ISSUE 14 MARCH 2000 BACK

ADMINISTRATION 

What child care administrators need to know about work on the front line

Sabitha Samjee, Himla Makan, Anne Pierre, Molly Myeza and Juanita MacKay were invited to address a Seminar to put some viewpoints of child care workers to child care administrators

Philosophy, vision and mission
The success of every organisation depends heavily on the way it is structured and managed in terms of its policy and philosophy. Today we all need a vision. Visions are the road-maps of the mind; they are the targets towards which everyone is travelling. Without vision we must constantly depend on others for motivation and guidance; without it, we wander in the dark.

Organisations themselves need visions. It is essential for everyone in the organisation, from top to bottom, to have a vision of where it is headed and how it plans to get there. Visions are sometimes called mission statements. It is the responsibility of each administrator to lead others towards the organisation's vision.

Your job as a leader is to help others to see the vision, to want it and to reach it. You must do this because all members of the team contribute to its success. As a leader you must be able to describe accurately the vision of your organisation in words that can be understood and passed on to others: your organisation is strong when all team members strive for a common goal.

Role management
A primary task of the administrator is to manage the various roles of team members. With a thorough understanding of what each role contributes (potentials, skills, specialisations), and of the differences between roles, the administrator promotes effective and professional team functioning.

Administrator's role
Child care administrators (principals, department heads, supervisors, etc.) are generally seen to be middle managers, people who concern themselves with policy decisions, capital development, programme formulation, planning and maintenance of organisational systems, as well as with middle management functions such as negotiation, advocacy, reporting and recommending.

Child and youth care workers' roles
The quality of child care practice is the foundation of any child care organisation. Whereas child care administrators provide a holistic organisational management system, child care workers provide a specialised system of management of children. While the child is resident, the child care worker assumes the role of his or her 'most significant adult', ensuring the meeting of the physical, social, cognitive and spiritual needs of the child. Theirs is a professional role. They work with difficult children and youth. They have great responsibility and accountability to the parents and the community. They are under tremendous pressure to be good role models. They are certainly not 'glorified nannies' or housekeepers waiting the in background to make tea and sandwiches for visitors.

Interdependent roles, shared tasks
Despite the differences in role, administrators and workers are interdependent. Child and youth care workers have to do their job according to the mission statement and their stated role and task expectations. But they cannot do this unless they are provided with the tools of their trade, with information, and with support. The administrator provides the budget, the facilities and the programme in return for performance and cost-effectiveness. In fact, the more these tasks are shared and mutually understood, the more efficient is the organisation.

Unfortunately, with most institutions, budgets are drawn up (often on the basis of last year's costs plus a percentage!) by people far removed from the daily work with children. Would it not be sensible to involve child and youth care workers with their hands-on experience and responsibility, in such financial planning and costing? We cannot separate the organisational budget from the responsibility on the ground for teaching children to manage and be responsible for personal and group possessions and equipment. This applies not only to clothing, but to all capital and replacement items on the campus. (See the box "iron hearted".)

Administrators, your child and youth care workers are skilled and interested: involve them to the advantage of all concerned, the organisation and the children.

Child care and youth workers also have clear expectations of you, the administrators. Try to hear these, and make it possible for them to express them. Often workers feel that managers have no understanding of the demands of the job on the ground. For example, "Take this child to the hospital" is not just a single simple task. The transport arrangements, the time spent waiting with the child and collecting medicines, the ripple effects on the duties and timetable of the group back home, relief staff arrangements - these are all things which we expect the administrator to understand and help with.

Iron hearted

Child care workers are most easily frustrated when administrators seem to put the organisation ahead of its real function. Children are sometimes treated as though they are there for the sake of the institution, rather than the institution being there for the children.

This may sound a bit petty. In fact, it is. The clothes iron in the cottage is broken. Before it can be repaired or replaced, the child care worker has to go through a long cross-examination as to how this has happened, who broke it, how, why ... This procedure may involve two or three people in the administration and then even go to the Board and its Finance Sub-Committee. It comes all the way back to the child care worker who gets lectured on how much irons cost, being responsible and accountable if ever it breaks again, etc.

