Exploring Communication Between Social Workers, Children and Young People

This paper discusses findings from the ethnographic phase of The Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) project, which took place between 2013 and 2015 and explored how social workers communicate with children.

  • Authors: Karen Winter, Viviene Cree, Sophie Hallett, Mark Hadfield, Gillian Ruch, Fiona Morrison and Sally Holland
  • British Journal of Social Work, Vol 0, (2016)

Communication with children and families is the bedrock of the social work profession, but with the exception of work by Ferguson (2009, 2016) and Broadhurst and Mason (2014) there has been surprisingly little research on the nature, content and quality of these encounters.

This paper discusses findings from the ethnographic phase of The Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) project, which took place between 2013 and 2015 and explored how social workers communicate with children. Researchers were located in eight social work teams across the UK for a period of six to eight weeks each. There were 82 observations of practice with 126 children and young people ranging in age from babies to aged 17.

In half of the encounters, the child/young person was seen alone; around half took place at home and a quarter in schools with the remainder in public or specialist settings. Visits were conducted for child protection investigations, assessments and family support.

Making connections

Social workers employed a range of verbal and non-verbal skills to connect with children, including:

  • Reflecting together on a shared memory of a previous visit
  • Use of compliments
  • Weaving "safe" discussion topics with more challenging aspects.

This social worker illustrates how they had held the child in mind before the visit by thinking about how the child might feel anxious and fearful in the meeting, and what might help to engage them: "I had an intuition and I put on an odd pair of socks so that I had Mr Happy on one foot and Mr Sad on the other. And I said to her ‘which do you feel, Mr Happy or Mr Sad?' And she burst out laughing and said ‘I feel happy', then that was it, she was away."

Examples like this illustrate the social workers' use of self in making connections with children. This requires reflective awareness of one's own:

  • Personal qualities
  • Professional attributes
  • Professional responsibilities.

The use of self requires social workers to be aware of their personal preferences, their strengths and weaknesses and their relationships with children and families. It was highlighted in the study as a concept that has not been fully engaged with in professional practice.

Moving with the child

Findings from the study build on conceptualising social workers as mobile, active and interactive people and take this notion further to develop the idea of verbal and relational mobility - social workers change their relational "position" to form connections as well as changing how, what, when and where they convey their encounters. For example, while one social worker checked bedrooms, she weaved humour into the encounter and positioned herself as the children's "playmate".

Making meaning

Methods and skills used to engage with children included drawing and colouring, using Lego, constructing a genogram, and play. The findings suggest that how these methods are used is important - planned and personalised encounters helped to establish rapport and provide a safe space for communication.

Challenges to making connections

Social workers trying to work out the best way of connecting with children found this challenging for a number of reasons, including:

  • Structural factors (work overload, lack of team office space or of basic play materials)
  • Practice-related factors that privileged bureaucracy over relationships (eg, asking children and young people to repeat their stories to multiple professionals)
  • Personal factors (their own preferences and confidence levels).

Implications for practice

The findings remind us that each encounter is unique, formed within and shaped by a particular time and space, and informed by social, economic and political considerations that position children, families and social workers in particular ways. The authors conclude by suggesting that:

  • Social workers need confidence in responding to the child, which requires training and a range of activities and equipment available.
  • Social workers should be supported to respond genuinely and flexibly, rather than trying to fit themselves and the young person into a particular approach.
  • A heavy caseload, bureaucratic demands and the lack of opportunity for direct work can lead to encounters that carry no perceived or real benefit for children or families.
  • Social workers need opportunities to reflect on their practice and record the detailed content, nature and quality of their communicative encounters.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.


Related resources:

  • How Children Become Invisible in Child Protection Work: Findings from Research into Day-to-Day Social Work Practice, Ferguson, (2016)
  • Social Work Home Visits to Children and Families in the UK, Winter and Cree, (2016)

Related resources by Research in Practice:

  • Analysis and critical thinking in assessment 2nd Edition: Handbook
  • Reflective supervision: Change Project pilot resources
  • Regarding the use of practice observation methods as part of the assessment of social work practice: Evidence Scope
  • Structure and culture in children's social care - Identifying options for changing the model of social work: Evidence Scope

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on social work with children and families. Click here for more

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