‘Patterns of Career Development in Group Care’ by Karen Vander Ven

The Key Texts are the classics from the past, which helped to shape today’s services. Some are books, some are research reports, some are papers or chapters in books and one is a Government policy document. We have selected a score of texts, and are offering a “digested read”. They are being published at a rate of two a month. The digests cover a standard pattern, setting the context of the text, describing its contents, analysing its impact then and its relevance now, and suggesting further reading.

The digests prepared to date have been written by Robert Shaw, but if any reader wishes to contribute, please get in touch, to ensure that we have not already prepared a digest on the text in question. We are pleased to announce that the series is sponsored by the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, and we are most grateful to them for their support.

Karen D Vander Ven (1981) Patterns of Career Development in Group Care in Frank Ainsworth and Leon Fulcher (Eds) (1981) Group Care for Children: Concept and Issues Chapter 8, pages 201-224 London: Tavistock ISBN 0 422 77290 9

Karen Vander Ven is a Professor at the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh. Prior to joining the School, she had worked with children and young people in early years and mental health programmes. She was a founder member of FICE North America in the 1980s and has taken a keen interest in all aspects of the professional development of child and youth care workers. She is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the SEARCH Institute which has created a framework of Developmental assets to underpin developmental work with young people which is currently being piloted by the Langley House Trust for adults.

Key Issues

• Child care workers must pay attention to all aspects of a child’s situation and to their long term development, not just the immediate issues.

• Children and their parents should participate actively in care programmes.

• Professionals are accountable for their work.

• Professional development involves stages and transitions between those stages.

• At each stage the worker has different developmental needs.

• Professional development needs to be tailored to match these different needs.


In her “Introduction” Karen Vander Ven draws attention to ecological approaches which consider all aspects of a child’s situation and have led in residential care to the development of therapeutic milieux such as that described in The Other 23 Hours by Trieschman et al. (1969). She points out that the Head Start programmes in the USA were most successful when they targeted not just the children but other influences in the children’s situation.

Preparing people to work in residential child care requires attention to:

• the child’s emotional health, not just how to deal with emotionally damaged children but how to prevent the damage occurring in the first place and how to put in place the support to achieve that;

• creating an environment which pays attention to children’s developmental needs, not just any problems they may have;

• developing a generic perspective of children and their needs, not a narrow focus which ignores factors in children’s situations;

• clients, both parents and young people, as participants in, not passive recipients of, professional decisions;

• professional accountability for selecting the most effective ways of working with children and their parents and for evaluating the quality of their work.

In “Attributes and skills required of group care practitioners” she draws on Bronfenbrenner (1979) to set out a four-level account of practitioner development. At the first or microsystem level, the worker is involved in direct care giving, in managing the environment and in stimulating the child through a range of activities. S/he needs to be aware of her/his own professional identity and of the dynamics of teamwork. The work has a preventive dimension when it involves positive development, client participation and integrating the child’s total life experience.

At the second or mesosystem level, the worker also becomes involved in indirect work with children and work with adults through their interactions with other adults in the setting and through working through intermediaries. This needs co-ordination and communication skills plus a knowledge of organisational structure and team building as well as skills in working with parents.

At the third or exosystem level, the worker works with and within human service organisations to meet the needs of children and their families. In addition to the second level skills in organisation, co-ordination and communication, they need skills in planning and budgeting and in supporting people to encourage client participation and to demonstrate the professional standards that underpin their work.

At the fourth or macrosystem level they no longer work with children or parents as individuals or groups but within society influencing policy and attitudes to children and parents.

In “Encouraging personal and professional development”, Karen examines the sort of professional development people need to work at each of these four levels. But first she points out that a worker’s development is always influenced by their interaction with children and their parents and also that their professional development will be punctuated by transitional periods which lead to a role change.

The major issue she identifies for workers at the first level is a strong identification with childhood as a life stage; they may over-identify with children, see their supervisor or manager as a ‘bad parent’ and form collusive relationships with other staff against the agency, especially if they are treated by the agency as low status people. Agencies can reinforce this identification by lack of encouragement to develop.

Microsystem workers often have a ‘rescue fantasy’ – only they can save the child – or an ‘unproductive humility’ which may lead them to reject opportunities for development. They tend to have affective relationships and therefore to reject theory and research and they often espouse a single approach, seeing other ways of caring as negative, because they tend not to be able to see things from another perspective.

