The overarching aim remains to explore how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice and how the social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them.
The research took place in three stages and generated unique data directly from practice in frontline social work.
In phase one ethnographic observations was undertaken in eight child care social work teams across the UK (two in each national context). The practice settings encompassed the range of key social work tasks associated with social work with children: firstly, in child and family intake and assessment social work teams, where relationships with children may have to be developed rapidly,and secondly, in children with disability and looked after children’s teams, where there is the potential for longer term relationships.
Phase two involved ‘video stimulated recall’ interviews with practitioners working directly with children.
The third phase of the research is focused on creating and disseminating research- informed resources for practice.
Phase one was located in intake and assessment teams in four local authorities across the four UK nations and involved observations of practice and semi-structured interviews with social workers.
In phase two, social workers and looked after children in two local authorities (in Wales & Scotland) were videoed meeting with a child and the video was used in interviews with children and workers to stimulate their reflections on the meeting.
Phase 3 involved the development of dissemination and training tools, utilising the data from the first two phases, plus videoed discussions of the findings with groups of practitioners from the four local authorities involved in phase 1.
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- How do social workers create and seize opportunities to facilitate communication?
- How do children respond to social workers in the observed encounters?
- How do social workers manage communication in different practice contexts?
- What are social workers’ reflections on a specific practice encounter prior to and following the meeting?
- How do social workers manage the tension between the bureaucratic and therapeutic dimensions of their role when communicating with children and maintain a focus on the welfare of the child as paramount?
- How do social workers conceptualise children, childhood and ‘the family’ and how does this impact on their practice?
- What is the relationship between social workers’ espoused theories of practice and their use of theories in practice?
- What are children’s reflections on a specific practice encounter prior to and following the meeting?
- What do they identify as strengths and weaknesses of the communication?
- How do a small sub-sample of children experience their relationship with their social worker over a period of time?
- Do children and practitioners identify similar or different indicators of successful communication?
- What is the impact of the practice environment? (including national and local policies, practices and cultures)
- How does the purpose of the encounter shape the nature of the communication?
- What is the impact of inter-personal factors?(such as age and cultural background of child, experience and personal identity of worker, use of structured tools and toys, levels of concern)
Summary of the research
Little is known about how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice. This research focuses on the routine communication between social workers and children. It aims to generate new knowledge that will enhance social work education, practice and policy. In doing so, we hope the research will improve children’s experiences of social work practice and policy. The research uses ethnography and video stimulated recall sessions with children and social workers.
When social workers assess allegations of child abuse, they are involved in potentially life and death situations. This work, along with the subsequent requirements to protect and promote the wellbeing of vulnerable children, from infancy to adolescence, through accurate and appropriate communicate with them, demands highly developed professional skills.
Whilst there is a substantial body of knowledge about the circumstances surrounding social workers’ communications with children in the extraordinary contexts of children being seriously harmed or killed, less is known about how social workers communicate with children in ordinary, everyday practice, the challenges they encounter in this process and the sense social workers and children make of these interactions. There is an urgent need for research to be conducted into social workers’ communication with children at key points and places in a child’s safeguarding and ‘looked after’ journey. Two such key points include the social worker-child interaction at the point of referral and assessment and in the course of longer-term relationship-building if children become ‘looked after’.
To date, we have relied largely on the retrospective reflective accounts of participants in these social worker-child encounters. We have some ideas as to what happens (research suggests that children may be overlooked or inadequately engaged with), how it happens (parents’ use of space, and physical presence to exclude a child from conversation) and why it happens (time pressures, power, intimidating emotional dynamics, exposure to risk, fear of what might be said and what to do with what is said). Currently, what is missing, and the central focus of this study, is the direct observation of social worker-child interactions. To address this gap in knowledge, this study will explore how social workers communicate with children in their ordinary, everyday practice and how the social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them.
The research will take place in two specific settings to encompass communication that takes place across a range of key social work tasks with children: firstly, in the reactive domain of frontline assessment teams, where relationships with children have to be developed rapidly, and secondly, in the more controlled environment of teams working with ‘looked after’ children in foster, residential or kinship care, where there is the potential for longer-term relationships.