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Social Work with Children and Youth: Theories and Strategies in Germany

Peter Erath


Before starting my report, I would like to make some remarks. In Germany the terms social work with children or social work with youth are seldom used. More commonly used is the term social pedagogy which does not only describe work with children and youth who have psychosocial difficulties, but which is also used for work with children and youth in general, youth work for instance. That is why I'll use the terms social work and social pedagogy as synonyms in the following report.

In trying to compile a survey of the present theories and strategies of social work with children and youth in Germany, you'll find three different approaches. The emancipatory approach says that social work does not only have to educate and support children and youth but at the same time, it has to change the present society. The room-oriented approach aims at offering children and youth enough room to develop and socialize themselves. The self-oriented approach wants to support children and youth with difficulties in finding hidden or blocked abilities and competencies.

1. The model of the emancipatory social pedagogics

Giesecke (1971) says that emancipation must have been a goal of social work in the past. However, this goal was oriented on a firm conception of society: people became emancipated for society as it was to get their place in it. To act politically, that is to try to change society, was the task of those already grown-up. Social pedagogy saw no reason to take heed of the claim to change society and to integrate it into the process of education Giesecke, however, wants to integrate political emancipation into the process of socialisation as soon as possible. In his opinion, emancipatory pedagogics has to support children and youth very early in delivering themselves from the dependencies they've been caught in from the first days of their lives. According to this viewpoint, children and youth have conflicts in modern societies on principle. These conflicts have common social reasons but children and youth experience and assimilate them differently. Thus Giesecke declares:

"It's the task of social work / social pedagogy to offer the youth systematic help to deal with such conflicts successfully within the meaning of emancipation" (p. 154).

Thus, social pedagogy starts with the conflicts and contradictions the youth experience as mediated by society. That is, these troubles do not only have individual reasons and have deal with (p. 159). Giesecke tries to connect the perspectives of individual emancipation (that is, the pedagogic side) with social emancipation (that is, the political side). Therefore, the change and, if necessary, the fight of social factors causing conflicts must be included in the treatment of the troubles of the youth; the idea is that work on individual conflicts brings about political engagement (p.161). Accordingly, social pedagogy has to review all other effects of socialisation critically to advance emancipation. Moreover, it has to focus on conflicts for which others, schools for example, are jointly responsible. The goal of social pedagogy is the deliberate treatment of such conflicts within the score of a social emancipation process (p. 161).

Therefore, the task of social pedagogy has to be a communication dealing with conflicts on four dimensions:

1. the dimension of companionship and support (advice)
2. the correcting dimension (critical dialogue)
3. the topical dimension (pedagogics of spare time, education and adventure being oriented by needs)
4. the solidaric dimension (political engagement for one another and together)

To be able to put the emancipatory task into practise, the pedagogical field must have the following features:

1. The field largely has to be free of outside expectations which can't be reviewed and selected by participants (p.177).
2. The field largely has to be free of sanctions which could affect the status of participants outside the field, for example, at school and at work.
3. Inside the field, only a minimum of repression is allowed. Nobody shall be defamed and denounced on the grounds of his or her interests, needs, opinions or attitudes; nobody shall be blamed for his or her lack of success or motivation (p. 178).

The effect of emancipatory social pedagogy is first of all abstract. It starts by revealing social contradictions. The resulting process of treating conflicts leads to more self-confidence, and this causes an improved ability to resolve conflicts and to act, which finally leads to more democracy.

According to Giesecke, such an approach doesn't only have to be true for "normal" social pedagogy but also for work with children and youth with difficulties. Let me illustrate his approach briefly using an example dealing with street children as a pedagogical challenge:

According to Mueller (1997), the traditional way of dealing with children and youth in difficulties was to put them into homes in order to provide them with security, a familiar atmosphere and a preserve allowing them to be children and to grow up in peace and quiet. However, today's debate on the question of whether they can be put into homes against their will was not only triggered by the partly unsatisfactory conditions within homes, but also by an increasing tendency of youngsters to run away from such homes. Youth welfare departments had a certain tendency to solve this problem by offering parents and youngsters alternatives so that they had a free choice. Cases where children and youth are put into homes against their will are rather the exception today, and most homes are no longer ready to keep children there against their will. This explains why children and youth who are unwilling or unable to live at home or in a home increasingly live in the streets.

