The impact of culture and difference on my practice as an outreach worker supporting young adults who are preparing to leave the care system.

By John Fallowfield

Date Posted: Tuesday, 22 May 2007


 John Fallowfield graduated in criminology at the University of Southampton and gained his first experience of working with young people in a criminal justice setting. For the last six months he has been working with young people in care. John is currently a student on the Eagle House Graduate Diploma Course in Child Development and the Care of Children and Young People. John feels that what he learnt so far in his work with chidren and young people is that it is essential to listen, understand and to be with them as they search for their own solutions. In this essay he explores this theme through a consideration of the impact culture and difference has on his work. The impact of culture and difference on my practice as an outreach worker supporting young adults who are preparing to leave the care system.


The impact of culture and difference on my practice as an outreach worker supporting young adults who are preparing to leave the care system . 


When working with troubled children and young people it is very important that practitioners are aware of issues of culture and difference and how they impact on a young person, on the professional worker’s practice, and on the relationship that is formed between the two. In this paper I discuss how these issues have influenced my professional practice considering two case studies and reflecting on how they might have been handled better.

Firstly I want to consider the concepts of culture and difference themselves. Culture is commonly defined as a way of life of a group of people (Kidd, 2001). When we examine what a culture consists of, we often think of the behaviour, dress, language, religion, rituals and beliefs of an individual or group of people (Jary, 1991). These characteristics group individuals together to create a culture, but since human nature is complex and dynamic there is a tendency to compare one person or one group to another, resulting in experiences of difference. In my practical experience working in child care I have observed differences of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, education, learning ability, parenting, upbringing and cultural practices such as language and religion. Due to the individual nature of people, difference will always be a part of the human condition.

Working in child care in or around a large multi-cultural metropolis such as London, the young people we work with reflect the diversity of the population. London has been reported as having 300 languages spoken and 50 non-indigenous communities with a population of more than 10,000 people (Guardian Unlimited, 21 January 2005). In the 2001 census, it was shown that 40% of London’s population classified themselves as non-British, with 29% classified as non-white (Office for National Statistics). Therefore modern life in London is dynamic and groups of people or cultures increasingly live side by side to form what I would term a ‘global culture’. In my  experience the young people I work with come from a range of cultures yet they all have one thing in common: they are in care.

The young people in care are different from many of their school friends or peers because they are ‘looked after’ by the care system. Many of these young people have experienced bereavement, neglect, rejection, abuse and a lack of care. Winnicott (1960 who created the concept of ‘good enough parenting’  highlighted how some young people are not cared for or loved and the effect it has on their development throughout life. This absence of care sets them apart from what many of us think of as the norm and I feel that recognition of this as a cultural difference has had an important impact on my practice.

For many of us, the time, care, love and attention our parents offer us is taken for granted. Compare this to the experience of many looked after children and their ‘seeming inability to tolerate the experience of being cared for in families in the community’ and ‘a history of neglect, abuse or disruption in the biological family’ (Kasinski, 2003).

In order to establish difference you must have something to compare it to. For the purposes of this paper it is relevant to examine how my own culture, upbringing and life experiences differ from the young people I have worked with and the impact on my practice.

When I began working with young people in care, I felt I had an appreciative, realistic and respectful view of other people. I had travelled the world and had been taught not to judge other people but to learn something of other cultures and respect difference. As I met the young people I worked with, I was aware of the impact that negative stereotypes may have on my judgement and the effect it would have on the developing relationship. However, in practice I found that difference can be frightening and although many of us do not like to admit it, it can be daunting when we meet a new person who has had such a different life experience to our own.

At a very early stage, my professional practice was impacted by negative stereotypes, and I dealt with this by consciously trying to be open to the experiences of others and having a positive expectation of the relationship. For me this was a preferable alternative to succumbing to the stereotypes and feeling anxious about how I would cope. At this time I did not fully appeciate the prejudicial stereotypes held in my unconscious were informing my intuition. This is a concept that was identifed by Sharpe (2006).  Since I have become more aware of the influence of the subconscious, it has enabled me to reflect on my practice and adapt my behaviour accordingly.

For example, when I began keyworking Richard, a 17 year old young man, I found myself continually challenging his criminal behaviour as a means of earning money. This may sound like a perfectly reasonable judgement on Richard’s way of life and as his keyworker I saw myself as tasked with providing an adult pro-social role model which would offer Richard an alternative perspective. Richard responded to my views with a challenge of his own, saying “why should I work all week for money that I can earn in one night?” or simply laughing and dismissing my opinion. On reflection I began to associate Richard with the yobs, thugs and uncontrollable youth so widely publicised in today’s media. Additionally, I thought how I would feel if a member of my family was the victim of such a crime. I also began to compare my own experiences of delinquency with those of Richard. In my mind I felt that my own behaviour was no more than ‘boys being boys’ and I judged that Richard had overstepped the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.

