Rebekah Pierre is a Professional Officer at BASW, specialising in children and family social work. As a care leaver with a background as a social work in child protection, she brings both personal and professional insight into the complexities of the looked after system. She will be sharing her insights on multi-agency working and missing episodes at the Looked After Children and Care Leavers Forum.
The term ‘child-centred practice’ is embedded into our vernacular as professionals who support children and young people. Our assessments, meetings and supervision sessions are peppered with the term, so much so that we may assume we have a strong working knowledge on what it truly means.
But when a term takes on the qualities of a buzz-word, it becomes more and more difficult to critically question, reflect on, and divorce our-selves from it so we can see it through fresh eyes (something children do continually).
In an adult-centric society, taking on a child-centred approach is more difficult than we often appreciate.
We live in a world where most spaces, activities, and even products are designed with adults in mind. Where not too long ago, the adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’ discouraged millions of growing, excited infants from doing what their brains are in-built to do: to laugh, cry, explore, taste, touch, play, and generally make noise.
Whilst this is no longer the maxim of the day, the aftermath of this punitive approach to childhood has filtered down through intergenerational trauma. The results can be seen today in children and families in diverse settings, including within the care system, where children have often experienced untold harm before they have even stepped through the door.
Moving away from stifling voices
Professionals now realise that encouraging children to take up space, express themselves and communicate (in whatever form is available to them) is essential to their child development. However, systems remain in place which restrict this.
Even within the education sector, which increasingly embraces play as a form of learning, children as young as 3 years old are expected to conform to behaviours which even adults can find difficult to adhere to, including sitting in silence, focusing for extended periods of time, and even that old British pastime - queuing.
As learning has gone digital during the pandemic, the issue has been exacerbated, with many children having no option but to engage with 2-D learning for hours on end. Other children facing digital poverty have been excluded from such opportunities altogether, silenced not only by societal norms, but also by inequality.
A commitment to child-centred practice therefore means unlearning years of subliminal messages about children’s roles in the world around them. To view them just not as nascent versions of their adult selves, but as active participants in society who have both a voice and a right to share it – including in the independent review of children’s social care which has so many connotations for their future.
Defining a child-centred approach
Working Together 2018 defines the approach as ‘keeping the child in focus when making decisions about their lives and working in partnership with them and their families’.
Going beyond well-meaning, affirmative words, it goes on to outline tangible steps that should be taken to keep children in focus, including to ‘see and speak to the child: listen to what they say; take their views seriously; and work with them and their families collaboratively when deciding how to support their needs.’
Anyone who has worked with children will know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and each child communicates differently. This is captured within the legislation, which says ‘Special provision should be put in place to support dialogue with children who have communication difficulties, unaccompanied children, refugees and those children who are victims of modern slavery and/or trafficking’.
Rooted in rights
All of the above is anchored in human rights; these may seem far-off and distant as we go about our day-to-day work of safeguarding children in the car, in the office, on the football pitch. But without them, the wonderful, creative, and transformative work that happens every day, all across the country, would be threatened.
For without freedom, how can we speak? Without access to the basics (housing, food, water, safety, education), how can we survive? And without systems in place to protect us from discrimination, how can we be fully supported to thrive?
Working Together joins these dots, reminding us that good, child-centred practice is intertwined with the Children Act 1989, the Equality Act 2010, and the United Nations Convention of the Child.
The review team must uphold rights which were hard-won over decades, to ensure children are not deprived of all that generations before them have been able to take for granted. Already, the team described children’s social care as a ‘30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape’ in its case for change document. This has led some to believe this refers to the Children Act 1989, which was developed roughly 30 years ago.
Children have had so very much taken away from them in the context of the pandemic; for some, this has included parents, relatives, health, security, education. For others, milestones, memories, celebrations for diverse cultures, the opportunity to socialise and develop crucial skills. Rights must not be added to that list.
What does a child-centred approach look like in practice?
My go-to metaphor, as someone originally from the seaside resort of Blackpool, is to compare a child-centred approach to a stick of rock in which their voices must be central. Here is what this looks like as we move toward a post-pandemic world:
- Inclusivity: Ensure that the voices of Black and minoritized children, and marginalised groups of all intersectionalities, are consulted. If there are barriers, we can ask ourselves why: Are we making our conversations accessible? Are we engaging with local communities? Are we ensuring interpreters and advocates are available?
- Ensure our work with children is differentiated for d/Deaf and disabled groups, children with special educational needs, those who are neurodivergent and others. Linking in with other professionals in the child’s life, who often hold a wealth of knowledge about their learning styles or preferred communication, can unlock new possibilities.
- Utilise diverse and creative mediums, including (but not limited to) arts and crafts, sensory play, sports, role-play, or anything food-related! Most importantly, utilise your hobbies and gifts (whether baking, basketball or budgeting know-how) to enrich sessions through the use of self.
- Adopt a trauma informed approach (as per a recent IG blog!)
- Listen to children without a pre-conceived agenda.
- Adopt an anti-poverty approach (see the British Association’s 10 priority areas for the care review for more detail)
- Treat children as experts. The pandemic is new to adults, however, children (who have increased brain plasticity) are ahead of the curve. Children can dream up new ideas for a brighter future we may never have considered.
Later this year we'll be taking a more focused look on how to better support children and young people at the Looked After Children and Care Leavers Forum 2021. Insights and expertise will be shared by the Department for Education, Adoption UK, The Fostering Network and many more key leaders and organisations. View the agenda here.