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ISSUE 122 APRIL 2009 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE
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Understanding and assessing

Laura Steckley

The title of this month’s column shares the title of the module I finished teaching recently on the post graduate course in advanced residential child care. Its primary focus is on understanding children, young people and their families from developmental and ecological perspectives and making assessments that are informed by such perspectives.

The benefit of a developmental perspective can be illustrated by a father I observed recently at the garden centre. He had his toddler with him, and he appeared to have his hands quite full. She was romping about getting her hands into everything. He was getting increasingly frustrated. In his attempts to get her to stop, he would frequently squat down and try to reason with her, offering lengthy explanations. He was trying to be a good dad, and the strain on his patience could be heard in his voice. It just wasn’t working.

Now looking at that snippet from a developmental perspective, we know that toddlers are often compelled to explore the world around them and in so doing want to touch everything. You could call it their job at that age. We know that their ability to reason is not yet developed, and that they have short attention spans. So we can have some insight into why his approach wasn’t working. We also can see that his expectations for her weren’t particularly realistic, and this probably had more to do with his frustration than her behaviour.

A developmental perspective can offer similar insight and direction to those working with young people in residential care. Having an understanding of how development can be impeded, the impacts of this, and how it can be enhanced or promoted is particularly important. It offers a perspective from which workers can challenge their own unrealistic expectations and work with kids more effectively. It also enables an important component of unconditional positive regard, that of continually holding in mind the potential for growth and change.

In the module we look at the theories of Bronfenbrenner, Erikson, and Vygotsky; attachment and resilience; the impact of disadvantage, disability, trauma, abuse, separation, grief and loss; and the particular challenges of assessment in the lifespace. In the last few years, neuropsychology has become a topic of reading and discussion as well, and the work of Bruce Perry seems to be having an increasing impact on students’ thinking. We critically analyse some of the theories, various assessment frameworks and the notion of assessment itself. We talk about interprofessional and partnership working, and the impact of power and status within this process; in every student cohort, some talk about the lack of respect afforded to their role in informing the assessment process.

Each year there are some lovely philosophical discussions that arise during the course of this module: about what it means to understand to what extent we can really know another person; about the need for humility in avoiding false certainty and staying open to new information; about the need, in the face of uncertainty, to still make difficult decisions and act decisively; about whether one would rather be assessed or understood; about the rightful place of each in practice. For their final assignment, students submit a case study of a young person with whom they work. In it they apply theory and research to provide a developmentally informed assessment, and perhaps more importantly, an insightful and compassionate account of their young subject. As a precursor to this, each student presents a small portion of their case study to the class, and a short class discussion follows.

Sound good? I loved this stuff as a student and continue to be captivated by the subject matter. I don’t think we can ever know enough. There is never enough time to cover everything that needs to be covered or anything in as much depth as I would like. Paradoxically, however, I believe our most powerful moments with children and young people are more about how we are with them than about some technical application of knowledge. Yet in order to be with kids in a way in which they begin to feel less alone and more understood requires, for most of us anyway, knowledge and a wider perspective.

Based on class discussions and module evaluations, the students seem to be similarly engaged in the subject matter. They consistently appear to see its relevance and have an appetite to know more. So it is somewhat of a surprise that I struggle with this module the most, due in part to the fact that more students struggle with this module than with any other on the course. I consistently wonder about this. I think it bears repeating; it’s not that they’re disinterested or can’t see the relevance. It’s not that the subject matter is so unfamiliar that they have to overcome off-putting alien ideas (a big challenge in teaching moral philosophy, for instance).

I can identify a few factors that do contribute to our struggle, some of which are outside the control of the course. Working full time in residential child care while undertaking study is no easy feat. Often the types of people who take this on are highly committed to the kids they work with, and this often means extra hours in or for the unit when the chips are down. And all too often the chips are down in residential child care.

Another challenge — one which we have more direct influence over — has to do with the long running difficulty we have in helping students meaningfully to apply theory to their practice. This is the subject of a lot of discussion, not just related to Child and Youth Care but social work education and practice more generally. I will turn my attention to this in next month’s column.

The challenge I want to discuss in this month’s column has to do with a more recent and personal insight, one that I think plays a significant part in our struggle to understand and assess. This was the first year that students presented a portion of their case study in class and therefore this was the first year that I heard about each young subject all in one sitting. Previously, I had read about each young person in the students’ written assignment, and I usually tend to mark only one or two assignments in one sitting.

During the case study presentations, my students spoke of young people suffering the effects of trauma, disability and abandonment; parents struggling with drugs, violence and suicide; families bending under the weight of poverty and discrimination. Some of these kids have never experienced consistent, reliable care, and the same can likely be said of some of their parents. The suffering is great.

I doubt any of this comes as a surprise. It isn’t new. Many of the students have had a lot of years of experience, but none appeared hardened or desensitised to the pain suffered by their young charges. In listening to the brief slivers of these kids’ histories, I could see folk shaking their head or wincing at some of the details being shared. There was sometimes a feeling of incredulity, and it was easy to slip into a fixation on these details. One of the impacts of working at the sharp end of people’s pain became clearer to me this year, and is illustrated in some of the students’ struggle with the case studies. For while there is explicit guidance to focus on understanding and assessing (and not on intervening), some students jump quickly from the detail of the young person’s history into the work that they’re doing and the ways they’re intervening. It almost seems too much to bear to stay with so much unmet need, and so much suffering. I also felt anxious and had a strong urge to help throughout the presentations; sometimes I couldn’t resist either.

Our motivation to help is what brings us to this work; sitting idly by while people struggle feels criminal. Staying fully present long enough to really listen, reflect and deepen ones understanding, however, requires fortitude and stamina — and is anything but idle. I suspect that we often unconsciously avoid this taxing aspect of the work, to a greater or lesser extent. Tuning into the ways in which we do so is likely to be as important as knowing about theories of development if we are to effectively assess need and really understand kids.