Reflective Review of Youth Work Practice

My decision to study E131 Introduction to Working with Young people was based on my desire to cement my experiential learning by developing my knowledge of theoretical concepts through academic study. I have worked with young people for seven years, and the majority of my training thus far has been practice based. My current role is as a group worker in a therapeutic community for children and young people. The therapeutic community is a residential provision with a specialist education and therapy centre for children and young people with attachment disruption and trauma leading to social and behavioural difficulties.

We also work with children displaying sexualised and self-harming behaviours. The therapeutic milieu which exists within the community is underpinned by an attachment focussed approach and provides stability for chaotic behaviour and a disregulated emotional state. The therapeutic provision is underpinned by an integrated team approach which includes Child Psychotherapy, Clinical and Forensic Psychology, Educational Psychology, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Social Work and Counselling.

Prior to beginning Open University’s E131 Introduction to Working with Young People, and due to the highly specialised nature of the work I do, I held the belief that I had little to learn relating to youth work. The most significant, and surprising, realisation I experienced whist working through the module was that I will never and can never know everything there is to know about youth work. In fact, the very nature of my role within the Therapeutic Community may have narrowed my view of young people to only the most damaged individuals, which in turn has narrowed my outlook on the issues that young people are faced with today.

A young person commented ‘…you can’t talk about “understanding young people” – all young people are different, so you would have to know different things to understand them all’ (The Open University, 2005, Study Topic 3, pg 5). This statement impacted me in a way that I didn’t expect. Not only in my working life, but also in my view of young people in general. When working with the most damaged children in society the danger is that all young people become viewed as potentially violent, harmful and not to be trusted.

This view is contradictory to the very nature of youth work as set out in the National Youth agency’s Ethical Principles, which states ‘youth workers have a commitment to treat young people with respect, valuing each individual and avoiding negative discrimination’ (Harrison and Wise, 2005, pg 20). Although I do not feel my practice is discriminatory, my somewhat insular views on young people, and preoccupation with high risk behaviour in my working life, may have negatively influenced my ability to ‘value the individual’.

This is an area that, due to my learning throughout the module, I have made a concerted effort to address. I have renewed my efforts to look past the negative behaviour and the diagnoses to view the young people I work with as individuals who are not defined by their circumstances. This has had a positive impact on my working practice as I continue to reflect on ways in which I can be more open to the individual needs of the young people with whom I work. The learning throughout the module has also given me the opportunity to come to terms with and challenge another view I was unaware I held.

I had given little consideration to the view I held on youth work in general other than my belief that the work I do is not technically ‘youth work’ but rather more specialised and important. This is a view I now consider to be arrogant and unhelpful. Howard Williamson states that the ‘public perception of youth work is still largely locked into ideas about youth clubs and table tennis and pool’ (Williamson, 2005, pg 70), and prior to beginning this module I must admit that I held a similar misconception.

However, Williamson’s account of his own experiences of youth work and the positive impact it has on the lives of young people has altered my perception. Although this has not directly impacted on my working practice, it has enabled me to view my role as a group and individual worker within the wider context of youth work, and realise the importance of broadening the experiences of the young people with whom I work, through valuing the opportunities on offer within the wider community.

The shift in my view of youth work has also enabled me to consider the challenges that exist in my own work setting. One of the fundamental principles of youth work is the ‘voluntary principal’ (Jeffs, cited in The Open University, 2005, Study Topic 12, pg 5). This is described as ‘the kind of work where young people can choose not to take part…’ (The Open University, 2005, Study Topic 1, pg 5). Within the setting of a therapeutic community, and specifically within the context of my role as group worker, I find it difficult to describe the opportunities on offer for the young people as voluntary.

For example, the therapeutic, social and educational workshop programme, which young people who are resident in the therapeutic community have access to during the school holidays, is considered to be voluntary, although it is incentivised through access to days out and rewards for attendance. However, some of the young people resident within the community may consider that their placements are not voluntary, making it difficult to consider any of the interventions on offer as such.