They tend to be ‘accommodators’ (Kolb, 1976) who solve problems intuitively rather than analytically and to be ‘field-dependent’ (Witkin et al., 1977) but that can make them sensitive learners.

Mesosystem workers have a broadening perspective and identify with adulthood as a life stage; they can see the position of both child and adult and so are less likely to collude. They can also identify with parents and take on ‘parenting’ roles like supervisor or manager.

Any ‘rescue fantasy’ may be extended to parents but they have less ‘unproductive humility’ and are more likely to engage in instrumental relationships with a focus on getting things done as their orientation shifts from affective to cognitive relationships. They are more receptive to theory and research and to different ideas.

Exosystem workers often have a concern for the next generation and a new identification with the system and focus on the organisational context within which they work. If they have a ‘rescue fantasy’, it will be related to the system.

Getting things done becomes important for them and their concern for synergistic thinking is expressed in becoming an ‘assimilator’ (Kolb, 1976).

Macrosystem workers, of whom there are not many, tend to focus on issues of entitlement and to identify with the human system as a whole within which they want to get things done.

In “Summary and conclusion” Karen Vander Ven stresses that this view of professional development entails ongoing provision of personal and professional development if the profession is to be developed.


Vander Ven is closer in her thinking to the continental European model of éducation than most of her North American and British contemporaries but she also incorporates ideas from the emerging discipline sometimes known as ‘systems thinking’ and sometimes as ‘complexity’ in the UK. Her interest in adult developmental stages was paralleled in the UK by Jaques (1989) whose ideas were picked up by Hey (1991) in her work on post-qualifying qualifications for CCETSW.

In fact, the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ work with children had been identified a decade earlier by Kahan and Banner (1972) and was developed in the next chapter in the same volume by Ainsworth (1981) . But, in taking these ideas further and linking them to wider issues, she was breaking new ground.

Her ideas have considerable explanatory as well as predictive power. For example, one reason why people who are good practitioners do not always make good team leaders or managers is that they are still at the microsystem level and therefore cannot take on the ‘adult’ relationships that are needed by people who are in posts where a mesosystem or exosystem level of understanding is required.

In working with adults, whether in higher education or in practice, understanding the level at which they are operating enables you to plan their development accordingly. That may involve consolidating their skills at mesosystem level or preparing them for a transition to the exosystem level or, occasionally, macrosystem level.

The paper suffers from the weakness that it was produced just before our understanding of how gender affects development was broadened (Gilligan, 1982; Gilligan et al., 1988) and before Porter (1985) had shown that people working at the exosystem level need to pay attention to relationships rather than to being instrumental. However, Gilligan’s argument that development proceeds by stages between which there are transitions supports Vander Ven’s general thesis and Porter’s argument that relationships are the key is in line with the analysis by Winnicott and Britton (1957) of how staff can best be supported to meet children’s needs.


Ainsworth F (1981) The training of personnel for group care with children In Ainsworth F and Fulcher L (Eds) Group care for children: concept and issues chapter 9 pages 225-244 London: Tavistock

Bronfenbrenner U (1979) The ecology of human development Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Gilligan C (1982) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press

Gilligan C, Ward J V and Taylor J M (Eds) (1988) Mapping the moral domain: a contribution of women’s thinking to psychological theory and education London: Harvard University Press

Hey A M (1991) Post-qualifying education and training: towards a methods exemplar London: Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work

Jaques E (1989) Human capability and its measurement Lecture given at the Tavistock Clinic 5 June 1989 cited in Anthea M Hey (1991) Post-qualifying education and training: towards a methods exemplar London: Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work

Kahan B and Banner G (Eds) (1972) Residential task in child care: the Castle Priory Report 2nd Ed. Banstead: Residential Care Association

Kolb D A (1976) Learning style inventory: technical manual Boston MA: McBer & Co

Porter M E (1985) Competitive advantage: creating and sustaining superior performance New York: Free Press

Trieschman A, Whittaker J and Brendtro L (1969) The other 23 hours: child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu Chicago: Aldine

Winnicott D W and Britton C (1957) Residential management as treatment for difficult children In Winnicott D W (Ed.) The child and the outside world: studies in developing relationships chapter II:6 pages 98-116 London: Tavistock

Witkin H A, Moore C A, Goodenough D R and Cox P W (1977) Field dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications Review of Educational Research 47(1):1-64

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