The Evidence Portal

Key elements of good youth work practice

Youth work ethics

Like most caring professions, youth work is underpinned by ethics; a moral code that describes the values in which a group believes (Davie, 2011). There is no international code of ethics for youth work, however, the Commonwealth Alliance of Youth Workers Associations has developed Guidelines for Establishing a Code of Ethical Practice. Youth work codes of ethics developed in Western countries are generally drawn from “principle-based ethics” and “character and relationship-based ethics” (Banks, 2010, p. 18). The Australian peak body the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition is working towards the national adoption of the Code of Ethics developed by Sercombe in 2002 and endorsed with commentary by Youth Action in 2004 (Sercombe, 2004).

Sercombe is also the author of seminal text Youth Work Ethics (2010). The fourteen components of the Western Australian code are (Sercombe, 2004):

1.       Primary Client

8.       Cooperation

2.       Ecology

9.       Knowledge

3.       Non-discrimination

10.    Self-awareness

4.       Empowerment

11.    Boundaries

5.       Non-corruption

12.    Self-care

6.       Transparency

13.    Duty of Care

7.       Confidentiality

14.    Integrity

Further reading

AIFS (2014) provides a comprehensive Practitioner Resource for the supervision of youth workers.

For more on supervision see Wood, Westwood & Thompson, 2015.

Herman (2012) offers a supervision model using participatory action research to integrate evidence-based-practice in real-time. 

Supervision and reflective practice

As in social work and psychology, a youth worker’s ability to reflect on their practice is an important component of good practice. Emslie (2009) however, highlights a lack of literature on how to teach reflective skills to youth workers in training, and Herman (2012) points out that supervision or reflective practice can often be de-prioritised in busy practice settings.

Supervision is a place for professional development and for working through any challenges that may arise in the context of care work.

Supervision provides a space for practitioners to reflect on their work and to think critically about the power dynamic between themselves and the young people with whom they are working.

The settings and participants for supervision can vary; supervision can be conducted in a one-to-one setting with a manager or external consultant, in a team or as a peer-led activity among colleagues.

Two key influences on youth work supervision are drawn from social work (Kadushin, 1976 as cited in Wood, Westwood and Thompson, 2015) and counselling (Proctor, 1987 as cited in Wood, Westwood and Thompson, 2015) respectively.

In the adapted list below, Wood, Westwood and Thompson identify three core components from these practitioners that continue to inform supervision today (2015, p. 138):

  •  “Administrative/normative”: the assignment and assessment of work and the promotion of compliance with workplace procedures
  • “Educational/formative”: the professional development and growth of the supervisee as a youth work practitioner
  •  “Supportive/restorative”: assists the youth worker with stress management.

In addition to the standard form of supervision described above, practitioners working closely with persons from a culture different to their own should seek cultural supervision. Cultural supervision provides youth workers with support and guidance to work in a respectful and meaningful way with First Nations youth. Cultural supervision belongs to a holistic range of practices required to conduct culturally safe youth work, discussed below.  

Culturally safe youth work with First Nations youth

A rapid evidence review conducted by Zulumovski et al. (2021) found six elements critical to establishing cultural safety in the literature. These elements include (Zulumovski et al., 2021, p. 4-5):

1.       Recognising the importance of culture

2.       Self-determination

3.       Workforce development

4.       Whole of organisation approach

5.       Leadership and partnership

6.       Research, monitoring and evaluation

Sources identified in this evidence review echo the findings of Zulumovski et al. (2021), particularly the recognition of culture, workforce development and partnership.  Multiple authors highlight the recognition of culture as key when working with persons whose culture is different from one’s own (Walker & Grant, 2011; Lucashenko, 2010; Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002). In practice, this requires the development of self-awareness and the ability to reflect upon one’s own culture, beliefs and values. Youth work practitioners are strongly encouraged to learn about the cultures of the persons with whom they work and about the communities where they live and practice.

