Youth Development & After Care
1. The Significance of Early Childhood and Adolescent Development
Youth development is a process in a child’s life that prepares and guides them through the challenges of adolescence and adulthood in order to help them develop their full potential. It is a multi-faceted approach that assists youth in developing social, ethical, emotional, physical, and cognitive competencies. An investment in youth developmental factors is a direct investment in the successful future of a child. Studies indicate that positive youth development contributes to several long-term benefits for a child, such as the reduction in risky behaviors, higher grades and expectation to going on to forth education, more successful transitions into adulthood, improved social and emotional interactions, a greater likelihood of contributing to communities, and improved mental health.
Renowned international institutions like UNICEF, Council of Europe, and Red Cross have dedicated themselves to establishing meaningful and measurable guidelines targeted towards positive youth development — encouraging agencies to invest every effort into making the alternative care system a positive experience for children and their families. Below are the associated international guidelines that involve promoting positive youth development in alternative care systems:
UN General Assembly Resolution 64/142: Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children
Purpose: The present guidelines are intended to enhance the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and of relevant provisions of other international instruments regarding the protection and wellbeing of children who are deprived of parental care or who are at risk of being so.
- Children must be treated with dignity and respect at all times and must benefit from effective protection from abuse, neglect, and all forms of exploitation, whether on the part of care providers, peers, or third parties, in whatever care setting they may find themselves.
- Attention must be paid to promoting and safeguarding all other rights of special pertinence to the situation of children without parental care, including, but not limited to, access to education, health, and other basic services, the right to identity, freedom of religion or belief, language and protection of property and inheritance rights.
Early Childhood Development
- The formative early years of a child’s life demand a nurturing environment and attentive care
- Optimal brain development requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients, and social interaction with attentive caregivers.
- The quality of care within a child’s home environment
- Optimal conditions include a safe and well-organized physical environment, opportunities for children to play, explore, and discover, and the presence of developmentally appropriate objects, toys, and books.
- Within the home, caregivers are tasked with establishing a safe, stimulating, and nurturing environment and providing direction and guidance in daily life.
- Interactions with responsible caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to children’s emerging abilities are central to social, emotional, and cognitive development.
- This type of nurturing care can help children feel valued and accepted, promote healthy reactions, provide a model for acceptable social relationships, and contribute to later academic and employment success.
- Access to early childhood care and education
- Important in providing children with the basic cognitive and language skills they need to flourish in school.
- Investing in early childhood education can be a powerful way to reduce gaps that often put children with low social and economic status at a disadvantage.
- The overall development status of children
- Children develop at different speeds and may reach developmental milestones at different times.
- Despite variations in the pace and rate at which children develop, all children have an inherent right to develop to their fullest potential. The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly highlights the importance of early child development, stating that a child has a right to develop to “the maximum extent possible” (article 6), and that “States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” (article 27).
UNICEF, Moving Forward: Implementing the ‘Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children’
Support the rights of children and their families
- Take the needs of young children with disabilities and other special needs and their families into account in response to the high number in residential facilities
- Provide support to families who need it so that children aged 0-3 years can remain in the family. This may include: daycare and respite care, financial and welfare support, parenting education and counseling and access to appropriate housing
- Explore ways of communicating changes in care to young children in ways which are appropriate to their age and capacity and providing them with support as part of this transition
- Provide guidance so that children aged 0-3 years are placed in family-based settings with their siblings
Ensure that children and their families participate fully
- Provide training, guidance, and support to carers so that they can support the participation of children and their families
- Supporting families to prevent abandonment and relinquishment
2. Developmental Challenges Children in Alternative Care Face
There are various sorts of challenges that children face before entering alternative care, during alternative care, and even after when they’re independent and living their own lives. They are faced with complications ranging from physical health, mental health, to developmental problems during a period in their lives where brain development is most critical. For every effort to be made to protect children from these challenges, it is important to understand where these issues are rooted. Only then, can guidelines be established that allows agencies, families, and communities to develop practices that serve as a healing process for a child.
In order for a child to be psychologically healthy, they must be able to form a relationship with a caregiver who is nurturing, protective, fosters trust and security, and acts as a figure of permanence for the child. Young children stepping into alternative care might have gone through significant emotional and cognitive disruptions that have the potential to impair brain development. This is why it should be the first priority to ensure that children are provided a stable and permanent environment that fulfills a need for continuity in their lives. The disruptions caused in their lives prior to an alternative care solution have ingrained children with a sense of uncertainty and instability, thus the feeling of having a home and ability to attach themselves to a caregiver reinforces security and trust for them.
