Christine Gaitens


Child and Youth Care Practitioners (CYCPs) working in school-based practice in Canada with a strength based, relational, developmental approach can meet the expected outcomes of the school community of behaviour management, social skill development and enhanced ability to access the curriculum. The 4 “R”s of school-based child and youth care practice are rhythmicity, relationships, rituals and routines. The 4 “R”s are interconnected. When CYCPs engage in these practices, an environment that is inclusive, secure, relaxed, and connected can develop. This can help students to feel a sense of belonging and to increase student success.


Child and Youth Care, school-based practice, rhythmicity, relationship, ritual, routine.

Child and youth care practitioners have been working in Ontario schools for over 50 years (Jull, 2001). The role has been defined as supporting students with social, emotional, and behavioural concerns so that they may better cope in the classroom setting. Denholm and Watkins (1993) suggested that the “… primary role of the child and youth care worker within the educational setting is to promote behavioural change and personal growth in the children and adolescents who are having difficulties coping within this setting as a result of social, emotional, and physical problems and to assist in their academic success” (p. 88). While there is still no province or country wide understanding or standard for the work, the number of CYCPs working in schools has grown. As a result of this development without standards, the role looks considerably different from one school to the next and from one province to the next.

The school is an ideal environment for CYCPs to provide services to students for many reasons. The most obvious is that the majority of young people under the age of 18 years attend school. In this environment they may receive support without medical referral or the need to attend appointments in the community. This is one of the environments where many young people live a large portion of their time. As Kelly (2004) noted, “school was central to the children and their development since it was the place where they spent most of their day” (p. 143).

While many may think of the school as a great place to learn, to grow and to develop, for many young people it is a very challenging environment. As students move through the grades of learning, professionals, teachers and parents/guardians often rely on developmental norms when setting expectations even though not all young people develop at the same rate.  Many young people may have “missed out on ‘optimal conditions for growth’” and may not have developed fully in all areas as expected for their age and development stage (Emond, Steckley & Roesch-Marsh, 2016, p. 23). As the authors explain, threats to a child’s development may be intrinsic or extrinsic, referring to the “characteristics of the child” and the “characteristics of the environment” and that these characteristics can affect each other (p. 32). It can be argued from an ecological perspective that for some students, the school environment may further delay or limit development in some areas (Stuart, 2009).

Some of the characteristics of a child and youth care approach may be well suited to support students who find schools to be challenging environments, particularly a relational approach to child and youth care. This article looks to share the ways in which CYCPs are co-creating something new or adapting and manipulating what is already in place to support success for students who do not naturally respond to the environment by meeting the standard expectations of learning and growing. This article will explore four characteristics or components of a relational child and youth care approach in the school setting specifically: rhythmicity, relationship, ritual, and routine. Looking for evidence of these characteristics in the school day isn’t too difficult as the school day is full of them. 

School Based Child and Youth Care

School based child and youth care started in Ontario, Canada in the late 1950s and has continued ever since, with at least half of the school boards employing CYCPs in some capacity (Jull, 2001). The experience of these first school based CYCPs was described by Jull (2001):

The child care workers were on hand to remove youngsters who were having a hard time coping in the classroom and to provide them with the support necessary to enable them to return to the classroom setting. It was readily apparent that the children’s ability to address academic tasks was negatively impacted by a myriad of social, emotional, and developmental factors and that these often interfered with the ability of the children to focus their attention on achieving academic success (p. 144).

During the 80s and 90s, there were several articles written that attempted to pinpoint what school-based practitioners were doing. Denholm (1986) analysed the job descriptions for school based CYCPs across Canada and identified a role focused on behavioural interventions that would meet the students’ needs to improve inclusion in the school and access to the curriculum. Rodda (1991) suggested additional functions within schools including relationship building, fostering group leadership, crisis management, and student empowerment. Denholm & Watkins (1993) reported that CYCPs, were often hired to “focus on specific social functioning and school-related behaviours which were affecting academic learning” (p. 81). Seibel (1998) provides a definition that identifies the school based CYCP as an interdisciplinary team member, who is “responsible for collaboratively meeting the social and emotional needs of students” thus ensuring “the teacher is able to address the academic needs of students” (p. 17).