Every young person has different needs, goals, and desires and those may or may not relate to their cultural identity. There are, however, some cultural differences of which youth workers and youth work organisations should be mindful when working with First Nations young people. In Western cultures, individual rights are held in high regard, however in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, there is a stronger emphasis on collective rights and the sharing of resources (Lucashenko, 2010).

Family and culture are central to the identity and wellbeing of First Nations people (Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002; Lucashenko, 2010). Youth workers can honour these values by involving community members, family and elders in their work with youth as often as possible (with the consent of the young person).

Practitioners should also be aware of the different communications styles among some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. While in Western cultures a lack of eye contact for instance might be perceived as rude, this is the opposite in some First Nations communities where young people actively avoid looking their elders in the eye as a sign of respect (Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002).

With respect to workforce development, sources identified in this evidence review highlighted two dual needs. Organisations need to both hire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002; Zulumovski et al., 2021) and they need to enable those staff members to sustain their connections with communities, and access professional development and training (Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002). It is important for First Nations young people to have access to workers they can trust who are also role models with shared cultural histories.

Finally, partnership was identified as an important aspect of cultural safety. Establishing and maintaining genuine partnerships with First Nations leaders and community members is of central importance to good youth work practice. To illustrate, Reed-Gilbert & Brown (2002) highlight that First Nations people often report being consulted about various projects or issues without a follow up plan in place to provide them with necessary updates about their contributions.

To work towards cultural safety through the establishment of genuine partnerships, youth work practitioners and organisations must ensure that a feedback and follow up process is enacted after consulting with cultural experts. Tokenistic consultation does not help to build intercultural trust. Against a colonial history of systemic oppression often presented under the guise of ‘welfare’, First Nations communities have good reason to distrust care professionals such as youth workers. Working with authenticity and honesty is especially important when working alongside First Nations young people. Reed-Gilbert and Brown offer the following advice in developing trust (2002, p. 35): “The rule is trust takes time.”

Further reading

Good Practice in NSW

Our Place: Stories about good practice in youth work with Aboriginal young people by Reed-Gilbert & Brown published by South Sydney Youth Services (now Weave) is essential reading for practitioners working with First Nations people.

Cultural Safety & Wellbeing: Evidence review

The findings of the Cultural Safety and Wellbeing Evidence Review conducted by Gamarada Universal Indigenous Resources Pty Ltd and the Social Policy Research Centre provides helpful, evidence-based guidance for practitioners to work in a culturally safe way with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people, families, and communities. 

Rights-based approach

In 1990, Australia signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Article 12 of the Convention secures the rights of children and young people to express their views and to be taken seriously.

Article 12, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the view of the child being given due weight in accordance with age and maturity of the child.

To enable children and young people to freely express their views, individual workers and organisations must prioritise authentic and meaningful participation. Collins, Sinclair and Zufelt (2021) argue that for practitioners to incorporate youth participation as a routine and everyday aspect of their practice, youth participation must be a central and consistent element of youth work educational curriculums.

Collin, Lala & Fieldgrass (2018) provide the following examples of youth participation in action:

  • Youth advisory boards
  • Surveys
  • Consultation roadshows
  •  Workshops
  •  Youth positions on boards and committees
  •  Youth leadership programs

Wood, Westwood, Thompson pose a series of generalised questions that might be used by youth workers and their organisations to enhance youth participation in their practice (2015, p. 218):

  • What opportunities are there for young people to shape and influence the organisation’s work?
  • How do young people feel about participation?      
  • What evidence is there that participatory practice has been part of the work of the organisation?
  • What mechanisms or approaches are used to listen to young people?    
  • How might my own work be enhanced if I adopt a co-production approach?
  •  What barriers might limit young people’s opportunities to influence the organisation?
  • How might young people have a say beyond the organisation?

For participation to be authentic, participation of young people must be voluntary. Not all youth will want to contribute or will want to contribute in the same way. The task of the youth worker is to adapt their approach to meet youth where they are at. Collins, Sinclair and Zufelt highlight that fair representation is an important factor to consider when conducting participatory work (2021, p. 289): 

While young people’s participation in general tend to be overlooked, young people in racialized communities, with disabilities, in the criminal justice system, discriminated due to their gender and sexual identities, or who have displayed aggressive/challenging behaviours are even less likely to be heard and have their opinions valued and listened to by others.

