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Teaching and training as a facet of supervision of care staff: An overview

Henry W. Maier

 Abstract: Supervision is a pro-active effort with a focus upon the child care workers’ mastery of what to know and to do rather than what “to be.” The supervisors have delineated for themselves when supervision involves helping workers to hurdle new difficult interventive situations and instances when they are training their staff to enrich their capabilities. The latter implies professional competence development with fundamental shifts and a transformation to new levels of comprehension and professional care work (second order change), as distinguished from staff’s step-by-step incremental leaming (first order change) reflected in their daily spontaneous care activities.

ln the supervision of child/youth care staff we are probably dealing with three areas of worker responsibilities. First, supervision serves to assist the care workers to fulfill their individual work assignments on the most proficient level. Secondly, supervision becomes functional while attending to tasks which the workers are not yet fully prepared to handle in any adequate way. ln these instances, the supervisors have to provide “hurdling help” — helping workers to accomplish a task before the workers have actually leamed how to master it. In these instances, a supervisor will advise or instruct a worker what to do in order that s/he will be able to navigate difficult circumstances with some semblance of survival. Essentially, the worker is assisted to handle an apparently insurmountable hurdle. There is often not time to have mastered such a care encounter or frequently in the case of group care situations, the supervisor taking responsibility along with worker, would not know exactly what is effective care for a particular situation and therefore they “wing it” together. The third area of supervisory work, the focus of the remainder of this brief essay, is the provision of professional training. Supervision serves to assist child/youth care workers to become more effective in their work through an enrichment of skill and knowledge repertoire.

Supervisors become the trainers, the teachers, of their care staff. In this aspect of their role supervisors have to shift from a reactive stance dealing with problematic, worker-induced supervisory sessions’ content, to a pro-active selected learning foci on the part of the supervisor. The supervisor is challenged to think through and to select appropriately the material which the supervisor wants his or her care workers to learn for the enhancement of their care work. Precisely what is it the worker needs to learn at the next supervisory session? What must s/he learn to know and to do?

Note the emphasis in learning is upon what to do and to know rather than “to be.” The difficulty comes when we deal with what a person should be. For instance, we do not know how to help a person “to be less anxious,” “to be freer,” “to be honest.” ln contrast however, if we help a worker to handle chaotic mealtimes more effectively by assisting the person with planning his or her table and seating arrangements, how to handle the passing of food or how to handle youngsters who have little sitting power, we may have achieved pertinent input. Once a worker understands a situation more clearly and has at least a beginning sense of efficacy for handling particular situations s/he will be apt “to feel freer,” “less anxious,” and can have the courage “to be honest” in his or her problematic encounters. In short, training has to focus on what skills and knowledge components care workers need to acquire rather than what kind of personal traits they must exhibit.

 The workers’ actual service capacities can be vastly enhanced by focusing upon what a worker is expected to leam to do in contrast to what the worker “is not to do.” So frequently, we desperately try to instill a worker with what not to do. For instance, we may tell a worker, “Not to allow so much shouting and reaching across the table at mealtime.” Such an input is wise but of little help! lt still leaves the worker in a quandary over what to do. But to suggest, for example, the provision of at least two bottles of catchup on the table for hamburger might automatically allow for some table conversation; these recommendations constitute positive instructions. We continuously need to frame life events in such a way that workers can accurately look at their work situation describing what is going on rather than what is lacking in the situation. This kind of framework is applicable as well in looking at the children’s behaviour. Workers tend to describe what they do not like about the children’s behaviour in terms of what the youngsters are not doing. “Those kids,” for example, “do not come off the playfield when I call them!” An account of negative behaviour tends to describe what are the reporting person’s expectations. However, when the worker can account for what the youngsters were actually doing (e. g., the four strongest kids were wrestling with each other, while all others were enthusiastic onlookers), potential solutions might be found. Then care worker and supervisor can explore together how to deal with such dilemmas. We urge supervisors to assist care workers to come to grips with what a child (or children) is doing and replace the typical account of what they are not doing — searching out together the next steps the child or children need to learn to master in order to move on in his/her competence development.

Finally, an essential feature of the teaching and training aspects of supervision is the decision whether supervisory work is aimed toward first-order or second-order change. First-order change is progressive change which occurs continuously with added experience throughout life. Let’s illustrate this as an early childhood experience when the infant gradually moves from crawling to toddling and eventually to adept walking. Much of our work with children relies upon such progressive, incremental changes. We see to it that the children improve — that they will do things better, faster, more skillfully and purposefully or, conversely, gradually dropping out the less desirable behaviours.

In another arena, supervisors hold the same expectations for incremental (first-order), gradual change when helping oversee their supervisees on the basis of added experience. (We are reminded of the occasional under-the-breath comment of many a supervisor, “They will learn someday!”) This is a valid learning pattern.

Now let us look at second-order change. The latter builds upon incremental change but it depends upon a particular set of turning points within the progression of change. It is manifest by transformation that a substantive change has occurred. Using our earlier example, the infant seems one day to have become a toddler. In the above instance, incremental changes have reached a point where the change retrospectively creates a transformational image. The change creates for the person and its interacting environmental a different life condition and new socio-cultural expectations.

Additionally, if we were to examine closely the intent of much of child care work we would realize that most of our work with the youngsters is with a second-order change objective. We expect children within our care not merely to do better along their ongoing path of functioning. We also want them to manage, to feel, and frequently to conceive their life experience in a decisively different manner. They are placed in group care settings whether it is for twenty-four hours or partial daycare services as transformational effort — a change not necessarily to do better but to do differently.

ln the sphere of the care worker’s role and his supervisor as well. second-order change perspectives are also important. Workers are not merely asked to do more or less in the way they tend to render care and to control others. ln their group care work, they are asked to transform their everyday handling of life encounters and group management into situationally specific interactions. ln other words, child/youth care workers should not expect to be “better” parents, teachers, peers, or adults. lnstead, they as workers within their task commitments, need consciously (utilizing a second-order change) to proceed differently than in their everyday life patterns in order to be able to assist their charges.

As long as we envisage supervision in part as a teaching/training activity, much of the responsibility of the preparations, activities, and outcome evaluations shifts to the supervisor. The supervisors are the ones who have to assess what and how the supervisees can effectively learn.


Watzlawick, Paul, Weakland. J. and Fisch, R. (1974). Change. New York: Norton. p. 1011.

Maier, H.W. (1984). A simple but powerful concept poses a challenge for the teaching and learning of social work practice. Social Work Education, 4, 1. pp. 17-20.


This feature: Maier, H.W. (1985). Teaching and training as a facet of supervision of care staff: An overview. Journal of Child Care, 2, 4. pp. 49-51.