Learning and Developing

The most effective way of learning involves modelling accompanied by a verbal narrative and demonstration of the favourable consequences of behaving in this way (Argyle, 1994). For centuries this was how everyone learned, whether directly from one’s parents or by becoming apprenticed to a master who demonstrated in his day-to-day work the skills that the apprentice needed to learn to become a master.

The weakness of this arrangement was that not all teachers offered good models and the 1815 Apothecaries Act allowed the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to regulate the profession by means of examinations as well as a period of practice. Gradually all the professions adopted the examination route with varying periods of compulsory practice.

However, the weakness of this route is that relatively little practice is undertaken during training and, having imbibed the theory, most professionals learn the skills of the profession on the job, normally without a ‘master’ to guide them – a recipe for mediocre practice.


Learning often takes place when we encounter a situation which we have not encountered before and have to both think about it in a new way and find new skills to deal with it. Schön (1983) argues that people typically do this is a cyclic fashion (figure 1) as a result of which they increase both their ‘knowing what’ (theory) and their ‘knowing how’ (practice).

However, Honey and Mumford (1992) argue that people’s learning styles vary considerably on four dimensions: activism, pragmatism, reflection and theory. Though people’s learning styles involve elements of all four dimensions,

  • activists (that is, those who score highly on the activism dimension) are more motivated to learn by doing,
  • pragmatists if they see the point of the learning,
  • reflectors if they can look back on something they have done and
  • theorists if they have a context within which they can understand their practice.

To add to the complexity of teaching, Mann and Arnold (1970) argue that different students need different things from their teachers and Lowman (1984) that different styles of teaching benefit different students. How can we create a framework within which professional development is facilitated from first entry into child care to experienced professional?

Figure 1: The Reflective Cycle

Figure 1 (Right): The reflective cycle

The most important thing is to start where people are, both in their own lives and in their own jobs. A 16-year-old embarking on a City and Guilds course is more likely to be motivated to understand the needs of adolescents in care; a mature student, particularly one who is already a parent, is more likely to be motivated to understand the needs of parents whose children are in care and how ‘non-parents’ can offer parenting to children and young people in care. Anyone working in a setting with adolescents needs to start with the developmental needs of adolescents, including their relationships with their parents.

So, it does not matter whether the child care worker is entering the profession through an academic course at a further or higher education institution, through voluntary work or through direct employment in a child care setting, the initial development that they receive needs to focus on those aspects of child care which most reflect their current experiences.

However, once the child care worker has learned to examine their immediate context, both personal and professional, they also need to look more widely, because many problems in adolescence originate in the primary school years (Rutter, 1978) and unhappy parents are likely to create antisocial children (Rutter, 1971). Not all child care workers will find this easy; those at the start of their adult lives who are motivated by face-to-face relationships often have difficulties understanding the roles that others play in children’s lives and may need help to understand the impact that their relationships with other individuals or groups involved in the care of the children can have on the children (Vander Ven, 2006).

Anyone who tries to extend child care workers’ understanding, whether in educational or practice contexts, needs to have had enough experience to talk knowledgeably about the reality of child care. A child care student placed in a primary school came back exclaiming, “They are all attention-seeking”. Being attention-seeking may not be a sign that anything is wrong with the child; it may be normal behaviour for children of that age. Similarly, normal adolescents will oscillate wildly between dependence and independence as they seek to find their own ways forward; expecting a particular level of ‘dependence’ or ‘independence’ from adolescents is hopelessly unrealistic.

Argyle (1994) argues that people should have access to more than one model; this can be provided in an educational context by having several placements during which students can experience different models of practice and of supervision, and forty years ago it was not uncommon for new residential child care staff to move around several different units as accommodation came with the job. Today staff are mostly non-resident and at best have the opportunity of moving to a different unit in the same area. So having different placements during training to provide access to various models of practice is probably more important now than it was forty years ago.

Creating a Learning Environment

A learning environment needs to offer:

  • access to good models
  • formal and informal opportunities to discuss experiences and develop learning
  • opportunities to record and read about others’ experiences.

Good Models

A good model must have the experience on which to draw. I once went on a course where there was a famous professor, but the person who taught me most was the lecturer who had done the job and could share a wide range of tips on how to deal with things in practice. They must have a real interest in the student; the most potent motivations for people are the intangible signs of approval from those they admire. If students feel that they are appreciated by people they admire, they are also more likely to accept suggestions or criticism aimed at improving their performance.

The model can use their experience to put the student’s current experience into context. The deputy in a home where I once worked had worked as a residential worker, then as a fieldworker and then as a manager; when she was on call, she would routinely come in to speak to the staff at the end of the evening shift. She would discuss anything the staff wanted to discuss, often sharing her experience as a residential worker, fieldworker or manager to explain why certain things might have happened. She spent an evening with one particular boy whose behaviour staff found difficult and said at the end, “He completely drains you”. We came to understand his behaviour through a recently published paper by Barbara Dockar-Drysdale (1970).

Opportunities to Discuss Experiences

The deputy could take this relaxed approach to discussing children’s needs at the end of the shift because staff spent Monday mornings discussing individual children and Monday afternoons discussing the running of the home while the weekday morning coffee breaks routinely turned into an informal discussion of issues staff had encountered. So the deputy was working in an environment where talking about the children and their needs was a normal part of the work of the staff, not something reserved for when the children were difficult, the occasional staff meeting or a training event. Staff were encouraged to share their experiences of other homes in which they had worked and to bring ideas from those home into their discussions.

