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Making a difference

Practitioners must be able to listen, talk, communicate and engage with children and young people if they are going to make a real difference to their lives. The key principles of collaborative, relational, child-centred working underpin all the ideas in this bestselling, practice-focused textbook.

Using an innovative ‘Knowing, Being, Doing’ model, it features reflective exercises, practice examples, vignettes, cutting-edge research findings and theoretical perspectives.

This new edition includes:

• Updated references to policy, legislation, professional requirements, practice tools and research, including around unaccompanied young refugees and asylum seekers, and child sexual exploitation;

• New learning from ethnographic and observational research of social workers’ direct practice with children;

• Added focus on the context for practice, including the role of supervision and organisational containment in developing practitioners’ emotional capabilities.

With detailed coverage of key skills, this book will equip students and practitioners with the critical thinking and tools needed for effective practice in order to promote the welfare, protection and rights of children and young people.

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The importance of mutual engagement and communication between children, young people and their social workers can no longer be ignored. It is now clear that, if they are to understand them and make a real difference to their lives, practitioners must be able to relate to children and young people, listen to them, support them and fully involve them in matters that concern them. Indeed this can be a matter of life and death. Inquiries into the abuse, neglect, and non-accidental deaths of children and young people reveal time and time again how risks to them may be increased if professionals charged with their care and protection do not spend time getting to know them, finding out what they think and feel, and trying to make sense of their experiences (Ofsted, 2011; Sidebotham et al, 2016).

Numerous research studies report how professionals’ engagement with children and young people and the extent to which they are able to facilitate their participation make a significant difference to the quality of assessments, planning and service provision. Children and young people want to be actively included when decisions are being made about them. They also have a right to this, as set out in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: a right to express their views in all matters that affect them and for these views to be taken into account. As outlined in Chapter Two, this principle has now been enshrined in law, policy and practice guidance across services for children, young people and families in the UK (Thomas, 2015).

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“It seems like they have to do all this form filling, their bosses’ bosses make them do it, but it makes them forget about us.” (Boy, 16, consulted by 11 Million, quoted in Laming, 2009, p 23)

This chapter considers the nature and place of engagement and communication between social workers, children and young people within the professional and interprofessional context of children’s services. The interactions and conversations between children and adults within a professional relationship tend to offer a variety of challenges to the social worker in addition to those in other familial or social contexts. This is largely due to the nature and complexity of the particular professional roles and tasks that structure the connection between social worker and child. Such roles and tasks are dictated by social policy, legislation and practice guidance, which are themselves influenced by the prevailing social, cultural and political discourses of the time (Whitfield, 2009). Statutory requirements, policy initiatives, practice guidance and assessment frameworks change over time and jurisdiction, shaping the nature and importance of tasks such as informing, interviewing, consulting or supporting children.

These factors have led to significant variations in the nature and importance of direct work with children and young people over recent decades. No doubt practice requirements will continue to develop in future years with shifting political agendas and ongoing social and cultural changes. To clarify the current context and expectations in England, this chapter uses the vignette of a social work student who is wanting to learn more about the influences that have shaped the professional role with children in order to help her understand why she should approach her work in a particular way.

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“[A] good listener . . . she just listens and tries not to get the words muddled around.” (Carol, aged 10, quoted in Cossar et al, 2016, p 106)

Chapter Two considered some of the reasons why it is so important that social workers and other professionals engage and communicate directly with children and young people and what can get in the way of them doing so effectively. Later chapters explore in more detail different aspects of communication and engagement with children and young people and consider how workers may develop the specific knowledge and capabilities they need for their roles and tasks. This requires, however, a baseline understanding of what factors and processes might constitute effective or helpful practice. While Chapter Four looks more broadly at findings from outcome studies and qualitative inquiries with professionals and families, this chapter hears first from children and young people themselves about what they prefer, what has been unhelpful, and what they would like professionals to do differently in their communications and interactions with them.

