An Education Worthy of Child and Youth Care Practice

By Kiaras Gharabaghi 

Date Posted: December 15th 2013

Dr, Kiaras Gharabaghi is Associate Professor at the School of Child and Youth Care at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

An Education Worthy of Child and Youth Care Practice

by Kiaras Gharabaghi

I have nothing but the highest regard for child and youth care practitioners and for child and youth care students. I am struck, however, that neither child and youth care practice nor child and youth care education seem particularly congruent with the excitement, the values, the commitment and the innovation that is reflected in how we talk about and write about our field. Since I am currently a part of the education of child and youth care practitioners as a Professor of Child and Youth Care at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, I have been reflecting often and with increasing annoyance about the education we offer to students (themselves usually young people) in preparation for their entry into our field.

I am conscious that the term ‘child and youth care’ may be less familiar to readers from other parts of the world. In Canada, child and youth care is both a practice and an academic discipline that unlike its close relatives, such as social work, early childhood education or even applied psychology focuses on being with young people in relational ways where they are; sometimes we use the term life space as a way of denoting our focus of being present with young people, be that in residential care facilities, in the community or at their home. In this sense, child and youth care practice might be seen as very similar to social pedagogy in central Europe or residential service work in the UK.

The annoyance part of my reflections is the result of realizing that we, meaning all of us teaching at post-secondary institutions, take great pride in what we do. We work hard to offer students interesting, stimulating and meaningful course content, and we work very hard to teach in pedagogically innovative and creative ways. In spite of our hard work, however, I observe consistently that we invoke passion and excitement about becoming a child and youth care practitioner, and about the core concepts of child and youth care practice (such as relationships, Self, working in the moment, being present, etc.) only with a small number of students, who very often present themselves with very strong personalities, full of ambition and hope, passion and commitment, or as Gerry Fewster used to say, “a wild ambition to change the world”.

The overwhelming majority of students are good students, who work hard to meet the requirements of assignments and examinations, and who typically receive good grades. They do what we ask of them, show up to classes, take notes, engage in class discussions, and complete their assignments on time. Until the very last minute of the examination in any given course, they are highly knowledgeable about the subject matter, be that child development, psychopathology, theories of change, counseling skills, case management or whatever other course they may be taking. But when they complete their education and enter the field, they quickly become absorbed by the organizational culture, and the boundaries of useful knowledge acknowledged by their employer. Sometimes organizations in the child and youth-serving fields are very good, and our students do great work that corresponds to what the organization expects. Other times, organizations may not be so good, and our students quickly adapt to mediocre work and sometimes habits that we might consider unethical, substandard or just simply bad. What I find amazing, however, is how quickly four years of education in child and youth care practice becomes reduced to a small set of organizational values and practices, good or bad. Somehow, even high-performing students cannot remember anything they learned in school a few short weeks after becoming employed in the field.,/p> ,p>For this, one cannot blame either practitioners already in the field, or the students themselves. Both receive positive feedback about what they are doing all the time: practitioners because thy keep getting paid, and students because they get good grades for their efforts while still in school. I can’t help but think that there is something missing in how we are thinking about child and youth care education. As a field, we have a deep commitment to valuing non-compliance, self respect, empowerment, self determination, personal autonomy, advocacy, anti-oppression, and so on. But it is one thing to articulate these values, quite another to teach them, and yet another to learn them and adopt them in everyday practice. I wonder, therefore, to what extent the way we have organized child and youth care education at the post-secondary level promotes or contradicts these values that we hold so dear.

I am, of course, most familiar with child and youth care education both at the college and the university level in Canada, but I have had some exposure to similar programs in other countries, notably the UK, Ireland, US, South Africa and Germany. It seems to me that virtually everywhere, these programs are organized similarly as any other academic or professional program. Students come to school, take courses, complete assignments related to the course curriculum, get grades, and eventually graduate. To be sure, in child and youth care as in most human and health services programs, students also get opportunities for learning in the field through placements and internships. What seems clear, however, is that the fundamental structure of education in child and youth care reflects the standard hierarchies of institutional learning; there is an instructor, who delivers curriculum of his or her choice, determines how students are to demonstrate mastery of that curriculum, and then evaluates whether or not they do.

