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As Promise Work Lead at the Winch, each month I set up a Promise Worker working group to address key topics that come up in practice. This learning is also ‘manualized’ in a Promise Work manual. One recent topic was that of endings.

What is Promise Work? 

Promise Work is the Winch’s targeted, bespoke, long-term support for 4-25 year olds. Promise Workers build trusting relationships with children and young people as well as (especially for the younger ones) their families. Promise Workers aim to be a secure and dependable adult in a child, young person or family’s sometimes chaotic life. This support often lasts a number of years. Through this relationship, young person and Promise Worker work together to achieve goals and develop character strengths. The Promise Worker helps the young person to feel listened to and understood and role models positive behaviours, with the aim of supporting the young person to succeed in the broadest sense.

This is a voluntary relationship, no one is forced to see their Promise Worker. There are often ebbs and flows. But arguably, the bond between them is more special because it is freely given and must be constantly worked at. Through this journey the worker maintains professional boundaries and also often feels genuine care, dare I say love, for a fellow human being. Therefore, the notion of endings can be particularly difficult.

Is this the end?

When you want to be a secure and dependable adult for a young person, ending the work together is not taken lightly. Many of us hear children and young people complain about yet another social worker who has come and gone, a new school, a new housing officer, a different care home every month, moving house or having no home and leaving established networks behind. This can feel like no control, a lot of rejection, starting from scratch and being let down. That is why the Promise Model works long-term and tries not to emulate the disruptions experienced by children and young people elsewhere. We follow the young person rather than the institution, recognising that life changes may actually be the times when we are needed even more. Therefore, within reason, yes, within reason, we do not let things like prison sentences, changes in address or a new school mean our work has ended. This freedom to continue our work comes with challenges and decisions.

When and how

Endings in Promise Work take multiple forms. Some Promise Workers have encountered young people moving abroad, or those who have long prison sentences that mean they will be well over 25 when released. Some young people are just plain difficult to get hold of, changing phones every week sometimes meaning months without contact and unanswered letters, texts and emails. Maybe they don’t want to see you now but they demand it next month. Sometimes they may not be in the ‘perfect’ place but they are already over 25. Others may have been doing ‘well’ for a long time, but because they are under 25 does this mean we should just keep working? Some children move on from the After School Club they attended for years meaning the worker no longer sees them every week. There is also the reality of limited resources and just a handful of Promise Workers to bear in mind. What do we do in these situations? When is the ‘right’ time to end?

Personally, in my practice, there were endings when I went on maternity leave. Yes, even Promise Workers are allowed to have babies. We do not pretend we will be around ‘forever’.  Some of the young people I worked with transitioned to new workers, so one ending was also a new Promise Work beginning. Hopefully these new relationships were consistent in approach but also fresh with new possibilities and dynamics. Other young people decided it was time to move on from Promise Work support, still part of the Winch family they perhaps did not require or want a new worker.  

But while endings are an inevitable part of life, how they are approached and thought about is important. I hope, in my case, it was an opportunity to increase young peoples’ resilience and to celebrate the achievements and journey we shared. Young people were given time to prepare and to acknowledge that while I may not be physically present, I still value and appreciate them hugely. I also hope they felt proud of how hard they had worked. Of course, it is easier for some young people, indeed for many people, to slip away without acknowledging an end. Not bothered, right! But I hope I at least attempted to mark the end in some way rather than hide.

What I learned

I won’t be able to go into the full details of the working group in this blog post. But some of the key insights that struck me were that we do not personally ‘own’ any child, young person or family nor should we seek to hold on to them at all costs. The key to us doing a good job is that they can flourish without us, not be dependent on us. How we bridge a young person out and support them to have multiple positive relationships and agency is key. But we acknowledge this is difficult work and has sometimes been patchy. This bridging should not just begin at times of impending endings but is key to how we plan our work long-term.

Promise Workers draw on the AMBIT approach to help us reflect and stay balanced and for the team to support the worker in making decisions. Seeking support allows the worker to discuss their own feelings with someone who is not in the middle of it all. It also promotes transparency in our work and role-models help-seeking to those we work with.

Rather than strict rules for all endings, we acknowledged that each young person and family is unique and some room for the individual’s needs were given space within general guidelines. Endings can also be openly discussed and negotiated with a young person. We also recognised that Promise Work is only one programme in an array of support the Winch offers. The young person will still be a part of the Winch (sometimes actively, sometimes symbolically), even when Promise Work with an individual worker ends.

 

Zenobia

A lot of research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, medicine and economics has gone into finding out which character strengths help children and young people to succeed in life. The conclusion: Grit, Curiosity, Optimism, Self-Control, Zest, Gratitude and Social Intelligence (see for example, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed ). As a Promise Worker working with ages 11-25, part of what I have been piloting is how we can develop these character strengths in young people in order to help them to succeed and to flourish.

My journey into character strength land has been an interesting one as I discovered there was a lot of theory and practice going on in this area, although not much specific to the youth work sector. At first I was a little sceptical. I was suspicious about who chose which strengths were universally ‘important’, who decided how much of each strength young people possess and whether ‘success’ was linked to stuff like flash cars and a big wage packet rather than being individually defined.  I value people for their unique strengths, so rating people against seven fixed strengths on a scale to track if the characteristic went up or down over time seemed difficult to swallow.