There is now a significant body of research into children’s views on the contact they have had with social workers and other professionals in a range of contexts and for a variety of reasons. The ‘Further reading and resources’ section at the end of the chapter itemises some of these so that readers can consult studies relevant to their particular role. While many of these studies have shed light on what children liked and found helpful, a number also report their dissatisfaction at some professional practices.

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Communication lies at the heart of the social work process; it is the very means by which assessments, planning, interventions and reviews are carried out with children and young people (Trevithick, 2012). ‘Communication’, though, is a complex term, covering a whole range of behaviours and interpersonal processes. Definitions of what it involves and what makes it work are not necessarily consensual. This chapter reviews some key perspectives on communication, considering their relevance and usefulness for different social work roles and tasks with children and young people. They are illustrated through the practice vignettes of Robbie, Manako and Mandy.

The most simple and straightforward way of thinking about communication is that it involves a linear process of exchanging information, or what might be termed messages. Each message is thought to have a basic content – something that one person wants or needs to let another know about. This message is then purposely transmitted to another person or persons. In relation to the practice vignette on Robbie, examples of transmission of messages might include Ben notifying Robbie about his father’s request to reinitiate contact, or Robbie telling Ben that he does not like the food his foster carer cooks for him. Howe (1996) refers to such exchanges of basic messages as ‘surface interactions’. These primarily involve conscious thoughts and intentions and are conveyed deliberately through formal communication systems, such as verbal language, writing or a sign language such as British Sign Language (BSL). Language needs to be shared as messages might not get through otherwise if, for example, Ben were to use jargon that Robbie is not familiar with or concepts that Robbie does not understand.

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Earlier chapters in this book have considered children and young people’s views and preferences about their engagement and communication with social workers and some of the interpersonal and contextual dynamics that facilitate or interfere with this. This chapter now further explores what might be encompassed by terms like ‘effectiveness’ and ‘capabilities’ in direct work with children and young people. The analogies of driving a car and playing a musical instrument are used to explore definitions of skill and competence. A framework is presented to help practitioners develop the kinds of knowledge, approaches, values and personal qualities they will need if they are to meet their statutory requirements to support children and young people, keep them informed and fully involve them in all matters that concern them. The practice vignettes of Niamh, Ghadi, and Kofi illustrate these different aspects of direct work with children and young people.

Direct work is an umbrella term covering the engagement, communication and interactions that social workers have with children and young people as part of their roles and tasks (Tait and Wosu, 2012). It includes such diverse activities as face-to-face conversations, phone calls, letters, emails, focused interventions, play or activities, going for a walk or a coffee together, or driving together to a contact visit. A worker who is thought to be effective in his or her direct work with children and young people might commonly be described as having a good level of skills in this aspect of practice. But is there a shared understanding of what these skills are or even of what is meant by the term ‘skill’? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a skill as a ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty’, an ‘ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice’ that might involve ‘practical knowledge’ or understanding of something ‘in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness’.

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The preceding chapters have emphasised that how practitioners engage and communicate with children and young people is as much about who they are themselves, their ethics and beliefs, and what they understand about children and childhood, as it is about the methods and techniques they have learned. These qualities have been termed ‘knowing’, ‘being’ and ‘doing’ domains of ‘core capability’ in communication. Acquiring these will require professionals to develop their knowledge, values, skills and ‘use of self’ in a range of ways.

Some readers will have sought out this book because they are just beginning to work professionally with children and young people, while others may be experienced practitioners who wish to further develop their skills, perhaps because they are in a new role or because their work with a particular young person is especially challenging. Whichever of these is the case, an essential place to begin is by forming a realistic appraisal of both strengths and areas of struggle in order to identify transferable skills and future learning and development needs. Reflective exercises in this chapter facilitate this process. The practice vignettes of Millie, a social work student, and Edwin, an experienced practitioner, are threaded throughout, enabling the kinds of issues under discussion to be explored and illustrated.