Although I accept that youth work in its truest form should be voluntary, it has been difficult for me to accept that the work that takes place with the young people within the Therapeutic Community is any less valuable. The young people with whom I work are the most damaged in the country and would not be able to access the type of support they need without what Mark Smith calls coercive forms of participation (Smith, cited in The Open University, 2005, Study Topic 2, pg 31). Should we let them choose to avoid forming relationships and realising their potential forever simply to retain a puritanical view of what youth work is supposed to be?

Or should we, as adults, do everything in our power to prevent these young people, who society has already failed, become casualties of that failure? Mark Smith also introduced the idea that targeting ‘at risk’ young people for focussed work as a negative progression in terms of youth work in its purest form. Smith feels that ‘the identification of specific target groups has the potential to lead to a narrowing of the diversity of young people worked with’ (2003, cited in The Open University, 2005, Study Topic 2, pg 30).

Although I agree with Smiths statement, I am also aware of the funding limitations which exist, and am a strong believer that the most vulnerable or ‘at risk’ young people in society are a priority in terms of accessing the support they need. Despite my desire to defend the work I do, and its less than voluntary nature, my practice has been positively impacted by reflecting on the reason why the ‘voluntary principal’ is so highly regarded in relation to youth work.

Within the process of planning the therapeutic, social and education groups within our group work programme, I have realised the important of extensive consultation with the young people to ensure the topics covered are relevant to them; something they are interested in and value, rather than what I feel they need or want. In this regard, I have been able to ensure that group participation is due to values that are closer to the concept outlined by the ‘voluntary principal’ than the idea of coercive participation.

The impact of my shift in perspective on the young people within the therapeutic community is yet to be evidenced, but the planning process for the groups has been much more focussed. Bruce Tuckman (cited in the Open University, 2005, Study Topic 6) has identified the five stages in a group’s life, his concept names the stages as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Morning. As a group worker this concept underpins my practice in that my observations of the group and its progress are linked to identifying the stage in which the group is functioning and adapting my role as facilitator accordingly.

Due to the chaotic nature of the client group within the therapeutic community the group regularly revisits the Storming stage of group development. In Study Topic 6, (The Open University, 2005, pg 27) this stage has been identified as a time when ‘there may be overt or covert antagonism towards the group worker’. When reflecting on my role as group facilitator, the reaffirmation of the pressures placed on me during this stage has been helpful. I have been reminded about the importance of regular reflection in relation to the emotive aspect of group work in order to ensure the experience is safe and effective for the young people involved.

In addition, the reflections of Guy Butler-Madden a Youth Support Worker at Lowbridge Youth Centre (Audio theme 6), in relation to the ‘storming’ stage of the DofE groups, impacted my learning through developing a shared understanding of some of the more challenging aspects of group work with others who work in a similar field. The final area of the module which has impacted on my learning is the importance of reflection. Study Topic 10 introduced the work of Donald Schon (1996) who advocated the ‘reflective practitioner approach to professional decision making’ (cited in the Open University, 2005, Study Topic 10, pg 6).

Schon emphasises the importance of reflection for professional development and problem solving, rather than relying on ‘off the peg solutions’. This concept has significantly impacted my approach to the work I do, in as much as I have introduced a weekly reflective space with my colleagues in order to consider decision making and problem solving in a formal setting. The act of practicing the art of reflection in a formal setting should impact my learning in that reflection will become second nature, thus improving my practice.

In conclusion, the most significant impact my learning from the module has had on what I have already learned in my work with young people, has been identifying and challenging some of my preconceptions. In particular I feel that studying E131 has helped me gain a better understanding youth work in its purest form, its purpose and its values; and has allowed me to view youth work as a valuable tool in aiding young people through their transition into adulthood. My understanding of group process has been cemented and I have developed an insight into the challenges faced by other organisations in relation to group dynamics.

Finally, I have learned the value of effective reflection, and how professional development through using my knowledge as a fluid tool to enable effective decision making, rather than having a ridged view of the way an issue should be approached, can lead to more positive outcomes. All of these areas have impacted on what I have already learned from working with young people by allowing me to view my role within the wider context of youth work. My outlook has shifted insomuch as I now feel part of a wider agenda which seeks to enable young people to transition successfully and positively into adulthood.

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