Research: Social work training and communication

Talking and listening to children are core social work skills, essential for establishing effective and respectful relationships with them.

Children consulted for the Social Care Institute for Excellence Knowledge Review 12 were clear about their needs. They wanted social workers to do certain things for them such as listen, explain, and get things done. They also wanted social workers to behave in an understanding way, to be fair, kind, trustworthy and reliable.

It’s not surprising, then, that communication skills were one of the five core skills areas identified by the Department of Health when the social work qualifying course became a three-year degree in 2003. The green paper Every Child Matters: Change for children also highlights the importance of communicating with children.


A recent report commissioned by Scie found that teaching communication skills with children is not a distinct topic in social work education. A common understanding about what makes communication skilled, and what should be taught (and how) to qualifying social workers, does not exist. This means that few examples of effective practice can be identified. While most of the 43 qualifying courses surveyed in the UK were offering some form of focused input regarding direct communication with children, in the majority the coverage was brief. Only one programme had a module dedicated solely to the topic. In others, aspects of it were found contained in various modules,

There is no general expectation that all students undergoing generic training will develop communication skills with children, and no clarity about the range and level of skill required. This is despite the fact that all social workers, including those who work primarily with adults, will have direct contact with children. Responsibility for teaching communication skills is often dispersed among academic staff, with no one person taking accountability, which further hampers the development of this area of the curriculum.

There are contrasting perspectives about the nature of childhood, which have not been reconciled in social work research and education, and which impact on the methods used to teach working with children. On the one hand, children are regarded as capable, intentional and self-determining on the other, as vulnerable and in need of protection and care. Students need the opportunity to understand and critically reflect on these contrasting views, and to consider their own response to them, so that they can work more effectively with children and young people.

Linked to this dilemma there are also contrasting perspectives about the nature of appropriate learning aims and teaching methods. Some courses focus on developing students’ personal communication capacity, for example the ability to build trust, empathy and child-centredness, and to respond to indirect and unspoken communication. Others concentrate on developing technical skills, for example the ability to convey information, to listen, and to use creative and non-verbal techniques.

Although children are becoming actively involved in teaching and assessment on qualifying social work courses, this is usually more opportunistic than strategic. Children and young people need to participate in students’ teaching and learning in more planned and consistent ways.

Good practice

• Social work programmes need to identify a children’s lead to ensure a “whole programme” approach to curriculum development.

• Programme providers should review assumptions about what counts as a generic preparation for skilled practice in social work, to ensure that communication with children is effectively included.

• They should also seek to clarify and integrate aims, learning objectives and teaching and assessment methods to ensure that every student has developed the personal capability and skill to enable them to communicate effectively with children.

• There are a range of approaches to the teaching and assessment of communications skills with children, and examples of innovative practice that could transfer to social work education from allied professional education settings, eg teachers, paediatricians, nurses and occupational therapists.

Further information 
Children’s Workforce Development Council

This article appeared in the 30 August issue under the headline “Social work training and communication”

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