In other words, the home offered models of practice on which the staff could model themselves, narratives to accompany what was going on and the evidence in the responses of the children that these ways of dealing with children would be successful. It showed how ‘knowing what’ (theory) and ‘knowing how’ (practice) could be integrated into the day-to-day work of staff and, because there were so many different contexts in which staff could discuss children, informal as well as formal, it created the conditions in which staff with different learning styles could find a way of learning within the home.

Recording and Reading

Staff were also expected to keep a ‘day book’ in which they recorded what had gone on during the shift; this was used not just to let the next shift know what had gone on but to track patterns –  Sunday was always the most difficult evening shift because so many children had been home for the weekend or Sunday – and to understand the dynamics of a shift. For example, one unit was overcrowded for a while so as to avoid splitting a large family; when numbers dropped back down, the children suddenly became more demanding because they had been holding things back when they saw the pressure the staff were under. This, and another incident when a member of staff overslept but the children got up, did their chores and made their beds because they did not want the staff member to get into trouble, were vivid examples of the sensitivity of the children to the staff – a sensitivity which often goes unrecognised but was recorded because it all went into the day book.

Recording plays a very important part in enabling people to learn. Our memories can be fickle; things can become elided or mixed up. Recording our experiences at the time enables us to check what exactly happened when we come to write a report three or six months later. Reading what we wrote about our own experiences gives us a way of understanding what other people have written and how far their experiences illuminate ours. For example, I did not read Wolins’s paper Some theoretical observations on group care (1973) until after I had had to understand the behaviour of some young people, but recording what had happened meant that what Wolins was saying fell into place immediately when I did read the paper, just as the paper by Dockar-Drysdale (1970) had enabled staff to understand one boy’s difficult behaviour.

Records can also be a way of teaching. At the very first home where I worked the local authority had a policy of keeping comprehensive records of a child’s upbringing, complete with photographs from previous placements. Just reading everything that had happened to a child since his first admission as an infant gave a real insight into how children’s problems could be dealt with, both successfully and unsuccessfully.

Having at one’s finger tips accounts of the experiences of many different children is essential to help child care workers to relate their experiences to those of others. Even the most experienced residential worker/tutors will only have worked in a limited number of establishments. They need to be able to draw on the experiences of other residential workers to enable child care workers to understand their experiences, just as the very experienced ex-residential worker/field worker/manager deputy had to do when she came across a type of difficult behaviour she had not encountered before.

In spite of his experience David Wills (1970) made quite a mess of the group meetings in the hostel he ran. He wasn’t able to draw on the experiences of Critchley and Fann (1971a, b) to develop really constructive meetings in spite of his belief that this was the way forward. I struggled to understand where my supervision practice fitted in until I read Brack and Grauwiler (1993), even though many of those who experienced it were complimentary about it.

So, though models of good practice are the key to quality practice (King et al., 1971), none will have met every possible situation. Child care workers need to be aware of and have access to as wide a range of books and articles as possible to be able to respond as sensitively and constructively to whatever behaviour they encounter. Some will prefer to devour these before they become involved in the sort of practice where they might face these situations; others will prefer to wait for the situations and then read what others have done. Either way, they need to be aware that the books and articles exist to help them, and sometimes their models, to manage a wide range of situations more successfully.


Argyle, M (1994) The psychology of interpersonal behaviour (Fifth ed.) London: Penguin

Brack, A and Grauwiler, A Konzept zur Supervision/Praxisberatung Zürich: Amt für Kinder- und Jugendeinrichtungen

Critchley, A and Fann, B (1971a, May) Group work with adolescent girls Child in Care 11 (5), 17-23

Critchley, A and Fann, B (1971b, June) Group work with adolescent girls Child in Care 11 (6), 11-14

Dockar-Drysdale, B E (1970) Meeting children’s emotional needs in residential work Child in Care 10 (9), 21-33

Honey, P and Mumford, A (1992) The manual of learning styles (Third ed.) Maidenhead: Peter Honey

King, R D, Raynes, N V and Tizard, J (1971) Patterns of residential care: sociological studies in institutions for handicapped children London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Lowman, J (1984) Mastering the techniques of teaching London: Jossey Bass

Mann, R D and Arnold,  S M (1970) The college classroom: conflict, change and learning New York: Wiley

Rutter, M (1971) Parent-child separation: psychological effects on the children Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 12 (4), 233-260

Rutter, M (1978) Early sources of security and competence In J S Bruner and A Garton (Eds) Human Growth and Development, Chapter 2, pp. 33-61 Oxford: Clarendon Press Wolfson College Lectures 1976

Schön, D A (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action London: Temple Smith

Vander Ven, K D (2006) Patterns of career development in child and youth care In L C Fulcher and F Ainsworth (Eds) Group care practice with children and young people revisited Chapter 10, pp. 231-257 New York; London: Haworth

Wills, W D (1970) A place like home: a hostel for disturbed adolescents London: Allen & Unwin

Wolins, M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care In D M Pappenfort, D M Kilpatrick and R W Roberts (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine Reprinted in M. Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chapter 1, pp. 7-35 Chicago: Aldine

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