In 2001, Jull describes the evolution of child and youth care practice at one school board in Ontario. The service described began in 1970 to meet the needs of students whose behaviour was “sufficiently disturbed or disturbing that they were unable to function effectively in a regular class” (p. 145). The CYC practitioners were there to address social-emotional needs. He went on to suggest that the core function of school based CYC practitioners is to assess, interpret, manage, and modify behaviour. Gaitens and Portelles (2013) describe a CYCP role in which relationship is necessary to connect students to school communities and to “build a sense of belonging” (p. 80).  They state that the work of the CYCP is “dependent on the quality of connection that the CYC is able to establish with the student and the student is able to establish with the school.” (p. 81).

In a study exploring school based practice in 2018, Gaitens focussed on the perspective of the practitioners with specific attention to the competencies of child and youth care as described by Mattingly et al (2010), the characteristics of CYC practice as described by Garfat and Fulcher (2011), and the working conditions they experienced. Gaitens reported that CYCPs in the sample group had knowledge of the characteristics and competencies and that there was a connection to “their beliefs and actions at work” (p. 54). Gaitens further reports that CYCPs in school-based practice are “supporting students to learn the social and emotional skills necessary to function in and outside of the school setting” (p. 61).

Gaitens (2018) identified themes in the literature about the role including behavioural interventions, social and emotional support and assistance in accessing the curriculum. There is also “evidence of differing expectations, duties and roles and a lack of reporting on the skills and competencies” of school-based CYCPs (Gaitens, 2018, p. 9). As this is a life space that most young people will enter during their lifetime, it makes sense that CYCPs are present with a strength based, relational, developmental lens. It is also important to identify what we do in this environment that is within our scope of practice, supports student success and meets the collaborative needs of the school community. As we explore the 4 “R”s of school based child and youth care practice, we will discuss how rhythmicity, relationship, ritual and routine are included in daily school based practice.


“Rhythm is a beat, motion, tempo” (Krueger, 1996).

Rhythm is a part of our lives from the beginning and onwards as we experience “… the rhythm of our heart pumping blood through our bodies, our circadian rhythms regulating times for waking and sleeping, and hormonal rhythms influencing processes of maturation and reproduction” (Emond et. al., 2016, p. 88). Our breathing, our steps, our sleep and our chewing all have rhythm. When we were young, our carers may have sung to us or rocked us when we were distressed. As we got older, we may have played by skipping and singing.

Rhythm is everywhere and the rhythm of the school day has been in place for a long time. Think about the rhythm of the typical day starting with the chatter in the school yard that might include songs, laughter and the sounds of sports being played. Then the school bell rings and the students run to line up. One might hear the teacher’s voices calling to take attendance. These are the beginning of the school day rituals and routines as things get underway. There is rhythmicity in the conversation or chatter. The conversation has the active components of receiving and sharing. There is rhythmicity when students play like when they bounce a ball back and forth and when they run together towards the school as their feet hit the pavement after the bell rings.

You might remember the school day continues with rules and expectations, with friendly banter, with questions and answers, reciting and reading out loud. There is a rhythm to all of these interactions and when individuals begin to engage in this rhythm they seem to connect or as Maier identified, “… they seem to experience momentary bonding and a sense of unity” (Maier, 1987, p. 7). When we act in rhythm with others, we experience greater connection. We connect not only to the other people, we connect to the place, the situation and experience a greater sense of belonging.

But the school day rhythm isn’t always easy to connect to. Some students do not naturally thrive in this environment. Many students who require the support of a CYCP do not fit well into the existing institutional rhythm and so we must support the connection and help to create rhythmicity for all students. School Based CYCPs provide opportunities for students to create rhythms and routines in the school life and this is important because as Emond, et. al. (2016), point out, “…to have a healing impact, rhythms should not be set in stone or dictated.” (p. 90). Children and youth need to have a hand in creating the rhythm and the rhythmic experiences that children create for themselves can help them to manage and cope during stressful moments. (Maier, 1987).