Attachment to a primary caregiver, however, shouldn’t only be measured by placement in a permanent home, but also by a relationship between the caregiver and child that fosters the development of emotional security and social conscience. A child attaches themselves and sees a caregiver as a parent who provides attention towards the child’s day-to-day needs of physical care, nourishment, comfort, affection, and stimulation. The inability to form this type of connection for young children reflects heavily on their behavior in their adulthood, as their inability to trust and love translates into negative reactions to future situations.
Interruptions in the continuity of the child’s caregiver can also potentially have detrimental impacts on the development of the child. They can add stress to the child’s brain development and contribute to inadequate parenting, inhibiting the child from developing a sense of self in the long-term. It leads children to perceive their sense of time exclusively on the present and not the future — letting them see life as temporary phases rather than with permanence. Therefore, the assignment of a primary caregiver who provides the child with psychological support should be cautiously considered and given a lot of importance, as disruptions in the continuity of caregivers have a more adverse impact.
The early childhood and adolescent years in an individual are some of the most cognitively formative years when it comes to development, and can be especially challenging to navigate for children in alternative care.
Early childhood is a period in a child’s life that spans up to 8 years of age and is critical for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. The child’s brain during this stage is highly responsive to their environment and experiences, and optimal brain development for a child requires a stimulating environment encompassing adequate nutrients and positive social interactions with primary caregivers. As children grow older and enter adolescence, they experience tremendous growth and development. Adolescents explore the ideas of their identity, set future goals, advance new skills, and take on new roles and responsibilities. At the same time, their hormones contribute heavily to physical changes and emotions as their brain experiences a growth spurt.
The most important challenge to note when it comes to development for children in alternative care is that all children develop at different speeds and levels due to the past disruptions in their lives. The level of a child’s literacy-numeracy skills, physical development, social-emotional skills, and brain development may not always correlate with their age and what is considered to be normal child development. In addition, normal child development is relative across different cultures and environments, as expectations and parenting styles vary among countries, cultures, ethnicities, or religions. However, the differences in the rate of development do not take away from the child’s right to develop to their full potential. It simply requires all stakeholders to be more mindful of these differences and tendencies.
Youth entering alternative care have often previously experienced abuse or neglect to some degree, and as a result, patterns of impulsive and risky behaviors can potentially be more pronounced. Their past experiences may have negatively affected their limbic system, which acts as a first responder to threatening situations, causing children to be more susceptible to impulsive behavior. Especially during their teenage years, youth may appear to be physically mature however may still not have fully developed brains to make informed decisions and control their emotions. The adolescent brain is actively engaging in strengthening connections among brain cells (synapses), that help teenagers to more easily absorb new information and skills. Part-taking in the right activities and developing the right habits regularly will not only effectively help shape a child’s decision-making skills, but also weaken the negative tendencies that their past experiences have affected them with. Participants responsible for the development of a child, such as parents or caregivers, must be made aware of these tendencies and encourage youth to participate in positive risk-taking behaviors and activities that result in growth opportunities.
The challenges of youth development can often persist as adolescents are transitioning into adulthood and need to have well-developed self-esteem and self-efficacy skills that allow them to navigate multiple adult contexts, including education and employment, and family and friends. The points stated above all contribute towards a child’s understanding of self, their environment, and act as a behavioral compass for them to consistently make informed decisions.
3. Transitioning out of Alternative Care and Aftercare
The final step in developing sustainable alternative care is the transition period to aftercare. According to a UNICEF report, Moving Forward: Implementing the ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’, preparing a child for leaving care into aftercare support is an essential part of an effective alternative care solution. When little to no importance is given to this transitional period for children, the consequences in all parts of the world are often very detrimental. Some of these consequences can include homelessness, substance abuse, offensive behavior, incarceration, etc. — all of which indicate the failure of the alternative care system of preparing a child for a successful future.
The international guidelines for Aftercare Support by UNICEF highlight the implementation of practices while children are in the alternative care system that properly prepares them for adulthood. They insist that the aftercare process begins during the child’s care and should be a gradual and supervised process that involves careful planning and following up with children and their families.
Successful transitions are built on the following foundations:
Good quality placements that provide young people with stability and continuity of care.
A positive experience of education.
Assessing and responding to young people’s health and emotional needs.
Preparation in self-care, practical and interpersonal skills.
Although seemingly simplistic, it is extremely tough to form successful transitions for children in alternative care. Studies have shown that some of the biggest barriers that exist for children leaving care are the absence of supportive relationships, educational challenges, housing instability, and economic challenges like unemployment. Research indicates that there are apparent trends in the challenges faced by young people after care, however, there are also implementable solutions that can prevent these challenges from existing in the first place.
One of the most prominent and basic challenges for youth leaving alternative care is problems with physical or behavioral health and general wellbeing.