Clearly, child and youth care practice incorporates knowledge about many different themes and topics; and clearly such knowledge is indeed important in order to become an effective and authentic practitioner. Child development, children’s rights, professional ethics, psychopathology, theories of change, group work, counseling skills, and so on are core knowledge areas that inform our practice. Our practice itself, however, is characterized not so much by these knowledge bits, but instead by the much more complex processes of exploring Self (and other), relationships and relational practice, the moment and becoming present, and the ever-complex life-space intervention (Garfat & Fulcher, 2011; Gharabaghi & Stuart, 2013). Yet much of the education in child and youth care ‘teaches’ the knowledge bits and asks students to figure out how these knowledge bits fit into the core characteristics of child and youth care practice. We assess students on their capacity to speak to the knowledge bits much more so than to demonstrate their everyday comfort with the characteristics of the practice.

As a consequence, I think, we instill in students a drive to ‘conform’ rather than a drive to ‘create’. Course by course, the goal of students is to grasp what is expected of them in order to get a good grade, and then to produce precisely that, whether this is in the form of a group presentation, a paper, or an examination. What students produce is usually very good and reflects high levels of motivation and often very high levels of skills. The products themselves, however, are almost always external to the student, produced to meet an a priori established set of expectations and structures. The assessment of their work reflects a performance assessment, not a learning assessment, and their graduation ultimately is the mathematical consequence of their cumulative, but separated, performance in 30 to 40 instances (or courses).

It seems to me that this is precisely what child and youth care practice is not. We don’t assess, and then either reward or punish, the performance of young people in various settings (courses) based on some mathematical formula. Relational practice is fundamentally at odds with performance-focused intervention. We value the moment and everyday life events more so than the performance of young people during specific sessions, meetings, or program routines. And we understand that it is the spaces in-between our respective Selves where coming together creates the opportunity for growth and reflection.

To this end, then, I have been wondering whether child and youth care education has at least elements of incongruence in relation to child and youth care practice. It is, for example, entirely possible and not infrequently the case that some of our best students (ie: highest grades) have very limited relationship skills, graduate with honors having done very little exploration of self, and generally excel in the context of compliance much more so than the context of risk and unpredictability. On the other hand, I have often encountered students whose grades may not be so impressive, but who demonstrate, through their relational presence with their peers, their constant reflections on Self, and their tireless efforts to be present in group work, in class discussions, and even in extra-curricular activities, that they are preparing to become child and youth care practitioners ready to challenge the world. Moreover, it is often those ‘under-performing’ students who give me confidence in the future of child and youth care practice, who I can identify as future leaders because they will live their profession every day.

I don’t have a concrete answer to what one might do in order to reflect the characteristics of child and youth care practice more explicitly in child and youth care education. I do believe, however, that this is a very good time to engage the issue of congruence in this respect. I furthermore believe that we ought to search for ways to integrate relational practice in real time into our education programs, and assess students not only on their knowledge skills, but also on their capacity to seize the moment, to engage their peers, instructors and others, and to work outside of the institutional structure that post-secondary education invariably imposes. A goal of an education worthy of child and youth care practice ought to be the promotion of self-generated knowledge, political ambition, relational capacity, and reflective non-compliance in the name of searching for better and more just form of being with others, especially young people facing multiple adversities and forms of social oppression.


Garfat, T., & Fulcher, L. (2011). Characteristics of a child and youth care approach. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 24 (1/2), 7-19.

Gharabaghi, K., & Stuart, C. (2013). Life-space intervention with children and youth. Toronto, Canada: Pearson.


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