As a result, instead of getting to know Richard at a deeper level and understanding his actions through his past, I had a tendency to label him as someone who had no respect for others. My  unconscious prejudicial stereotypes of young people ‘like Richard’ were manifesting themselves. As these thoughts entered the conscious I began to examine my own feelings and talk about them with my colleagues. I was able to identify my lack of understanding of Richard’s past and analyse how my negative stereotype was preventing our relationship from developing. I focused my attention on how he must be feeling, having someone he has only known for a short time telling him that the way he behaves is wrong and unacceptable. When I met with Richard over the coming weeks I concentrated on getting to know him as an individual. I learned about his biological parents, foster parents, peers and his experiences in life. We began to form a relationship where Richard felt able to confide in me about his thoughts and feelings and he expressed that he felt he had no alternative to the way he was currently leading his life. Our relationship strengthened and I was able to help Richard understand the hurt he may cause to others through his criminal activity and identify his own self-worth.  This example has allowed me to reflect and conclude that despite my best intentions to enter a relationship with a positive and open minded approach, when other people’s attitude, culture or perspective differ to my own there is a tendency to split them off as ‘one of them’ and cast them aside.

Working with young people from a range of cultural backgrounds I believe there is a natural tendency for care workers to identify with those young people who they feel are similar to themselves. From my own experiences this is because we feel safe with ‘what we know’ and are  frightened of the unknown. However, we may be naive in assuming that similarities based on colour, race, cultural background or upbringing allow us to identify with another person. In making this assumption we are failing to appeciate the unique nature of human beings and their own experiences and emotions. It is my intention to explore in this next example how issues of over-identification with a young person’s cultural background can impact negatively on the practice of a care worker.

In the relatively short time I have worked as a care worker, I have unconsciously differentiated between those young people I perceive I am able to identify with and those I am not. One particular young man, Graham, who is 15 years old, I perceived to have a similar cultural background to myself and I felt I was able to indentify well with his circumstances. Over time, we formed a good relationship and Graham seemed to appreciate the practical support I was able to provide as well as valuing the emotional support I could offer.

As an inexperienced care worker, I was happy with the success of the relationship that we had been able to form. However this changed when Graham experienced further rejection from his biological parents and began absconding and becoming very despondent. I offered emotional support to Graham and ensured he knew that I was available to listen if he felt he wanted to share his problems. However, he did not respond and I began to feel increasingly hopeless and despairing myself. Initially I struggled to understand why he would not allow me to help him through this troubled time and I began to feel rejected myself. I recognised that Graham’s feelings were being transferred to me in what Freud termed ‘the transference’ (Freud cited in Bower, 1995). This afforded me some insight into Graham’s emotions and put into perspective our relationship. Although we had formed a healthy relationship, it was still at a relatively early stage and I had naively over-identified with Graham in my own mind. I felt that I could empathise with him, but on reflection I was not able to understand the impact that his parents’ rejection had on his emotions. I had failed to recognise that my pre-conceived ideas and experiences had placed a false significance on our relationship. Just because there were a number of similarities, I had not given enough consideration to the differences. Graham and I continue to build our relationship and on more and more occasions he feels able to accept my support.

Both of the above examples illustrate how issues of culture and difference can impact on practice.  In the first example, Richard’s attitudes and beliefs were in conflict with my own and my own pre-conceived stereotypes subconsciously influenced my approach. In the second example, it was illustrated how issues of culture and difference are often subtle concepts unique to every individual. When we think of different cultures we often think of race, ethnicity or religion but I hope I have illustrated how they can be less obvious but equally important. The very fact that these young people are in care demands a perceptive and thorough understanding of the unique nature of their lives.

I feel that it is incumbent upon care workers to identify and where neccessary rectify their practice in responding to cultural differences. This requires recognition and a better understanding of a child’s life in care and an ability to reflect on these different circumstances. This allows those that work with vulnerable children and young people to build a relationship that is appropriate to the needs of each individual .



Bower, M and Trowell, J. (1995) The Emotional Needs of Young People and Their Families: Using Psychoanalytic Ideas in the Community. London and New York, Routledge.
Jary, D. and Jary, J. (1991) The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology
Kidd, W. (2001) Culture and Identity. Palgrave Macmillan
Ward A, Kasinski K, Pooley J, Worthington A (2003). Therapeutic Communities for Children and Young People. London and New York, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Sharpe, C. (2006) Working with Difference and Diversity. Eagle House Graduate Diploma Notes


“Census 2001: London”. Office for National Statistics.
Available URL: uk/census2001/profiles/H-A.asp (Accessed on 24 July 2006).

“Every race, colour, nation and religion on earth”. Guardian Unlimited, 21 January 2005. Available URL: http://www.,2763,1395534,00.html (Accessed on 24 July 2006).