CYCPs bring rhythmicity to our conversations, our activities, our hanging out and being with young people. In the schools, we may co-create a special hand shake to start the day, we may co-develop a script of funny questions and answers that instantly engages us and our students in dialogue or cues a particular part of the day to begin, and we may walk along with students who need to take a break . As we engage in these moments, we establish rhythmicity – in the parallel and responsive movements of the handshake, the back and forth rapport of the script delivery, and in our in-sync steps as we walk together to take five. We may help to support routines using songs or rhymes to connect individual students to group expectations. Students often respond to opportunities to engage in dance routines, cheering, and poetry slams. We may encourage participation on teams or in clubs that help students to engage in activities with other students that are connecting through rhythmicity such as basketball or music.

Rhythmicity is a way to enhance connections and create a sense of unity. It supports us as we build our relationships with students and we help to facilitate the relationships of our young people with others.

Relationships in school-based practice

“In short, the relationship IS the intervention.” (Stuart, 2009, p. 222)

Relationships can be understood in all sorts of ways. We have relationships with all the people we have met, be them distant, loving, caring, friendly, intimate, abusive, collegial, professional etc. We define our relationships in an effort to identify the appropriate behaviour within that connection. As relational practitioners we understand the need and the value of being in relationship with young people. For optimal results, we strive for relationships that are co-created, reciprocal, and genuine. “In the absence of relationship, the child and youth care worker’s ability to affect a youth’s values, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours is seen as extremely limited.” (Garfat 1998, p. 132)

Within the institutions and systems in which we work as CYCPs, we have roles and expectations, rules and regulations, and policies and procedures. The school system is no exception. School based CYCPs must meet the expectations and work within the guidelines set out by the employer. “There are many barriers and so much structure in the system itself that it is difficult to create moments for support, relationship building and to express caring” (Gaitens, 2018, p. 62). One of the expectations of school based CYCPs from the very beginning has been to manage behaviour. Managing behaviour is very difficult without a relationship. “Relationship, accompanied by clear explanations, is fundamental to exerting moderate control over children’s behaviour and helping them experience success” (Stuart, 2009, p.241). To meet employment expectations, we must engage in relationships with students. However, our roles at times feel quite conflicted as there may be an implied expectation around behaviour control.

 “As adults, our normal interactions with children often take on a variety of purposes rooted in the role that we have (or think we have) in relation to them. Adults can feel pressure to instruct, correct, teach or guide a child’s thoughts, actions and beliefs. However, what we know from research is that for this to work, children need to trust us and to feel safe enough to be in a position to learn.” (Emond, et. al., 2016, p. 158)

CYCPs require a connection with the young people they support in order to provide genuine opportunities for growth and development. Stuart notes that, “Genuine relationships based on empathy and positive regard for children, youth and families are critical for optimal development” (Stuart, 2009, p. 130). We work to be “in relationship” with young people and their families (Garfat & Fulcher, 2011). We engage and bring our genuine self with a goal of mutuality and reciprocity. Relationships in school based CYC practice can be complicated. We recognize the young persons need for acceptance and the challenges the student may be facing. The relationships that we engage in with young people can be the vehicle that creates and supports the connection between the young person and the school community. Through our belonging in the school and our relationships with others, we work to build connections between students and each other, the family, and the whole school community. In his description of the ecological theory, Bronfenbrenner (1979) stated that the “mesosystem comprises the interrelations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates” (p. 25). The settings where the individual participates make up the microsystems (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and school based CYCPs work within the microsystem and the mesosystem. We can only attempt to foster connections between a student and others, or between microsystems, in this case the student/family system with the school system, when we have established a relationship with the student ourselves.