Finally, where youth have been invited to participate, co-create or have been otherwise consulted, follow-up is essential. Following up demonstrates to young people that their involvement has been meaningful and not tokenistic as part of a ‘tick-a-box’ exercise (Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia, 2016).

Anti-oppressive practice

An anti-oppressive approach is essential to conducting youth work that is just and non-discriminatory. Daniels draws on Kumashiro (2000) to define anti-oppressive practice as that which understands “the importance of challenging systemic injustices that have come to be embedded in everyday practices, policies, procedures and thought patterns” (Kumashiro, 2000, as cited in Daniels, 2021, p. 11).

Oppressive systems include discrimination based on gender and sexuality, racism, colonialism, ableism, ageism and poverty. Anti-oppressive practice prompts practitioners to develop an understanding of how the different identities of a person can overlap and intersect to produce different outcomes (Crenshaw, 1993 as cited in Daniels, 2021), the result of which is sometimes a compounding of different forms of oppression. Unsurprisingly, persons experiencing systematic oppression in one or more forms “can experience a significantly diminished quality of life” (Daniels, 2021, p. 125).

To successfully practice in an anti-oppressive way, practitioners must be reflective and willing to interrogate their conscious and subconscious biases (Wood, Westwood & Thompson, 2015) which can be an uncomfortable but deeply necessary process. Wood, Westwood & Thompson (2015) offer a range of practical strategies for combatting oppressive behaviours in a youth work context, including disrupting discriminatory humour, changing the environment and/or providing a wider range of resources (e.g. allocating an all-gender/unisex bathroom or providing information and brochures in Easy English and in other languages spoken in the local community).

Further resources

Youth Affairs Network Queensland provides a guide for youth workers and youth organisations: Involving Young People with a Disability: Effective Practices for Engagement, Participation & Consultation.

AIFS provides a guide for inclusive communication with LGBTQIA+ young people. 

Trauma-informed practice

Youth work is increasingly targeted towards young people who are classed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at-risk’ (Jeffs & Smith, 2002; Spence, 2004; Jenkinson, 2011). It follows then, that young people receiving youth work services are likely to have experienced trauma. The impact of trauma on the everyday functioning of an individual is significant. Research has shown that experiences of trauma are effectively ‘stored’ in the body, which cause measurable physiological changes that can directly affect one’s behaviour (van der Kolk, 2014). When trauma is passed down between generations of a family or community, this is called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma. Brokenleg speaks to the impact of intergenerational trauma in the context of his First Nations Lakota community in US (2012, p. 10):

In some form, this cultural trauma affects every Native person. It sculpts how we think, how we respond emotionally. It affects our social dynamics and, at the deepest level, impacts our spirituality. Intergenerational trauma has wounded us deeply.

Reed-Gilbert and Brown (2002) highlight that internalised intergenerational trauma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in Australia may present as anger or ‘acting out’ through behaviours such as drug taking or self-harm. For persons experiencing cultural forms of intergenerational trauma (First Nations, refugee and asylum seeker youth), work that reconnects with culture can be healing (Lucashenko, 2010; Brokenleg, 2012). When working with young people who have experienced trauma, intergenerational or otherwise, consistency and reliability (Reed-Gilbert & Brown, 2002) are important qualities for youth workers to embody to foster trust and stability. 

It is important to note that trauma-informed care should also be used to support staff. Youth workers can experience vicarious trauma (Babic, 2015) during their work with youth who may be in crisis or experiencing distress. Preventative steps should be taken to minimise the risk of vicarious traumatization. A healthy workplace and organisational culture that prioritises staff wellbeing can support workers’ resilience during tough times.

Good practice in NSW

Project Youth have developed a comprehensive Trauma Informed Practice Framework that serves as a foundation for practitioners and the organization broadly.

The Framework is a living document that also functions as an audit tool for tracking progress towards best practice in the delivery of trauma-informed care. 

Last updated:

15 Dec 2022

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