the profession

An attempt to be articulate about Child and Youth Care Work

Jack Phelan writes: I believe that we suffer from a chaos of disconnected and often discordant ways of describing what we do “both to the rest of the world and among ourselves. At the risk of creating a debate and further discordant discourse, I will propose the following articulation of our profession.

Child and Youth Care work is done at a molecular level, it doesn’t occur at arms length or in a sterilized environment. The worker has an intense and often intimate presence which removes any possibility of detachment and distance. Living alongside people and in the same space and time creates a shared connection, in spite of the natural tendency of both people in the helping equation to push away and keep a safe distance. The worker is there by choice, and his behavior is purposeful and responsive to the other person.

The ability to be personally safe and also empathic is really the first major skill set required of a developing Child and Youth Care professional. Training, good supervision and on the job experience will result in accomplishing this major professional step in about 6 months to a year.

Personal safety develops as physical fear subsides and daily conflict doesn’t produce a fight or flight reaction, emotional reactivity changes into curiosity and growth by meeting the emotional challenges of the work, and spiritual safety develops as boundaries and behaviors are more clearly owned.

Empathy starts to develop after the worker is safely grounded in who they are. This ability to be in the other’s shoes allows the worker to acquire the logic and perspective of another whose viewpoint has been frightening until this point. This is the place where real Child and Youth Care work begins, when you can safely enter the world of the youth or family, approximately one year after you begin to do the job.

Child and Youth Care work has a unifying theme in that all of our various theoretical frameworks share a common strategy. This strategy is based on an underlying belief about how people change, which can be stated quite simply “People change by experiencing themselves in life, living and sensing the world around them and responding to the experiences they have.
The people that we work with have little ability to make changes in themselves through being convinced to change by persuasive arguments or therapeutic conversations. Reliving a painful past and recalling past traumas and failures don’t create change for the vast majority of the people we serve. Conversations about what needs to happen also fail to produce concrete results.

Child and Youth Care work is a process of experiencing life alongside others and supporting them to use this experience to change. Our work involves arranging experiences that are helpful, or using the experiences that emerge as we go through the day in a strategic way. The everydayness of our efforts can appear too simple to be a really professional task, yet the skill required to manage these experiential lessons is quite complex.

To build hope and a belief in personal competence in another person, which is what we must do if we expect a positive change to occur, requires the worker to support the person to change the story of themselves that has been embedded over a whole lifetime.

There is a natural resistance in everyone to change our story, our internal working model of the world, and mere words are easily absorbed with no significant shift occurring. However, when I experience reality in ways that contradict my story, I get confused and upset, often resulting in me needing to either reaffirm my model or make some changes in it. This process of cognitive dissonance, caused by experience that contradicts my beliefs, can create the energy I need to make change.

Child and Youth work is experiential and communicates to people through sense data rather than dialogue. This felt sense communication can be labeled Analogue communication and it enters into awareness through experience rather than cognitively, like Dialogue communication.

There are many theories that use this process, the social pedagogue training in Europe, particularly in Denmark and some parts of Holland use recreational activity and the arts much more strategically to create openness to change. Mark Krueger in the USA describes Child and Youth Care work as a type of dance and matching physical rhythm, Henry Maier prescribes activity to create connection. Relational Child and Youth Care practice as espoused in many Canadian contexts requires an experiential process. Adventure-based approaches used around the world, including Educo in South Africa, have developed countless exercises to create this experiential communication.

Child and Youth Care work is a process of creating a safe relationship with another so they we can join together in a safe place to allow the experiential message which contradicts the hopeless story to actually be communicated and absorbed. My definition of the worker is that he is an experience arranger whose goal is to build a story of competence and hope in the other person.

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I hope to continue this essay in future installments. Next month I would like to discuss the use of language and how Child and Youth Care work has mistakenly adopted the language of other professions to describe our efforts.

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