YWN Article: Is the concept of youth work hard to grasp?

4 September 2009 — 2 Comments

ywn-logoThe following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) last month. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.

Is the concept of youth work hard to grasp?
Over the past month, I have experienced two incidents where I have had to question my role and how people perceive me as a youth worker.

First, I had a call from a parent whose son attends our youth club. They were having difficulties with him at home and wanted me to spend some time chatting with him about those problems. I assumed this meant some informal work over a period of months, however, after two group sessions the parents cancelled because his behaviour hadn’t significantly changed.

Second, I accompanied a young person to the child and adolescent mental health service for an appointment. This individual was taking their aggression out on close family and wanted to see if their medication might be changed to help them control themselves better. While the doctor did not change the medication, he suggested that as a youth worker I should be doing various “behaviour modification” activities such as anger management to help support this young person. “After all”, he commented, “that is the domain of services like youth work.”

While specific support work like anger management can be very useful, both of these scenarios have given me cause for concern. It seems there is a general perception from people outside our discipline that youth workers are there to make young people conform, behave or toe the line. Of course, this has never been the purpose of youth work.

The suggestion that I should be actively working to modify the behaviour of young people deeply worries me. Any change that occurs out of a relationship between a worker and young person is a by-product of the relationship itself, not the end result. Besides, as workers shouldn’t we be encouraging young people to test the boundaries, question the status quo and make up their own minds rather than being told what to do?

Some have used this ambiguity around our work as a chance to put a stake in the ground for traditional youth work values and practices. There have been increasing calls to defend our craft and compelling arguments have been expressed in the pages of this very magazine. Meanwhile, others have used it as justification to tighten up on an ill-defined profession and prove the value of our work through targets and outcomes. Whichever opinion you may hold on this current debate, it is clear there is considerable work to be done in helping others understand the nature of the work that we do.

Jon

Posts Twitter Facebook

I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

2 responses to YWN Article: Is the concept of youth work hard to grasp?

  1. Jon,

    as I've moved to an organisation that works in both of these extremes I've been thinking about some of these issues myself over the last year and I’ve reached the conclusion that as with most professions there are just going to be the two schools of thought; in this particular matter the division is over: relationship as tool or relationship as result.

    This is all very well as a theoretical issue but when it comes to justifying our existence to other people the second rarely holds any weight. Can you imagine putting a funding proposal together stating that we will build relationships with x number of young people for no identifiable reason? To say the least it would be met with scepticism – in extremes the police would be informed! Now say we understand this and so build in some reasons for this relationship, some outcomes, now the relationship becomes a tool to meeting those outcomes rather than being the end result.

    Therefore, for me, the argument boils down to whether youth workers are professionals who work to outcomes or they are unpaid people who like to hang out with young people (which in this day and age is rarely seen as an acceptable past time for adults).

    So for me it’s about working inside of the constraints of funding in order to further the well-being of the young people I work with. This isn’t to say that funding dictates the way that we work. For example being funded to work in an area because of high levels of youth antisocial behaviour does not mean that we become an aide to the police. Rather we work with the young people, identify their needs and work from there knowing that this will have an impact on their behaviour.

    This is not the same as making young people conform to the status quo, often involves challenging adult perceptions of young people, challenging young people’s perceptions of themselves and highlighting injustices relating to young people.

    Sorry, going a bit rant-y, I know you know all this. Going back to the two examples I don’t see the same issues as you. In the first example —without knowing any other details— it seems like the young person is probably kicking off at home due to his parent’s impatience with him. I’m not sure of context you work with him but I’d keep things going in a less set-up way, and if you still have contact with the parents continually highlight the positives from when you work with him.

    The second example perplexes me a little though. On one hand you don’t to work with the young man relating to his behaviour as this might encourage conforming to the status quo. On the other other hand you are happy to encourage him to increase medication to do the job—where the young man will be none the wiser as to why his behaviour may be distressing to others? Surely working with him addressing problematic behaviour is in the young man’s own interests in terms of his social development and well-being?

    As always you’ve given me some food for thought and I’ve written too long a comment post! I could keep going but it’s all heading even further off topic and again I should probably actually think about it and stick it in a blog post of my own!

  2. Jon,

    as I've moved to an organisation that works in both of these extremes I've been thinking about some of these issues myself over the last year and I’ve reached the conclusion that as with most professions there are just going to be the two schools of thought; in this particular matter the division is over: relationship as tool or relationship as result.

    This is all very well as a theoretical issue but when it comes to justifying our existence to other people the second rarely holds any weight. Can you imagine putting a funding proposal together stating that we will build relationships with x number of young people for no identifiable reason? To say the least it would be met with scepticism – in extremes the police would be informed! Now say we understand this and so build in some reasons for this relationship, some outcomes, now the relationship becomes a tool to meeting those outcomes rather than being the end result.

    Therefore, for me, the argument boils down to whether youth workers are professionals who work to outcomes or they are unpaid people who like to hang out with young people (which in this day and age is rarely seen as an acceptable past time for adults).

    So for me it’s about working inside of the constraints of funding in order to further the well-being of the young people I work with. This isn’t to say that funding dictates the way that we work. For example being funded to work in an area because of high levels of youth antisocial behaviour does not mean that we become an aide to the police. Rather we work with the young people, identify their needs and work from there knowing that this will have an impact on their behaviour.

    This is not the same as making young people conform to the status quo, often involves challenging adult perceptions of young people, challenging young people’s perceptions of themselves and highlighting injustices relating to young people.

    Sorry, going a bit rant-y, I know you know all this. Going back to the two examples I don’t see the same issues as you. In the first example —without knowing any other details— it seems like the young person is probably kicking off at home due to his parent’s impatience with him. I’m not sure of context you work with him but I’d keep things going in a less set-up way, and if you still have contact with the parents continually highlight the positives from when you work with him.

    The second example perplexes me a little though. On one hand you don’t to work with the young man relating to his behaviour as this might encourage conforming to the status quo. On the other other hand you are happy to encourage him to increase medication to do the job—where the young man will be none the wiser as to why his behaviour may be distressing to others? Surely working with him addressing problematic behaviour is in the young man’s own interests in terms of his social development and well-being?

    As always you’ve given me some food for thought and I’ve written too long a comment post! I could keep going but it’s all heading even further off topic and again I should probably actually think about it and stick it in a blog post of my own!

What do you think? Leave a Comment