The professional, personal, and private self of the social pedagogue
Building trusting and authentic relationships with children is very important in social pedagogy. Through relationships we can show children that we care, role model how they can have positive relationships with others, but also learn a lot about who they are. Without relationships we wouldn’t be able to really know a child, find out what they are thinking about and how they see the world. And without that we would not be able to help them, to support their development. After all, every child is very unique, and we can only appreciate their uniqueness if we know them well, if we look for their hidden talents and find out what brings them joy or causes them sorrow. For children themselves, these relationships are also very important, and they want to know who we are as a person, not just what we do as a professional.
This can often cause challenges for professionals about what it means to be professional and to what extent we are able to be personal. Social pedagogues would argue that we can’t be professional without being personal, so we have to be both. What we must avoid is not the personal but the private self. Especially in Denmark this distinction is referred to as the 3 Ps: the professional, the personal and the private self of the social pedagogue.
The professional self is fundamental, because it ensures that the relationship with a child is both professional and personal. It helps us explain and understand a child’s behaviour, for example to know that a foster child might refuse to go to school, not because he can’t be bothered but because he has had traumatic experiences in education before. So the professional self draws on our knowledge of the law, of relevant policies, and of research, practice evidence and theory connected to our field of practice. The professional self makes the relationship with a child purposeful, because as professionals we will have particular aims for the child, for example for a foster girl to get along well with her siblings. In this sense, the professional self frames the relationship and ensures that we never lose sight of those aims, that everything we do has a purpose.
The personal self is about how we engage with the child in a way that shows them who we are, so that we can develop a better, more genuine relationship with them. By actually being who we are and using our personality, but also showing our flaws, we can encourage children to be who they are and not to feel inferior to us. Using our personal self in a social pedagogical way requires a lot of professional reflections (which is where the professional self comes in): we have to know what we aim to achieve through the relationship, how the relationship may help the child, why this requires us to be authentic and how we can ensure that this is beneficial to the child. For example, if a boy has just lost a parent we might choose to talk about someone we have lost who was dear to us, how we have felt and how we have coped with the loss. This might help the child see that he is not the only one who has been in such a situation and has felt very sad, and it might provide a chance to talk about how we can support him through this difficult period, how he might want to commemorate his parent.
The private self sets the personal boundaries of what we do not want to (or feel unable to) share with a child and should therefore not be brought into the relationship. The private self is who we are with those closest to us, our own family and closest friends. The private self draws the line between what is personal and what is private, and where we draw the line needs to be our own decision. It is fine to choose not to share some of our own experiences that have shaped who we are, especially if we haven’t fully processed them or feel that sharing them would not be helpful to the child. For example, if we are still feeling depressed about the loss of someone dear to us, then sharing this with the boy mentioned above could be very unhelpful for both of us. It is also important to understand that often the private self has an effect on how we engage with a child, for example that we’ll avoid talking to the boy who has just lost his parent, which might make him feel even more alone, or unconsciously doting on a girl who reminds us of our daughter. Therefore we need to reflect on our own behaviour and recognise when our reactions to a child may have something to do with what is part of our private self, and to be open to discuss this in professional supervision so that we can gain a deeper understanding of our private, personal and professional self and improve our practice.
The 3 Ps are all constantly in play during practice, meaning that we need to constantly reflect on how our work impacts on our professional, personal and private self. Especially in situations where we show our vulnerabilities, we must consider how it might affect our private self so that we respond in a professional and personal manner. But the 3 Ps is not just a useful model in challenging practice situations but can be applied more broadly, as this example from a German youth worker shows:
‘One of the boys in the youth group was always acting out and drew everybody’s attention to him through his behaviour. I decided to give him attention for positive behaviour instead and we ended up playing table tennis. I am pretty good at table tennis and he showed a keen interest and was eager to beat me. Using the 3 Ps I reflected that professionally I wanted us to get along well, to have a better relationship, to have an opportunity to find out more about him by just talking. I also wanted him to get better at table tennis. The personal self was about using the opportunity to talk a little about myself, my family and find out more about him and his family. I also wanted him to feel liked for who he is. I also reflected on how I could best work with his sense of competitiveness – he was desperate to beat me and enjoyed getting close to it in a couple of sets. The private self in me would normally have responded with being very competitive myself, so I had to keep that in check, because my professional aim would have been undermined. I wanted him to have a success experience but one that he’d worked hard for and could feel a sense of accomplishment about. In the end we played for about two hours before he beat me. We bonded really well and he was very proud of himself. Also his behaviour significantly improved and he engaged far more than he had previously.’