Longing To Belong: Children In Residential Care And Their Experiences Of Peer Relationships At School And In The Children's Home

This paper explores the meaning and experience of peer relationships for one group of 16 children aged eight to 18 living in residential care in Ireland.

  • Ruth Emond
  • Child and Family Social Work 19 (2014)

Resilience literature stresses the potential of children's educational experiences and friendships to act as protective factors against adversity. Less is known about how children living with adversity navigate these "everyday" aspects of social terrain and the particular challenges they face. This paper explores the meaning and experience of peer relationships for one group of 16 children aged eight to 18 living in residential care in Ireland. Creative, child-friendly methods were used to complete six individual interviews, which were narratively analysed. This small sample study provides insight into notions of sameness and difference and of belonging and exclusion.


Interactions with other children are central to children's experiences of everyday life in and out of school. At their best, these relationships can serve as a buffer to stress, provide support, social capital and a partial antidote to adversity.

Children navigate and negotiate their way through the "rules" of relationships, shaping their beliefs about worth, belonging, intimacy as well as exploration and alteration of self-identities.

Children in the study define a sense of place and self for their own and other's childhoods as "in care" or "mainstream". The relationships that children in residential care have with their peers may well be affected by their care status itself.


The theme of normality or the extent to which children felt the "same" or "different" from their peers, emerged strongly. Some of the children stressed their "sameness", drawing on the aspects of their physical, social, cognitive or emotional self of similarity to their classmates. Sameness appeared to have more emphasis when illuminated by another child's difference. This appeared to increase the children's sense of connection to the peers they identified with at school.

Children may become united when under threat from, say, a bullying child, sharing difficult experiences and deriving comfort from being on the inside of the everyday practices of peers. This could also result from being considered a group - a collective under adult scrutiny, rather than an individual child.

Most children felt that adults had little knowledge of their peer groups, their friendships or the adversarial relationships that they were engaged in. Many regarded teachers and residential staff positively but considered both as having boundaried roles, which had little to do with peer relationships, with the exception of bullying behaviours, which was felt should be dealt with by adults. Children preferred to turn to peers for advice and guidance, from both inside and outside the children's home.

The narratives constructed by the children to explain their experiences were central to their social identity (being in care) and personal identity (sense of self). A sense of difference from others was most frequently talked about in relation to being in care.

Implications for practice

The children's peer relationships felt different from their relationships with adults, fundamentally because their peers had elected to interact with them rather than being required to.

The tension between feeling safe and supported by the children's home and their awareness of the stigma associated with care was most keenly felt in the children's peer relationships. The difficulties the children faced in constructing a narrative of their own lives amplified this, they need a story to explain their care status that can be internalised, but also shared. Many of the children didn't fully understand why they were in care and lacked confidence and skills in how best to manage this within school and with their peers. Since they felt these relationships were outside adult domains, the children felt that they should be able to manage alone. Children voiced that "success" in school, whether that is academically, socially or behaviourally was clearly shaped by their sense of connectedness with others.

Practice guidance drawn from the study finding includes:

  • Residential, school and social care staff need to assess and support children's abilities to interact with peers, exploring how relationships are established, with whom and what they provide to the child in terms of a sense of self and community
  • Children in care need life-story work, to have a coherent story integrated into their identity. They also need advice, support and skills to enable friendships to develop and to counter difficult past relationship experiences.
  • Peer mentoring for children in care may be more effective than adult mentoring for negotiating peer relationships.
  • However, positive relationships modelled by adults are also of great significance.



Related resources:

  • Supporting adolescents on the edge of care: The role of short term stays in residential care. An evidence scope. Jo Dixon, Jenny Lee, Sarah Ellison, Leslie Hicks, Action for Children and NSPCC, April 2015
  • The Place of Residential Care in the English Child Welfare System. Research report. Di Hart, Ivana La Valle, University of East London, and Lisa Holmes, Loughborough University, June 2015
  • Therapeutic approaches to social work in residential child care settings. Literature review. Geraldine Macdonald and Dr Sharon Millen, Institute of Child Care Research, Queens University Belfast. May 2012
  • "They helped me, they supported me" Achieving outcomes and value for money in secure children's homes. Justice Studio. April 2014
  • Our Lives Our Care: Looked after children's views on their well-being. Professor Julie Selwyn and Linda Briheim-Crookall, Univesrity of Bristol and Coram Voice, 2017

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
  • That difficult age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence
  • Promoting resilience in children young people and families Frontline Briefing
  • Young person centred approaches in CSE: Promoting participation and building self efficacy: Frontline Briefing
  • Risk taking adolescents and child protection: Strategic Briefing
  • Children and young people missing from care and vulnerable to sexual exploitation: Strategic Briefing
  • RiP runs bespoke training workshops for residential children's home managers and practitioners. For more details contact vicki.giles@rip.org.uk

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.

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