Jack Phelan

Curiosity and the ability to ask good questions shift in focus as the Child and Youth Care practitioner develops into a Level 2 worker, described as the Treatment Planner and Change Agent. It is here that professional, sophisticated Child and Youth Care practice emerges. A level 2 worker behaves differently and can articulate practice rationales to others. When professional Child and Youth Care Associations propose Certification as a credential, they are describing the Level 2 practitioner.

After a year or more of practice, a nagging and important question occurs to the Child and Youth Care worker ““Why am I creating ways to persuade and control these people to do the right thing, it doesn’t last, they return to bad choices as soon as they are on their own again?”

Some workers conclude from this that there is no point getting too excited about changing youth and families, since they are doomed to be unproductive people. Emerging Level 2 workers ask a further question, “Why am I comfortable with this, is it because I have gotten skillful at control?” Then they ask themselves, “What if I didn’t do this – what if I gave the control to them?” This internal struggle is not the naive hope of the new worker but a cautious opening of new possibilities.

After 12-18 months of experience, personal safety is no longer an issue. A confidence develops that creates an expanded presence, which is a major asset for the Child and Youth Care practitioner. Boundaries are clear, few challenges about competence arise. Family support workers who were regularly asked by parents whether they had any children, now find this question rarely gets asked. Community workers don’t get asked what they are doing in the neighborhood. The worker’s presence helps create a safe atmosphere, people calm down as you engage with them. This ability to be safe allows the worker to use his energy to anticipate dynamics and create support for people, much like a chess player can see future possibilities.

New questions at this level include:

  • What can I do now to minimize the conflict that I predict will occur later?
  • How can I connect positively to help this youth to accept my support when he’ll need it later?
  • How much can I trust the self-control function of this person?
  • What does this mom or dad need from me now so that they’ll be okay when I leave later?

New workers are like firemen, anxiously waiting for the alarm, Level 2 workers are trying to use the life space to anticipate and prevent alarms.

Punishment, rules and routines get re-examined at this stage. Punishment and rules, particularly when they focus on surface behavior and not motivation, start to feel foolish. Routines need to be individualized and different for each person, and consistency as the staff mantra is almost funny. The experienced worker starts to realize that these tools are really creating more support for the staff than for the youth. Challenging questions occur for the Level 2 staff and the team:

  • Why am I using punishments so often?
  • How can I reduce the rules and punishments around here?
  • How can I support people to use self-control?
  • Can I decrease my own need for control?
  • Can I support newer workers who need to use control and still act differently myself?
  • If I didn’t use threats, would people respond well to me?
  • Do I believe that strength-focused approaches work?

This is the dilemma for the Level 2 worker, to let go of skills and beliefs that have been successful until now, and to risk being unpopular with colleagues by challenging the status quo. When workers don’t make this shift, they remain in a para-professional job and often leave the field for other, more challenging, professions, believing they have fully mastered the Child and Youth Care job, when in fact they have never engaged in professional Child and Youth Care practice.

Level 2 workers see each person they work with as individuals who require different responses. The belief that everyone needs to be treated the same, or that workers need to demonstrate consistency, which translates into ritualized, rule-bound responses to similar behaviors by different people, gets questioned. Seeing the group as foreground and the individual as background, which is useful for the new worker, gets turned on its head now.

Family workers realize at this point that the expectations for each family often reflect both a formulaic set of required behaviors and threats of legal retribution, neither of which is helpful. Thus, the Level 2 family support worker often allies with the family to get the system off their back.

Viewing each person as a distinct individual opens new questions:

  • Who is this person, what do I see?
  • Can I view him as an individual and a member of a system at the same time?
  • What skills, resiliencies and level of hope does he possess?
  • What is his logic about how the world works?
  • How much of what I see is really about me, not him?
  • Do I feel responsible for controlling him?
  • What are legitimate challenges and learning goals for him?
  • How much external support does he need?

The Level 2 worker begins to challenge group thinking, at both the team meeting discussions and within himself. Reflecting about how the team focus is often on problems, not strengths, and how we are all influenced by our past experience with other youth, as well as by our own history (particularly in family work), the Level 2 worker begins to engage in critical thinking.

Rather than an “Aha” moment, there is generally a creeping awareness that a new skill set is emerging, which, fortunately for most pre-trained workers, they have already known, but not regularly used. The Child and Youth Care theory and methodology learned in classrooms, but ignored during the unsafe period of struggling for control and competence in Level 1, now starts to make sense. Level 2 workers find themselves going back and rereading the discarded texts which were no help in the first months of practice, but now are quite useful. Caring as a concept is seen in a new way, it becomes supporting people from behind or alongside, not dragging them forward; caring as using trust, not control, caring as a form of professional risk-taking and safe challenge.

Safe personal presence allows the Level 2 worker to engage in strategic thinking and reflective practice. The Level 2 worker always has a clear reason for his behavior, and can view himself in action while being fully present. When things are quiet is now the busiest time for him. Nurturing, connecting, and creating hope, replace hiding in the office between emergencies or reading the newspaper while “nothing is going on”.

Family support workers don’t end the visit early because all the issues have been resolved.

Questions include:

  • How can I build on the new interest expressed recently by that youth?
  • What can we do to support the relationship between this person and his family (phone call, letter, life book, etc.)?
  • What theory from my texts is being expressed in the life space today?
  • How can I make things more fun right now?
  • How can I model what I want to teach?

I will continue to describe the Level 2 worker in next month’s installment, where the curiosity of this stage expands into further layers of professional expertise.

From: CYC-Online, 66: July 2004