The anonymity of cities and the children's often surprising capability to live on their own results in the creation of 'scenes' where they can live for years. Now and then they get arrested by the police and are put into homes, but only until they run away again. Against this background, Mueller (1997) asked the question whether social work is to force young people to integrate into society and he pointed out the increasing problem of social workers to help street children and youth adequately. In his eyes, the public's agitation about the existence of these kids in wealthy Germany is not justified. It is neither possible to give thoughtless prognoses for individual cases nor to deduce threatening future scenarios for the overall social development. He particularly advises against reacting with the classical means of social work/educational theory, i.e. a "more of educational measures", to this phenomenon. According to Mueller social workers also misjudge the causes inducing children and youth to live in the streets. For along the lines of current theories of socialization, it is often supposed that faulty developments in the primary stages of socialization, social and material discrimination and the lack of offers of child and youth help are causes for deviant careers.

In its simplicity this offers a practicable knowledge for orientation allowing, despite many insecurities, to cling to the intention for normalization and integration which has been the foundation of child help ever since it was begun and which directs in spite of all reforms its methodological approach. If earlier socializing authorities fail and cause deviant careers, then we lack an effective prevention! (cf. p. 110).

According to Mueller such patterns of explanation are no longer sufficient today as they assume that the children and youth have a longing for normalization and integration. As a matter of fact, however, this longing does not exist. Even if social workers therefore talked about "reference to the living environment," everyday orientation," "low-scale offers" etc., their aim would always be the "colonization" of children. What ought to be done in his eyes is "questioning the aim itself and being ready to acknowledge that there are people who, for whatever reasons, put their lives stress "somewhere else and not on social integration" (cf. p. 111).

"What could be worse than hunger, no cash and nothing to sleep on at night but the bare ground? It is the question put to a fourteen-year old who has been living in the streets for two years without interruption. His answer: "Toothache. There's nothing worse than toothache!" (cf. p. 112)

"I'm not a tramp. In plain English (in the original, of course, German): this is our home, the street is. We are masters in the art of living!"(cf.p. 112)

Mueller thinks that street children and youth experience new forms of self-reassurance that are completely contrary to current conceptions of education. Their marked sense of the present, in the long run, does not agree with long-term conceptions of one's life that are orientated towards a future average biography. In structures of their needs from the point of developmental psychology they are still and completely children, even if they have for long experienced the anticipated status of an adult existence, even though this may only be a "borrowed identity" (cf. p. 112) So how can one deal with these children in a pedagogically responsible way?
Are they to be treated as grown-ups or as children? Mueller argues for a differentiated approach. In his eyes social work has to move "on a narrow edge between tolerating deviating behaviour, on the one hand, and ethical limits of an approval of anything possible to anyone on the other (cf. p.113). It has to respect nonconformist ways of living ... not merely as failed, but simply as different possibilities of growing up and realization of a sense in life. Social work has to help children to develop a form of living in the long run that is less burdened with risks, and it has to offer the chance of a transition to normality for children, but it must not force its help upon them. Instead, social work has to be there on interactive demand."

4. The model of room-orientated social pedagogics Boehnisch/Muenchmeier take room and time as fundamental dimensions concerning the work with children and youth (p.89) and suppose that events and institutions of social pedagogics are places among others for children and youth (p.90). They hardly visit these places because of the offers but rather because it is a part of their surroundings, that is, they go there because they're bored, because they can meet their friends there, because girls are there, etc. Offerings of social pedagogics therefore must be regarded as a part of the whole environment of children and youth. It is not that important what social workers intend with these rooms. The decisive factor is how the children and the youth deal with these rooms. According to Boehinsch/Muenchmeier, youngsters need their own rooms to find access to contacts and communication (p.91). However, it's not enough to provide rooms for the youth: "social work rather has to deal with the access and the different ways of acquiring it which the youth search and find in rooms" (p.89). Room orientation has no sense of itself but makes sense above all if you want to express a difference to conventional and functional pedagogics. In the same way youngsters strive for rooms and search new possibilities there, social workers have to try to refer their pedagogic notions to rooms. In this room orientation, a new relation among generations is also visible. Social work is, according to Boehnisch/Muenchmeier, the place in the field of education where the typical reference to the presence of the youth becomes obvious. There, the youth can live this experience which is focused on the presence: "To break off, to start something, not to finish, to have a look here and there ..."(p.116).