Determining your existing strengths will help you build on what you are already good at and identify where these skills and capabilities may be transferable to other situations. A good place to start is to reflect in some depth on those children you have worked with where you were able to engage and communicate with them well.

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It can be difficult to second-guess in advance exactly how children and young people might respond to contact with a new worker. Many will be unclear about who the practitioner is and the purpose of the contact, and will need this explaining carefully. While some children may be desperate to off-load significant information or to receive help, others could be dreading the first meeting with a worker. A number will have been influenced in advance by their parents’ and carers’ feelings about professional involvement, even primed to respond in a particular way. Such dynamics may interfere with the engagement the worker is trying to form with children and young people and may cause ‘noise’ or miscommunications.

This chapter covers how to prepare for the first meeting with a particular child, young person or sibling group, attending to these kinds of issues. Ensuring that the right kind of context is put in place can make a real difference as to how all family members feel about future contact with the worker and with the professional system as a whole. As many initial contacts take place in the presence of a parent, carer or other professional, the complexities of three-way communications are also discussed. A vignette of a fictional, but common, situation is used to illustrate the kinds of issues that arise for a social worker in planning to meet with a family for the first time.

In an ideal world, practitioners should always have enough time to learn as much as possible in advance about a child or young person and the way he or she engages and communicates.

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“They just put it in the report and they don’t even tell our family what they’re going to write, so that’s what I don’t like about the social.” (Dominic, aged 10, quoted in Cossar et al, 2016, p 109)

Relational communication with children and young people themselves, not just their parents and carers, should lie at the heart of assessment, decision making and planning. Social workers are required by policy, legislation and practice guidance to seek out and listen to children’s thoughts and feelings about their lives and experiences and, while balancing them with assessment of their best interests, take their opinions and preferences into account (HM Government, 2015a). This means that time and effort must be given to creating a facilitating context in which children feel safe and encouraged to explore and share what are often complex, troubling and ambiguous experiences, thoughts and feelings. To borrow a dressmaking metaphor, the methods, tools and frameworks for practice will need to be tailored to the individual young person and the context for the involvement so that the social worker’s approach is ‘made-to-measure’ rather than ‘one size fits all’. This chapter thus focuses on how to create a more bespoke approach to assessment work, considering environmental and relational conditions and how methods and tools might be adapted sensitively and creatively to the individual. The vignette of Tanya and the Doyle family, first encountered in Chapter Seven, is further developed to explore and illustrate these issues.

Why and how practitioners undertake assessments with children, young people, their families and carers varies not only in relation to the needs of each family but also according to the relevant legislation, policy frameworks and practice guidance that determine professional roles and tasks.

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Children and young people are not always able to clearly explain what they think or feel, want or need, hope or fear in a way that social workers and other adults can readily understand. They may not have the words and concepts to name inner thoughts, feelings and complex experiences. Some may be too caught up in what is happening to them to see things clearly. Others could be trying to hide things because of either imaginary or very real fear of the consequences if they tell.

Observing children and young people in their environment is an important complementary or alternative way of gathering information and making sense of their worlds in such circumstances. It can shed light on how children are thinking and feeling, the dynamics and relationships between family members, and children’s experience of being parented. What is seen may confirm or contradict what has been said verbally, or may deepen understanding of ambiguous or subtle communications. This chapter considers some different approaches to observation and helps readers develop their observational skills. The practice vignette of the Doyle family is continued as social worker Tanya begins to observe Jack (age six) and Isabella (six months) as part of her assessment.

Readers might assume that observation is a straightforward technique. After all, being aware of and observing our environment is something humans (and other animals) do instinctively. However, expertise in observing is not so readily acquired; the German philosopher, playwright and poet, Goethe, noted more than a century ago, “The hardest thing to see is that which is before our own eyes” (quoted in Fawcett, 1996, p 74).

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