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Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) Project 01 May 2013 – 31 April 2015


The research team

Principal Investigator: Dr Sally Holland, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences

Co-Investigators: Professor Viviene Cree, the University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science, Dr Gillian Ruch, University of Southampton School of Social Sciences; Dr Karen Winter, Queen's University of Belfast Sociology Social Policy and Social Work, Professor Mark Hadfield, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences.

Two FTE researchers will also be appointed (to be based in Cardiff and Edinburgh).

Research objectives

The overarching aim of the study is 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 will take place in two practice settings to encompass a range of key social work tasks with children: firstly, child and family intake and assessment social work teams, where relationships with children may have to be developed rapidly, and secondly, looked after children's teams, where there is the potential for longer term relationships. Utilising ethnographic observations in 4 teams across the UK in the first setting, and ‘video stimulated recall’ interviews in 2 teams in the second, this research project will generate data directly from practice in frontline social work. 

Specifically the research will:

a) Identify how social workers communicate with children in practice, in both early encounters and established relationships, encompassing the high priority areas of child protection and providing care for children looked after by the local authority;

b) Enable practitioners and children to reflect on specific practice encounters, helping to identify the barriers and enablers to attuned communication;

c) Identify how practice in this domain could be improved and develop paper-based and video/digital resources to enable these improvements to be realised.

The research aims to generate important new knowledge that will enhance the quality of social work education, practice and policy and in so doing improve children's experiences of practice and practice outcomes.

Research questions

1. What are social workers observed to do when they communicate with children in a range of settings (including children living at home and in foster or residential care) and with a range of aims (including child protection, assessing need and promoting well-being)?

• 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?

2. How do practitioners experience and understand their communication with a child?

• 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?

3. How do children experience and understand their relationship with social workers?

• 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?

4. What factors best facilitate communication between social work practitioners and children?

• 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)

Research summary

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.

The project will have three phases:

Phase one will be located in intake and assessment teams in four local authorities across the four UK nations and will involve 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) will be videoed when meeting to review the child's care arrangements and the video will be used in interviews with children and workers to stimulate their reflections on the meeting. These data will be complemented by a small-scale participatory video project with children involved in the study.

Phase 3 involves 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.

The findings will make an important original contribution to:

• social work policy and practice in national and international settings
• qualifying and post-qualifying social work education
• inter-professional work with vulnerable children
• social science knowledge

Impact will be realised in different, complementary ways:

• digital and paper-based resource packages for professional training and development
• academic and professional conference presentations
• publications in academic and professional journals
• academic-practice knowledge exchange activities
• enhanced professional knowledge and skills of practice and research participants

The study addresses two of the economic and societal impacts identified by Research Councils UK. These are:

1) Increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy: The project will make a contribution to knowledge and skills in relation to social work with children and young people as well as to knowledge about obstacles and opportunities in terms of communicating with vulnerable children more broadly.

2) Enhancing quality of life, health and creative output: The project will have a direct impact on those who take part in it (social workers and children), and will be of benefit to many more through the project's knowledge exchange activities. It is likely to be welcomed throughout the UK and beyond, as those working with vulnerable children struggle to find attuned ways of communicating with them. Similarly, the innovative method and tools will be readily transferable to other research and practice projects centred on work with children.

Additional Information

Further information from:

Dr Sally Holland
Cardiff University School of Social Sciences

029 20876910