From this perspective, the central task of social work is to enable the youth to acquire some rooms. This possession of a room, that is to concern oneself with the spatial and social surroundings, shows a social-ecological understanding of individual processes of development and education. This theoretical perspective doesn't focus on working towards a better relationship between the youth and social workers. Social workers now have to deal with the whole social-ecological perspective. A youth centre, for instance, must be lead in a way that the experience of room is expressed. The respective rooms in which the different target groups stay have to be analysed first of all, and have to be shaped afterwards.

As an example, I'll take the work of a social worker who has a group of 11-to 16- year-old Russian children and youngsters having various difficulties in managing everyday life in school and within their families. The social worker gets a hut at the fringe of the district for the group. Two youngsters are responsible for the keys. Now the group has a room to spend some time in. However, they have to organise group life themselves. The social worker meets the youngsters once or twice per week, supports them and helps if there are conflicts. The process of acquiring the room becomes a process of learning how to get along in a group. If the group is no longer interested in the rooms or if there are too many troubles, another group will get the hut (all told, the social worker can dispose over five huts).

5. The self-orientated approach The self-orientated approach of Scherr (1997) aims at supporting children and youth in the process of becoming aware of their responsibility; it
aims at helping them to lead a more self-conscious and self-determined life than would be possible without participating in social pedagogics. In this way, youngsters shall be supported in their efforts to determine their life within an unclear and contradictory reality themselves. But Scherr also restricts the tasks of social work. Social work is not responsible for law and order and doesn't try to achieve adaption: "social work doesn't see itself as a third authority of socialisation that has to take care of all the problems which can't be solved by the family and the school" (p. 45).

Important terms in connection with Scherr are:

1. Becoming subject, that is to learn how to widen the rooms for acting self-consciously and self-determined in social relationships.
2. The terms "self-respect" and 'social recognition" primarily deal with the acknowledgment of others and the development of self-confidence with the help of comparing self-assessment and outside description. Therefore it is very important that social workers deal sensitively with and show acceptance to the attempts of the youth. They have to help youngsters to determine their identity positively so that the youngsters achieve self-respect and social esteem (p.54).
3. Development of self-confidence means that elements of which people are not yet aware are changed into a conscious and linguistic comprehensible knowledge (reflections about one's own needs, motives, reasons, intentions, interests, etc.). According to Scherr, you understand yourself better with the more you understand about the social conflicts you're living in.

Scherr (1997) proposes the following strategies for social workers:

1. Enable political learning processes and provide chances to participate.

2. Analyse possibilities and limits of self-determined living and support the youth in widening their ability to determine their life for themselves.

3. Improve the material and social living conditions of the concrete clients.

4. Enable the youth to form everyday life democratically and actively.

5. Support learning on political and cultural levels.

Social work /social pedagogics has to (consequences for social work):

1. Create structures for acting socially which make common acting possible.

2. Develop possibilities which give youngsters the feeling of being able to act and shape individually.

3. Enable youngsters to take part in decisions where they can explain their own ideas and where there ideas are respected as motivated and justified comments.

4. Enable youngsters to experience their own strength and their own abilities in contrast to their experiences of weakness in society.

5. Offer invitations and incentives to develop one's own abilities and interests extensively and actively.

6. Provide possibilities to deal with one's own life history and situation as well as outline the concept of one's own future.

7. Shape social relationships which are truthful and reliable.

Scherr illustrates his ideas with various examples. One of them is the support of unemployed youngsters:

The support of unemployed youth doesn't only have to offer a training which the youth might not succeed in. The target of social pedagogics is to help youngsters become subject.

"That's why unemployed youngsters need competencies and experiences of their own abilities which can be generalized and which are also useful to survive unemployment and to determine their life even if they have to face unstable employment or the need of unemployment benefit and welfare. Important is to strengthen self-confidence which doesn't depend on requirements of the job market " (p.157).


Boehnisch, L./Muenchmeier, R. (1989). Wozu Jugendarbeit? Orientierungen fuer

Ausbildung, Fortbildung und Praxis. Juventa-Verlag. Weinheim: Muenchen.

Giesecke, H. (1971). Die Jugendarbeit. Juventa Verlag. Weinheim; Muenchen.

Mueller,H.R. (1997). Muss Paedagogik sozialintegrativ sein? In: Neue Praxis 27, S. (pp.107-117).

Scherr, A. (1997). Subjektorientierte Jugendarbeit: Eine Einfuehrung in die Grundlagen.

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