As youth work practitioners, most of us have long believed that effective programs depend in large measure on the availability of competent, caring staff. This belief is now supported by a solid body of multidisciplinary research that is synthesized in an eloquent new book, Bringing Yourself to Work: A Guide to Successful Staff Development in After School Programs.
Authors Michelle Seligson and Patricia Stahl pull together three key areas of current research – emotional intelligence, relational theory and group relations – to demonstrate the importance of adults’ attitudes and skills as key “inputs” in promoting young people’s learning and development. This extends beyond after-school programs to all out-of-school time and youth development efforts, as well as to what occurs during the regular school day.
Seligson and Stahl combine their research-based case for the importance of skilled staff with a clear prescription for ways to develop staff competencies. They argue that emotional intelligence – defined as a set of traits that help people recognize and understand their own and others’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors – and group relations skills can be learned. Then they offer a systematic approach for developing these skills within our after-school and youth work labor force through individual and collective action.
Their model features four components: becoming more self-aware, building stronger relationships with others, working more effectively as a member of a group, and making change happen in your program.
The authors avoid the potential pitfalls inherent in the debate over whether after-school programs should attend primarily to academics, play, social development or promotion of life skills. Instead, they persuasively argue that, regardless of program mission or content, the programs cannot be effective without skilled, nurturing staff who can use their whole selves to develop and bring out the best in young people.
In social work school, I learned a concept called “creative use of self,” which revolved around the idea that it’s not just our technical skills but also our humanity that counts in the helping professions. Seligson and Stahl’s ideas update this concept by grounding it in new research and by offering a viable model for applying the concept to youth work.
Doesn’t this really make sense? If our overall responsibility in youth development programs is to promote young people’s growth in all of the developmental domains – cognitive, social, emotional, moral and physical – then how can we succeed other than by bringing all of those facets of ourselves to the work every single day?
Another characteristic of an effective youth development and after-school labor force – consistency – falls outside the scope of Bringing Yourself to Work, but this issue belongs in any overall discussion of the topic. Resilience theory (and common sense) tells us that young people need to experience ongoing, rather than episodic, relationships with competent, caring adults. And yet, according to research conducted by the Search Institute, fewer that 50 percent of American youth feel that they have meaningful, positive relationships with adults outside their families – relationships that the Search Institute deems to be among the most critical of “developmental assets.” After-school and youth development programs have strong potential to provide such assets, but only if we are able to address the staff consistency dilemma.
Of course, inadequate compensation is the major underlying cause of the high turnover in our field. We need nothing short of a full-fledged advocacy campaign that calls attention to the unconscionably low pay offered to many of our colleagues. Until we as a society decide that it’s important to pay our child care and youth development staff more than we pay parking lot attendants and pet care workers (I am not making this up), we will continue to experience the “revolving door” phenomenon at youth-serving agencies.
Seligson and Stahl open the last chapter of their book with a wonderful quote from the educational philosopher John Dewey: “The self is not something ready made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.” What an excellent reminder that our efforts as youth workers involve continuous development of ourselves, as well as of the young people with whom we are privileged to work!
Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.