieving professional power and capability.
By trying to assume the frameworks of these other approaches, the
treatment plans that child and youth care practitioners create are
simplistic and circular; e.g. the youth needs to attend school regularly
and control his aggression.
Often the written descriptions of our work goals could just as easily
have been written by the youthís mother. We have a stated purpose of
being central to the treatment team and having a holistic view of the
client, but we donít articulate our role in the process.
Some observations for discussion
The approach taken by psychological language is that diagnosis and
problem identification by an "expert" is a key step. Often, we end up
having little more than an elaborate description of what is wrong after
all our thoughts are noted. Typically, after listening to the rest of
the treatment team congratulate themselves for recommending expert
"answers" for the child and youth care practitioner to implement, the
child and youth care response is to believe that none of these people
would survive even one day as a child and youth care worker.
The response to the "I have the answer for you" message is "no you
donít", yet this isnít dealt with openly. A big reason for this
passive-aggressive stance is that the language to reply is not available
to the child and youth care practitioner.
Child and Youth Care work is a living with/self in action
approach to creating growth in youth and families. The judgements about
how and when to create challenges and opportunities during the course of
a day is a complex skill. We need a way to communicate this complexity
and to generalize the underlying principles to learn from each other.
Much of the theory about therapeutic intervention is resisted by child
and youth care practitioners, because it requires accommodating this new
info into existing experience and it doesnít resonate with experience. I
believe that this is caused more by language than by the usefulness of
Experienced child and youth care practitioners value discussing real
case examples with other workers at the coffee break more than the
workshop session they are attending. The language is better and the
discussion is more believable.
CREATING A LANGUAGE
The use of personality growth frameworks from Erik
Erikson are very helpful to create examples for a child and youth care
language that deals with using external control to develop trust and
predictability, the use of choice and challenge to support strength and
power, the development of self-control and connection to others as
stages of growth. We can shift out of the existing terminology which
uses phrases such as autonomy and initiative into more
day-to-day terms like strength/power and self-control without doing any
damage to the integrity of the theory. This is one of many examples of
principles and frameworks that can be used to describe the work being
done, and which can create accurate communication and learning.
The Framework Proposed
The Child and Youth Care Worker is not a therapist or a counselor in
the traditional sense, but rather an "experience arranger", someone who
creates opportunities in the real world for people to experience
themselves as competent and successful. The use of strategically planned
and spontaneous events in the life space to support the other person to
change toward a more competent and hopeful picture of him/herself is the
main tool of our profession.
The sense of safety and trust required in the process will be a direct
result of the relationship quality between the child and youth care and
the other person. This foundational process has long been recognized in
our field and is the focus of much of the recent literature.
The risk of shifting out of a belief (hopelessness, failure) which has
been ingrained through life-long reinforcement can only be attempted in
a very safe and accepting relationship. The "counseling strategy" used
is to assist the person to become aware of the thoughts and feelings
immediately experienced prior to the arranged task or event and to
support reflection after the event, so that the competence experienced
is not lost or misinterpreted. This requires a skilled worker who is in
the life space and often a co-experiencer, not an office bound and
The everydayness of our work can mask the very sophisticated and
complex interventions that we do. Our need for an appropriate language
to articulate this complexity is paradoxically entwined with a need to
keep it simple. child and youth care professionals can do this, as we
resist the urge to upgrade our status at team conferences by joining in
the distancing jargon of other groups. Our increased ability to reflect
the work we do will also expand the influence of our youth and families
in determining their own destiny.