School based CYCPs engage in relationship-building activities. They play games with students, they follow the student’s lead, they share something of themselves that is of interest to the student and they listen, hang out and acknowledge strengths and the young person as an individual. They recognize the importance of this life space as a place for social activity, a place to feel a sense of belonging, and a place to be cared for (Gaitens, 2018). School based CYCPs advocate for the students they support to ensure that their strengths are recognized and supports are offered to meet the needs of individual challenges. Krueger (2004), described the goal of relational work as creating together “as many moments of connection, discovery and empowerment for ourselves with each other.” CYCPs create a place where students feel that they belong by being that one person who welcomes the student back to school every day.

Before we can begin to establish caring routines and rituals with students, we must get to know our students, to find out what they like, to identify their strengths and to prepare to support their growth. The beginnings of relationships must “be on the child’s terms as much as possible” (Emond, et. al., 2016, p. 94). We spend time doing things with students that they like to do, in spaces that help them to feel comfortable.

Rituals in School based practice

“Rituals in many ways constitute an institutionalized form of rhythmicity.” (Maier, 1987, p 47-48).

When you stop and think about it, there are many examples of rituals in our lives. We engage in rituals around grieving, rituals to celebrate birth, holidays and our (religious) beliefs. You may also have rituals around your day to day activities such as how you engage in exercise, what you do to recharge, or how you engage in self-care. “Rituals, more likely than not, arise out of some spontaneously repeated practice.” (Maier, 1987, p. 47). We have rituals of encounter such as verbal greetings or handshakes. Rituals of encounter are said to “strengthen purposeful communication” (Garfat & Fulcher, 2011).

In our schools we have rituals that include graduation ceremonies, picture day, singing the national anthem. Rituals are behaviours that we tend to do regularly. CYCPs in schools may be effective in helping to establish rituals, including rituals of encounter, when we focus on student strengths and needs rather than controls. “Rituals have to emerge on their own and require the workers’ full support as important events in their children’s lives…” (Maier, 1987, p. 47). This may include greetings, check ins, circles, breaking bread, and play. We may establish rituals of recognition for strengths and successes. Through rituals our young people may feel supported to manage transitions or cope with overwhelming feelings. The creation of these rituals should be based in rhythmicity and the values of the individuals.

As we continue to create rhythmicity, our co-created handshakes, our co-developed dialogues and our walks to take five may be enhanced with rituals by our young people. That walk to take five might begin to start with a skip or always end with race to the door. When we respect and honour children and youth by following their lead and supporting the development of these rituals, we allow for meaningful connections to grow. These rituals enhance our relationships and continue to connect us to the school, the community and each other.

Just as rhythmicity does, rituals help to create connections. Garfat, Freeman, Gharabaghi & Fulcher (2018) remind us that rituals develop through cultural practices and help to frame our “shared experiences” (p. 33). They can bring us together in everyday events, in celebrations and in challenging times. “They culturally confirm a repeated and valued practice, which brings the participants an experience of togetherness” (Maier, 1987, p. 8). The key is to let rituals in the classroom or school yard develop based on student strengths, interests and activities.

Routines in school-based practice

Henry Maier (1987) likens routines to fulfilling the “necessities of daily living”. (p. 77)

We tend to engage in routines deliberately on a daily basis. They represent structure and are usually steps that we follow to perform a task. We probably have many routines that we engage in at home so that we can get things done. You might have a routine for cleaning up after dinner, for getting ready for work or for making sure you get that time at the end of the day to read a book.

Emond et. al., (2016) recognize that rhythmicity and routines can be significant in establishing a sense of safety and security that is “crucial to healthy development across all the domains” (p. 87). The authors also note that we may actually “crave” routines because, “we are rhythmic creatures …” and “routines appear to be one of the ways we establish predictability…” (p. 88). Routines are therefore not just about getting things done, they also provide us with a sense of safety because we know what to do and what will happen next.

“The school environment is one of structure, routines and rules” (Gaitens, 2018, p. 63)). Some school routines are challenging for our students and we work to create new ones that will support the structure of the class and the rhythm of the school while supporting individual and different developmental needs.

