NUMBER 611• 13 OCTOBER • THE GROUP
The most significant finding from this research was the importance that young people placed on their fellow residents and the group itself. The research illustrated the various functions that such a group might serve for individuals and acknowledged that such functions extended outside the unit to relationships with family members as well as with the wider community. Young people stressed the role that the group played in maintaining safety and security as well as helping them to move forward with their lives.
As a residential worker I was surprised by the level of support that young people offered to one another as well as the depth of knowledge that they had about the social work system, relationships, drug use, etc. More often than not the information provided was accurate and clearly explained. Significantly, it would most usually be followed by discussion of how to include staff member’s involvement and the best way to achieve this. Young people did not feel that these positive elements of group living were acknowledged or even recognised by staff members or other social work professionals.
It would appear that to consider the group as being rigidly structured, with fixed roles and status positions, oversimplifies the complexity of group living. It also leads us as practitioners to look only for the ‘negative’ behaviours demonstrated and to assume that with the removal of the ‘bad egg’ the group will improve. There are young people for whom residential care does not provide a secure or therapeutic enough environment. However, consideration needs to be given as to why young people are acting in such a way, and what contribution the group might be making either to reinforce or to challenge this behaviour. Like the ‘symptom-carrying child’ (Yahav & Sharlin, 2000) the young person may be maintaining group structure or harmony; therefore his/her removal leads only to that space being filled by another young person.
It may be helpful for staff to make themselves aware of the ways in which young people are achieving status within the group and seek to encourage the positive behaviours such as support and advice, and the use of humour. In so doing, it may be possible to support the young people in deciding which types of behaviour they themselves value and encourage. This would best be done in tandem with staff groups looking at their own means of functioning and to consider what messages their group dynamic gives to the young people in their care.
It is argued that the group can usefully be seen by staff as a resource that requires nurturing and protection. In order to do this, assessment of the level of communication that exists between workers and young people must take place. If good communication is established, then young people may be more trusted to manage their group functioning and provide individual support, in the certain knowledge that staff members are there to support rater than to undermine group activity. Residential staff have the complex task of clearly assessing the individual as well as the group. Like any good assessment this must occur regularly and those being assessed must feel part of that process.
Emond, R. Understanding the Resident Group. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, August/September 2002.
Yahav, R. and Sharlin, S. A. (2000) The symptom-carrying child as a preserver of the family unit, Child and Family Social Work, 5(4), 353-364