All this can take days, sometimes weeks. In the mean time anxiety in the cottage goes sky-high “more conflict at peak periods, the children try to borrow the iron from the next-door cottage who are fiercely reluctant in case they have to go through the same process. Too late! The driver has become impatient and the bus has left for school. For the second time this week children are late for school. The headmaster punishes them and complains to the principal of the children's home. Angry and embarrassed, she calls in the child care worker and the children and there is talk of ruining the good name of the program ... The cottage is pronounced 'unstable', and both staff and children are alarmed.

Because the iron broke!

Staff development
We child care workers would like to be managed in terms of the five 'LEARN' principles:

Leadership
Leadership includes leading by example, and by teaching staff to think for themselves. A manager who is inefficient lowers the standards of excellence and creates mediocrity in both organisation and staff. Employees respect excellence and efficiency - which includes being competent, skillful, capable and productive. Efficiency not only saves time; it makes more time for other levels of employee satisfaction.

Good leaders don't order subordinates around; they build a positive climate of responsible decision-making throughout the organisation. Instead of saying "Do this" or "Do that", rather ask "What do you think? Try your idea and let's see how it works." Over time, both staff and children treated this way will learn to think for themselves, ask questions, examine alternatives and learn yet more from their experience.

Expectations
Knowing what you expect from them gives most people a desire to contribute. Show them the finish line. Not knowing where this is makes many people unfocussed and ineffective. More, let them know the value of their contribution. Can you expect them to put out a high level of productivity if they do not feel involved in the end result?

Allow your child and youth care workers to participate in setting expectations. When they learn to ask questions like "What do we need to happen here?" "What do we have to do to reach that goal?" and "How well did we do?" you are building motivated and satisfied child care workers. Rewrite job descriptions, rearrange work flows, give more responsibility for problem solving, and provide recognition for work well done. Loosen up and liberate the potential of your child care workers, and you will be rewarded with higher morale and productivity.

Act as though you care
When employees feel that they come first with their managers, the children will feel that they come first with their caregivers. It is much easier to give when you are receiving. Get people involved and listen to them; there is no better way to make them fed that they belong.

When employees are not asked for their opinion (or worse, when they are asked and then not taken seriously) they become disconnected from the vision. They don't participate in the future of the organisation. Keep staff informed, so that they always know what is going on. Without this they won't know of the organisation's progress, and they won't know how to help. Worse, they will fed left out and disempowered - exactly the opposite of what you want in your staff.

Respect workers as professionals
As you respect individuals for their contribution to your programme, you create a more respectful environment. We respect people by acknowledging their fund of knowledge and experience, their special skills and achievements. Every encounter, meeting or consultation is an opportunity for this.

Respect can also be shown by upgrading the workplace. The physical environment you create can be interpreted as a measure of your respect for those who work there. A fresh coat of paint, more light and artwork, are always good ideas. So is asking people if there is anything they would particularly like to make their workplace more pleasant. Respect can best be shown by treating people as professionals. Hire them professionally, talk to them as professionals, ask opinions as of professionals. When you provide a professional atmosphere, employees will act and respond accordingly.

Never stifle personal growth
A final step towards motivating staff is to create opportunities for personal growth. Never let them feel that the lid of their career or profession is on tight. In those circumstances people lose personal vision, they stagnate and languish. See in which directions they feel like growing - it could be a direction in which your programme needs to grow.

If you spend all your energy containing people and keeping them from growing, you have spent all your energy. The exciting thing is that when your staff grow and your organisation grows, you have to grow. When you create growth for others, you create it for yourself too.

So, when you have provided the first four steps in this L.E.A.R.N. process, just keep on going.

Conclusion
All of the above discussion emphasises the responsibility we share - not only for the continuing growth and healthy functioning of the staff, but also of our organisations - for the sake of the children. The children continue to change, too. Many programs (both administrators and staff) are unwilling to work with new "categories" of troubled children and young people. Most people who are not trained are fearful of working with difficult youngsters who present with problem or 'challenging' behaviour. The result is that many children remain unhelped, kept unnecessarily in places of safety or even in prisons.

The demands made upon the child care service today are serious enough for us to take child care teams seriously. Listen to what they have to say about the realities of practice on the front line.

THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)
Registered Non-Profit and Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (031-323-NPO, PBO 930015296)

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa  /  207 L'ile de Belair, Rosemere, Quebec, J7A 1A8, Canada

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