Many former alternative care youth have reported going through a higher incidence of health problems than non-alternative care youth, including hospitalization due to illness, accidents, injuries, drug use, or emotional problems. Mental health disorders are also significant for youth leaving alternative care, including depression, dysthymia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, alcohol abuse or dependence, and substance abuse or dependence.
The lack of basic wellbeing measures for youth often translates into their relationships, forming a lack of social connections and positive interactions.
Many youths in alternative care are unable to form positive, supportive relationships during their time in care which inhibits their brain development and leads to unhealthy behavior in the future. The lack of a mentor or non-parental adult during their care can lead to psychological damage, alcohol and substance abuse, and possible misconduct. As children entering the alternative system, many of them have had turbulent experiences with adults in the past, which is why developing strong relationships during their time in care and before leaving care is important.
Studies have shown that permanent relationships with positive adults are a powerful protective factor against negative outcomes and can provide the right support to youth as they transition to adulthood. Youth who have formed connections with mentors, such as teachers, or other non-parental adults have reported to enhance their outcomes in terms of education/employment, health, as well as decreased participation in unhealthy behaviors.
One of the largest challenges to exist for youth leaving care is problems regarding unstable housing or homelessness, as well as educational and employment opportunities.
Prior to being placed in an alternative care solution, children may have already missed many days or even months of school, setting them back from other children their age. During their time in care, youth also have a tough time meeting educational standards, especially while trying to adjust to all the other challenges they have to face at the same time. This tends to discourage them from pursuing future educational opportunities, such as college.
Alternative care youth are also known to have limited work histories and job training opportunities. Many have a hard time holding a steady job after ‘aging out’ or lack the incentive and academic preparation to attend a higher education institution or training program. They are then limited to only obtaining employment through lower paying wages, making them vulnerable to poverty and the inability to establish complete independence.
The lack of growth opportunities often results in unstable housing or homelessness issues for youth transitioning out of alternative care. Without the right opportunities, they become less likely to be able to pay a mortgage or rent, and more likely to experience homelessness within a year of ‘aging out’. This exposes them to risks associated with living in poverty or even violence.
Finally, the collection of all these challenges occurring together can lead to youth’s involvement with the justice system, in addition to having lesser access to forms of public assistance.
Youth in alternative care who have a history of abuse and/or neglect are at a higher risk of becoming exposed to or involved in crime. This could occur due to a lack of support networks, low employment skills, and unstable living arrangements. Public assistance is also limited in its reach of supporting youth after they have ‘aged out’.
Despite the many difficulties faced by youth transitioning out of alternative care, there are also many preventative and protective measures and practices that parents, agencies, and coordinators of alternative care solutions can conduct to ease the struggle. As mentioned, the process of transitioning into adulthood and self-sufficiency is gradual and requires steps and actions throughout the developmental years of the child and not just the last couple of months before they leave care. It is important to note that regardless of their adverse histories, youth in alternative care are extremely adaptable to any lifestyle and completely capable of developing healthy relationships and demonstrating positive behavior.
Many child welfare organizations stress that youth are more likely to succeed if they are exposed to protective factors, which are conditions that buffer risks and improve the likelihood of future positive outcomes. Some important examples of protective factors include self-regulation skills (being able to manage or control emotions and behaviors), relational skills (the ability to develop positive bonds and relationships), academic skills, and a positive school environment. Agencies, youth coordinators, and parents of children in alternative care can all work together to create these circumstances for a child. By helping them strengthen their sense of self and confidence, youth will be more likely to model the positive behavior instilled in them, rather than resorting to unhealthy behavior. Some simple actions that can be implemented are modeling a positive outlook, helping them build connections, encouraging goal setting, viewing challenges as learning opportunities, teaching self-care, and providing opportunities to help others.
Parents or caregivers of youth in alternative care also play an important role in the aftercare and transitioning to adulthood process. They are integral in encouraging positive behaviors for young people, as they can help propel the young adult’s growing independence and even act as a guide and support system as the youth explores and navigates their way through new experiences. By giving them opportunities to show responsibility, balanced with continued support, and involving youth with decision-making and planning processes, caregivers and parents can instill values of independence within youth. Parents also should become a part of the youth’s transition plan, by helping them through activities that build new skills and knowledge, allowing the youth to carry out their plan. A transition plan is a valuable tool for youth leaving care and addresses specific needs for aftercare, including health and mental health services, health insurance, housing, education, employment, and community support. In correspondence with the transition plan, caregivers can help by preparing youth to take care of their ongoing physical and mental health needs. This plan should be made in partnership with the youth so they are themselves aware of all the challenges they may face and are prepared to tackle them with resiliency and planning ahead. Finally, caregivers should always try to consult agencies that are experts in youth development in alternative care so they can all work together to build a strong foundation for the youth’s future.
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