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Dilemmas of practice: What's a youth worker to do?

By Kate Walker

Youth work practice is complex and dynamic. It is riddled with situations that are layered and involved, dealing with multiple considerations and changing circumstances. These dilemmas represent the knotty situations even experienced practitioners face every day. In these situations, there is no formula or manual that tells the youth worker what to do.

Last week, Cece wrote about how personal ethics inform decision making in these situations. Much of my work focuses on the dilemmas of youth work - exploring the range of dilemmas encountered, as well as the features of effective responses.

This spring, youth workers participating in the Youth Work Institute course Deliberate Practice Matters were introduced to recent research I co-wrote on the diversity and complexity of dilemmas that youth workers face daily, and how their responses influence program quality. Together, they dug into the sticky challenges and issues of everyday youth work and examined ways to respond to real-life dilemmas. In addition to reacting to dilemmas identified by research, participants discussed and mind-mapped dilemma scenarios from their own work, including:
  • How do you deal with a "three strikes and you're out" policy that results in losing the very youth the program is intended to serve?
  • How do you respond when you witness a youth helping a parent tamper with a drug test in order to avoid jail?

The law, organizational policies, and ethical codes all speak to these tensions, yet they don't necessarily help the youth worker figure out how to respond to particular instances in ways that balancing competing concerns in ways that feel consonant with youth development values and principles. It can be difficult to figure out what to do, and often youth workers are left to navigate these challenging decisions on their own.

One way to help youth workers understand and effectively respond to dilemmas is to create a forum for them to talk about their struggles with one another. This might be through a course like Deliberate Practice Matters, dedicated staff meeting time for discussing dilemmas, or even social media, such as Australia's Youth Action and Policy Association's blog on ethical dilemmas in youth work. I don't have answers - in fact, I would argue that there typically is no one right answer. But I have seen how powerful - and empowering - it can be to strategize responses to these dilemmas with peers.

What resources do you use to guide your responses to dilemmas of practice? Consult a trusted colleague? Rely on your formal training? How do you decide what's right to do and good to be in your work with young people?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

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  1. Interesting comments. When our English colleague Tony Jeffs first heard about the dilemma work being done here with the Youth Work Institute, he jumped right to the idea of having local community study circles. He thought it would be terrific to have a "data bank" of dilemmas on line where a team of 4-5 youth workers in say Duluth could "check out" 3 dilemmas and discuss them together at an informal meeting. There could be a place online to post the ideas they liked best. Then they could "check out" another set of dilemmas to discuss the next time they got together.
    What's interesting about this proposal is that it suggests that youth workers can create their own professional development opportunities without waiting for their organization or supervisors to organize things for them. It reinforces that practice thinking is what's important -- not having someone give you the right answer to the question. And by practice, I mean doing it over and over until you get really good at it. Maybe "Dilemma Circles" are something we should think about?

  2. The first sentence of your blog rings so true, "complex and dynamic", often causing youth workers to feel uncertain and ill prepared. The opportunity to share and discussion experiences with peers is at times a life saver for navigating the endless types of dilemmas encountered in the youth work context. I like Joyce's idea of Dilemma Circles, as it resonates with my experience teaching a Youth Work Institute workshop called Leadership Matters, designed for youth work supervisors. During the 15 hours of coursework we spend a segment of time in each of the 5 sessions devoted specifically to discussing dilemmas that participants choose to share with their peers. The comaraderie that evolved amongst the peers was re-assuring, and some of them chose to continue meeting for these discussions weeks after the workshop was over.
    I recently co-presented a session at the National Urban Extension Conference in Des Moines, IA with an Extension colleague, Amy Brady from the Denver Urban 4-H office. She distributed a packet of dilemma cards for urban youth workers who train volunteers. The workshop participants were thrilled to have this packet of cards describing typical situations volunteers are likely to experience, nicely organized on a ring that staff could bring to volunteer meetings to help prepared them for their work. Knotty situations indeed pervade, with no clear answers, but a developing sense of confidence about how to navigate is invaluable. Dilemma Cards, Dilemma Circles, professional development workshops, dedicated staff meetings are all great ways to help youth workers develop expertise.

  3. Aren't the dilemmas what youth work is really all about? I was re-reading an article by Lilia Bartolome, where she talks about our "fetish" with teaching methods as the answer to effective, artful teaching and learning. That would be easier. Instead she argues that we must see our work within the very real socio-historical and political dimensions and take that up intentionally. Every time we face a dilemma, we are making judgments, choices, and reinforcing values. But are we always clear about the stance we take when moving through those critical moments and why? This kind of reflective space for practitioners, can be one important way to better articulate for ourselves the political nature of our work. I want to be more clear about what stance I take in those moments - how about you?

  4. Joyce, Yes the dilemmas circle is a great idea! And Margo, those supervisor dilemmas are such a critical set to be further identified and examined! It is helpful to share those typical dilemmas (and such a relief to see that we aren’t the only one who’s ever faced it!), and then to go further by bringing one’s own dilemmas to the table (or, circle).

  5. Exactly, Deborah! For me the point you raise about methods versus artistry gets at the heart of my concerns about the push for competencies. In addition to core knowledge and skills, as you point out, when the rubber hits the road, it comes down to practical wisdom that involves value judgment and decisions made in complex social practices like teaching and youth work. That wisdom about how to act or behave in particular situations cannot be reduced to general truths or methods. It is the sustained, cultivated ability to recognize and make sound, ethical choices when facing a dilemma in practice.

  6. At the beginning of my career, I had the honor of working with student teachers during an intensive teaching experience. Reading about dilemmas, I'm always struck by what a unique opportunity that was for the teachers to have a group of people to discuss dilemmas that arose throughout the day. They created a small community within themselves and supported each other as they learned how to best deal with issues and challenges. Each day they gathered at the end of the school day and processed what worked and what didn't. Kate and Joyce's recommendation of training groups and study circles got closer to this concept for practitioners that maybe don't have a "built-in" support network. Are there others ways to build in more intensive reflection experiences for youth workers, maybe through internships or collaborative partnerships?

  7. Thanks for your comment, Sam. What would happen if youth workers had a similar supervised internship or field experience? It sounds good in theory, but in practice (think of all the AmeriCorps Promise Fellows), I still worry about their preparation and support. We need to be sure to build in opportunities for mentoring, networking, and reflection.

  8. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerMay 27, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    I need dilemma circles for my life. :-) (Great post and thoughtful comments, all. Thanks.)


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