Pillar talk

Colin Maginn  and Sean Cameron suggest a psychology-driven, practical approach to improve outcomes for children in care by working through the trauma they have experienced 

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As children in care continue to underperform at school, the government is content to blame social services directors, social workers, child care staff, teachers and foster parents.(1)

Apparent confirmation that we are failing as “corporate parents” was provided by Jackson and Martin who pointed an accusing finger at the care system in their influential paper: “The clearest evidence that the care system as it currently operates is failing large numbers of young people comes from studies of care leavers and from the over-representation of ex-care people among the homeless and in custodial institutions.”(2)

However, correlational relationships are not necessarily causes. For example, data on children who have attended a fracture clinic may conclusively show that, unlike children in general, all of these children had at least one broken limb. But it would be ludicrous to conclude that these clinics are dangerous places for children or that we could prevent broken limbs by improving the performance of fracture clinics.

In short, Jackson and Martin seem to discount the possibility that the problems of looked-after children might be attributable to factors occurring before they were taken into care.

So why do looked-after children perform poorly in education? An explanation of the antecedents leading to the dismal school performance of looked-after children involves “rejection” and a violation of “the need to belong”. Baumeister describes the effects of social rejection, as being “a bit like getting knocked on the head with a brick”.(3) The impact of parental rejection on any child has been explained in research which shows that, even when a child perceives parental rejection, it is enough to have dramatic effects on their personal and social adjustment.(4)

Children in care are likely to perceive parental rejection and most will have experienced neglect or abuse. The disruption, the absence of parental love and the ill-treatment they have experienced will have had a traumatic effect. So policy aimed exclusively at improving educational outcomes for looked-after children through more intensive and targeted school experiences may be missing the point that the school dimension is only one component of the intervention package.

What works for children are the personal qualities and competences of the carer.(5) Yet the role of parenting appears to have been overlooked in policy and standards and so the crucial parenting component is often missing. Surprisingly, “good parenting” merits one mention in the national minimum standards for children’s homes (and this is only in the context of respecting a child’s wish for privacy). And so, by focusing on “minimum standards”, we now have a child care system which is both prescriptive and restrictive and where the bigger picture has been lost.

“Caring for a child” is different from “caring about a child” and every child knows the difference. When we learn this difference and have policies and standards that support “caring about” activities,  improvements in outcomes may follow. By unpacking and analysing the principles of “good parenting” we can begin to ensure that children in public care will be brought up in an environment that enhances their development.

In the table above and below we have identified seven  “pillars of parenting” and suggest activities by care staff that support these pillars.

The Pillars of Parenting project is part of staff development at a London children’s home, and represents a psychology-driven, practical approach to working through the trauma the child has experienced. The project empowers care staff to engage with the child positively and therapeutically 24/7. We believe that a visiting psychologist’s time can be most effectively used by providing the people working directly with the child with detailed insights into the child’s problems (and possibilities) and to offer evidence-based strategies for support and management.

We don’t expect professional child carers to achieve the “unconditional love” that some children enjoy in highly functional families, but by incorporating the pillars of parenting into their work with children, carers and children can begin to share the experience of “authentic warmth”.

A more effective national strategy might be to reward care staff for evidence of “good parenting” and for commitment to the children in their care. This would empower them to employ a principled rather than prescriptive approach to “parenting” while highlighting the skills and behaviours that show “authentic warmth”.

By putting the horse back in front of the cart, children in care will feel “cared about” and not merely “looked after” and when a child can experience the security of knowing that someone cares, then they can begin to deal with the trauma that they have suffered, to settle into their education and look forward with optimism.

Colin Maginn is the founding director of Ingleside children’s home. He has worked with looked-after children since he graduated in psychology in 1980. Sean Cameron is co-director of the practitioner doctorate in educational psychology at University College London and is also a child psychology consultant.

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Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

Current practice on improving outcomes for looked-after children appears to be mainly focused on various forms of educational support. This article looks at how the adverse effects of rejection and social exclusion explains why outcomes for looked-after children remain poor despite considerable government expenditure. The concept of “authentic warmth” supported by seven pillars of parenting is recommended as a more promising way forward.

(1) Department for Education and Skills, Outcome Indicators for Looked-after Children, DfES, 2005
(2) S Jackson and P Martin, “Surviving the care system: education and resilience”, Journal of Adolescence, 21, pp567-583, 1998
(3) R Baumeister, “Rejected and alone”, The Psychologist, 18 (2), pp732-735, 2005
(4) R P Rohner, “The parental ‘acceptance-rejection syndrome': universal correlates of perceived rejection”, American Psychologist, November, pp830-840, 2004
(5) D McNeish, T Newman, H Roberts, What Works for Children: Effective Services for Children and Families, Open University Press, 2002

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