At the same time, adapting a strengths-based approach to character in a youth work setting allows for lots of positives too. For example, it helps young people and workers to think of character in terms of strengths that can be changed and developed rather than as fixed traits that people are just born with and so can’t do much about. It also helps young people and workers value these ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘softer’ skills as vitally important and linked to, rather than separate from, ‘harder’ outcomes, which fits in with a lot of the informal education values of youth work. This in turn allows us to draw on a framework that contributes to the flourishing of those who have perhaps suffered from greater degrees of poverty, inequality and childhood stress and trauma and who are thus statistically less likely to succeed.

It is also useful to remember that there are actually a more holistic set of 24 character strengths (see VIA Institute for the full list) which are all important but which have been narrowed down to the seven that are most likely to predict life satisfaction and success to make them more workable. However, I like to keep in mind all 24 and praise them in others when I notice them.  In this way, character strengths have been much more about making people feel valued, noticed and capable rather than about focussing on deficits.

It is of course a challenge to help young people develop key character strengths and over time I have seen different activities work for different people and the same activities can be used to focus on different strengths. For example, a Bollywood dance class I teach can be used to develop zest (being present, enjoyment and energy) and curiosity (openness to trying something new) but can also be used to work on self-control (listening and following instructions) and grit (persistence and the ability to keep trying even when things are difficult). Having a 1-2-1 with a young person and using it as an opportunity to discuss their optimism and social intelligence is much better if you can share research with them about why these things are important and sharing examples can demystify the whole business of character into conscious thoughts and habits. Young people can begin to notice their feelings and interactions and are supported to adopt more helpful thoughts and routines to build their strengths. Measuring character strengths (young people as well as workers are involved in this) helps us all to adopt a strengths-based way of thinking, to better understand the impact of our work and to see where to direct our focus with different young people and groups.

A young woman I work with commented recently that she disapproved of trying to change peoples’ character as everyone is different. I agreed that it is great that people are different but I wanted to equip young people with as many tools and experiences and as much support and knowledge for them to cope better with life and be happy and fulfilled in whatever they choose to do.

 

Zenobia

My name is Zenobia and I am a Promise Worker. OK, hold on. I mean a promise can be a scary thing, a bit dangerous to promise anything to anyone isn’t it? Setting myself up for failure and mistrust on one side, or, being accused of having my head in the clouds on the other. There are times when talking to other professionals, I must admit, that I shy away from this job title, substituting as befits with a variety of more neutral words …’youth’, ‘key’ or ‘support’ for instance. A lot easier than explaining things repeatedly or being met by perplexed looks or raised eyebrows.

But, actually, when it comes down to it I wear my job title with pride. The optimist in me can see those raised eyebrows in actual fact as signs of interest and intrigue and anything that makes people stop to think again about the youth sector is surely a good thing. Who wants to be conventional anyway?

So, I like being a Promise Worker and having been here at the Winch for about 8 months I wanted to share a day in the life so you get an idea about what I do and don’t worry all specific information regarding young people has been changed.

8am in the morning: Get woken up by the police on the line. Oh dear, what have I done? Panic over, just looks like they have a mix up after I reported something missing on behalf of a young person. Now they are checking the information and I don’t have it on me…ask them to please call back!

8.30am: Get a call from the young man’s dad regarding above incident as police have turned up at his door. Reassure parent and try to act as middle-woman.

10am: In the office trying to negotiate technology, the task of uploading a 14 year old young person’s photography after our last session and emailing it to her is proving beyond me…but wait, with a mix of Dropbox, Zip files and Snapfish I am not defeated and make a cup of coffee to celebrate. Right, now time for some session planning and helping to carry a 10ft mirror down three flights of Winch stairs.

12pm: Have a meeting with a 14 year old at 12.30pm so want to prepare but get a last minute call from their parent telling me they can’t come in due to bad behaviour. This is disappointing as she is difficult to get hold of at the best of times. Speak to the young person and listen to how they are feeling. I’m pleased they have opened up but there is a lot of anger and frustration. It would have been great to see her in person. We rearrange the meeting. I have some lunch and have a think with my manager about how best to negotiate things with the family.

2pm: I’m off site to meet a 19 year old. She has been out of work for a while and is feeling low.  We have a chat about how things have been, was good to share a bit of laughter and see her smile. We work on motivation and exploring options, breaking things down into little steps. Progress is not always fast but at least she leaves the house to meet me and has someone there for her.

4pm: Meet a small group after school and take them back to the Winch for a spot of boxing. Promise Workers have a number of tricks up their sleeves! Catch up with some teachers while I’m waiting for them. I’m glad they think one of the young people I am working with is doing much better at school.

6pm: Evaluate my sessions, particularly looking at character strengths (more posts on this to come!) and reflecting on practice. This is a good time for me to think about outcomes and future actions. Right, all done for the day. But wait. Just been told I need to write a blog post, I’ve never done one of them before.