by Ellie Garraway, chief operating officer at Youth At Risk
While change is often thought about in policy terms, or enacted through restructures and alterations to processes; we should not dismiss the importance of internal changes in creating sustainable shifts in practice.
On balance, social work is a field that has been frequently subjected to structural, policy and process change. This is not only relevant for young people and their families, but for professionals as well.
It is clear that some young people are subject to messages that affect how they view themselves. They can grow up believing they are worthless or unwanted, or simply that ‘no-one from around here ever gets anywhere in life’.
Social workers have a complex task if they are to get to the heart of these limiting narratives.
It requires them to be incredibly self aware to prevent themselves from unwittingly buying into the limitations that they are presented with.
Structure and policy change won’t provide social workers with the means to navigate the difficult conversations they have on a daily basis or the demanding decisions they have to make. But reflecting on their own limitations, and questioning the degree to which they are accepting the limitations of others, may be a more helpful mechanism in doing just that.
Case Study: Maria Mason, the Accreditation and Learning Development director at Suffolk council
Maria worked with Youth at Risk, delivering a programme for young people in care or at risk of being taken into care in Ipswich. She explains how she’s seen mind set can impact both young people and professionals: how it can both limit and liberate.
“There was a young man who was experiencing really, really high anxiety levels. He couldn’t cope with being around people at all. We were engaging with professionals about young people they could refer on to an intensive personal development programme we were offering in partnership with Youth at Risk. When I spoke to them and said, ‘What about him?’ They said, ‘No, he couldn’t cope’. I pushed them and asked, ‘Why don’t we offer him the opportunity and let him make the decision?’
“We fought for him.
“The young man attended an enrolment for the Youth at Risk programme and signed up. He came to the intensive workshop. Although he was reluctant, he stood up and participated as the four days went on.
“Since then he has turned up to every [monthly] follow-p session. He is now taking a key role in a film project as part of the follow-through programme. Last week he was out on the streets of Ipswich with a film crew interviewing people about their perceptions of young people.
“He’s also been on the other side of the camera giving his opinions. He still has times when he feels anxious, but what he now has is the ability to step out of that and move past it, to do what he wants to do anyway. The key factor is that his support professionals would have chosen not to offer this to him, in order to protect him from something that they believed he couldn’t cope with.”
There are two powerful examples. Firstly, a young man changing his perceptions about what he was capable of, from a state where anxiety defined him and caused him to isolate himself, to a position where anxiety was a feeling he could move past in order to pursue a goal.
Equally, there is an example of a professionals with a well-intended, protective or ‘rescuing’ mindset that could have inhibited the opportunities for a young person unknowingly.
Examining mindset is an essential part of work for and around young people. It can make new opportunities appear possible, where previously they would have been written off. It can open the eyes of young people and professionals as to the resources they can access and the relationships they can create.
Social work is subject to many demands, structural and cultural. It is a job that many are fearful of taking on because of the intense pressure to ‘get it right’. Building self-awareness and emotional intelligence through challenging one’s own practice may sound like one more demand to contend with, but in reality it can reinvigorate and liberate excellent, intuitive work, with those that need it most.