Developmental Conditions for Responsive Group Care
Few authors have written about child and adolescent
development in a manner that allows contemporary research findings to be
immediately useful to group care workers and retain a central place in group
care practice. For that reason, it is worth reviewing those conditions that
provide the most favourable opportunities for learning and development. Our
focus is on interpersonal structures (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and processes
(Maier, 1981) that provide the conditions for responsive group care. Our
argument is that, until recent years, such knowledge has not been grounded
sufficiently in an understanding of contextual influences on child and
In attempting to move towards a clearer appreciation of these matters, Bronfenbrenner (1979) provided a series of core definitions and hypotheses that sought to spell out the optimal conditions under which learning and development take place. These definitions associated with the ecology of human development refer to various elements that contribute to human activity in particular settings including activities, roles, and interpersonal relations. Attention is particularly drawn to those definitions and hypotheses that clarify the contributions made by interpersonal relations in developmental processes with young people. Such a narrowing of focus here should not be taken to imply a downgrading of the other elements simply to draw attention to the particular characteristics of group care practice, nor a failure to recognize how all the elements interact together.
Bronfenbrenner (1979) defined a relation as that which
"obtains whenever one person in a setting pays attention to, or participates
in, the activities of another" (p. 56). Three different types of relation
were identified, each of which applies to group care practice with children
or young people. The first of these involves situations where someone
engages with a young person to observe a particular activity such as when a
worker and child pay attention to each other's activities during the first
days of placement in a centre.
By acknowledging the part that each plays in such an observational process, the minimal conditions for learning are enacted and the stage is set for a second type of youth-adult relations. Here the focus is on shared participation in related but not necessarily identical tasks, such as when a worker and young person wash the dishes after a meal. The emphasis in this type of relation is the reciprocal nature of the activity through which the emotional dimension of a relationship develops. This leads to a third type of youth-adult relations where enduring feelings develop between one and the other that influence the thoughts and behaviours of each. In such instances, a relationship can be said to exist even when the parties are no longer together.
These formulations may help one to understand better the influence of interpersonal relations in life-long learning. For group care workers engaged with children and young people, they offer special possibilities, taking as "the theatre for their work the actual living situation as shared and experienced by the child" (Ainsworth, 1981, p. 234). As a result, group care workers are in an ideal position to engage continuously and deliberately in relations of the type described above and in so doing provide contexts for learning. Throughout every hour of every day, group care workers are presented with opportunity events in which they can engage in all three types of relation and thereby help young people to grow and develop. Bronfenbrenner (1979) hypothesized that maximum achievable impact occurs when a worker and child engage in all three types of relation simultaneously (p. 60). If a relation is characterized by mutual antagonism then it is disruptive of learning, emphasizing the point that learning and development are most likely to be achieved when a close relationship exists between workers and the young people with whom they work.
While Bronfenbrenner helped to clarify the types of relation workers need to create in their work with young people, Maier (1981) highlighted the importance of attachment and the experience of dependency that are part of the intimate process of forming relationships. Maier noted how temperamental differences, even among very young children, can influence the rhythms of interaction which develop with those who provide care. It is important for workers to understand these facts so as to respond to any antagonism that may enter into and disrupt their relationships with young people, thereby restricting learning opportunities. Group care practice involves sensitive engagement with young people in a manner that is compatible with each child's needs and avoids the disruptive pitfalls that limit development.
Maier (1981) addressed the importance of establishing vital attachments between workers and young people that offer opportunities for a good experience of dependency, the pursuit of which may be clouded by difficult and demanding behaviours. Maier encouraged group care workers to view such phenomena afresh by placing these aspects of development in a normal sequence of daily life events. Dependency need not be viewed as a sign of weakness or psychopathology. Through attachment relationships, young people obtain the necessary prerequisites for learning and development. Rather than being fearful of the implied demands associated with attachment relationships, group care workers need to encourage these processes so that children will eventually "be free" (Maier, 1982a) to assume responsibility for themselves in later life. Such freedom cannot, however, be forced into existence. It develops instead through the experience of a secure attachment to another person and a growing sense of safe dependence on them.
Better than most writers, Bronfenbrenner and Maier help group care workers to see how to engage in the task of encouraging developmental processes with children. Bronfenbrenner did this by clarifying the type of interpersonal relations that must develop, while Maier provided a detailed understanding of the events which facilitate such relations. In so doing, both writers also highlight how dysfunctional institutions need not exist provided that they are restructured to allow practices outlined above. Wolins and Wozner (1982) echoed this view, highlighting the extent to which "theoretical, philosophical, and ideological determinants" influence the culture of a group care centre (Fulcher & Ainsworth, 1981, p. 83). In this respect, it may be helpful to pose a number or questions which workers might wish to ask about their own group care centres.
To what extent are all three types of interpersonal relations in your centre actively considered, including observational relations, shared activity relations, and emotional attachments?
How does your centre acknowledge the importance of and facilitate opportunities for children or young people to experience dependency? Or is dependency frowned upon and seen only as a negative feature of practice and relationships that develop between workers and young people?
In what ways can it be said that your centre accepts the need for workers and young people to develop attachment relationships or is attachment and personal relationships viewed with suspicion?
To what extent does your centre allow for differences in the temperament of children and the different patterns of interaction that are required as a consequence?
FRANK AINSWORTH and LEON FULCHER
Ainsworth, F. and Fulcher, L. Creating and
Sustaining a Culture of Group Care. In Ainsworth, F. and Fulcher, L. (eds.)
(2006). Group Care Practice with Children and Young People Revisited, PP.151-176. New York: Haworth Press.