CYCPs create and facilitate routines in the school day to support students to feel secure and to help them to anticipate what is coming next. Emond, et al. (2016) suggest that “routines can provide children who feel jumbled up and scared on the inside with important anchor points”, and that these predictable moments and expectations can be “reassuring and comforting” for the young people and adults (p. 89). Redl and Wineman (1952) described routines as increasing security and suggested that they may be experienced by young people as relaxing and soothing. “Establishing structure, routine, and expectations with youth assists them to develop a sense of order and predictability in the world as well as a sense of trust in the reliability of others” (Anglin, 2002, p. 128).

Some routines that are already established in the school day support the structure of the day and help with efficiency. Less time has to be given to providing instruction for these tasks and so there is more time that can be devoted for other experiences. Maier (1987) listed chores such as washing dishes and emptying the garbage as routines in group care. In the school, we have routines that help with things like lining up, handwashing, cleaning up after lunch and going to the bathroom. These routines can also support different development needs as they provide predictability and expectation norms. The repetition allows all students a better opportunity to meet expectations at different rates. This repetition can also provide opportunities for success that we need to acknowledge and build on.

Routines can be fun and can build on success. “Routines also provide children with a sense of the collective and the shared” (Emond et. al., 2016, p. 89). Routines can add to the sense of connection particularly if we encourage students to help to develop them and if we include rhythmicity. We can involve music and games like follow the leader when we are working to complete a tidying or cleaning up routine. We can use funny walks when we move around the school. With older students we can choose a song to listen to or sing together.

Some of our students have trouble with established routines and so one of the tasks of CYCPs is to help to find the way to adapt routines so that students can be successful and benefit from the feelings of belonging and completing tasks of daily living. We can create new routines that meet the needs of the whole class in order to include the few. We can also adapt routines so that they are ‘updated’ and fresh. A lunch time routine that required that all students sit at their desks could be adapted to have students move to sit with friends. A routine that required students to stand in line for a significant length of time could be reduced by involving smaller groups of students.

Routines seem to develop out of need. They help with efficiency and learning. At the same time the predictable nature of routines helps to build feelings of competence and security in the school environment. When students feel secure, they are more able to learn and connect with others. Routines support us through daily life activities and expectations and provide us with opportunities to be successful and included in the classroom. They create order and help us to relax.

The Interconnection of the Four “R”s

Consider a group of grade three students skipping rope. This group of students has been skipping rope together for some time. When it is time for recess, they put on their shoes and jackets, pick up the rope and go outside where they meet as a group. They determine who will be first to turn the rope and then the others get in line. As children turn the rope, everyone sings or chants a jingle or song that they skip to. They take turns skipping and turning the rope. When recess is over, the rope is gathered together and the students go back into the school.

There is rhythmicity in the steps to the playground, the turning of the rope, the skipping, and the singing. The is relationship as the children engage in activity together, turning the rope for each other, singing together. There is ritual in the way they gather together before they start to skip, in the song they choose to sing first and the way they pack up the rope when they are done. There are routines in the way they put on their shoes, leave the school, get in line and take their turns to skip. Some students may need help to be a part of this fun and a CYC who can identify what is going on and how to support the strengths and developmental needs of the students is likely to be successful in supporting the students to all continue together.

If the work of a school based CYCP is to support students in social emotional growth and development, support the development of socially acceptable behaviour and enhance a student’s ability to access the curriculum we must engage in the methods that we know will support these outcomes. We must continue to view our children with developmental and strength-based lenses to ensure we see the individual and respond and provide opportunities for growth, inclusion and success that are best suited.  Rhythmicity helps to build relationships and connections. Relationships support belonging and wellbeing. Rituals develop spontaneously and support connections. Routines create predictability and safety. It is difficult to explore one of the “R”s without exploring the others because they work together and are interconnected. When we engage in practices that include the four “R”s of school based child and youth care, we help to create an environment that supports connection, growth, and development and helps students to feel a sense of belonging.


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From: Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 33/2, pp6-19