‘You’ll be fine with the kids, but watch your back with some of the staff’

A residential childcare worker speaks about why children's home staff need to learn how to deal with each other to prevent inflicting more harm on vulnerable children

Photo: WestEnd61/REX (posed by models)

by David Jones

It was my first day as a residential child care worker and I can still vividly recall my manager telling me, prior to introducing me to the young people, that “you’ll be fine with the kids, but watch your back with some of the staff”. He didn’t mention any names or expand on this, and such was my anticipation of meeting the children, I didn’t give his warning much consideration.

Over the years since that day, my manager’s words have resonated with me as I realised there is a prevailing culture among a minority of staff of backbiting and resentment towards other colleagues. I have worked in five children’s homes where I’ve experienced such behaviour and every time the kids have picked up on it and felt very uncomfortable as a result.

Jealous

Certain staff are actually jealous of colleagues who develop a good rapport with the young people. I’ve noticed that these staff tend to be those who spend a lot of their time in the office and either struggle or aren’t interested to interact with the children. A former colleague of mine once actually told me that they didn’t write many one-to-ones on the kids “because I don’t talk to them much”. I was dumbfounded.

When I started working with children, my manager explained that different staff have different skills, and while the workforce must try and appreciate this, it’s never an excuse to ignore your responsibilities. Some staff enjoy and are better at writing children’s logs and reports, others prefer to be involved with the kids, while some staff excel at both. Yet this is certainly an area where I and other colleagues have seen jealousies arise.

Comments such as “he enjoys playing football with the young people, but his written work is awful,” “she thinks she can do everything but who is she kidding?” and “he just hides in the office, doesn’t he like kids?” have been made about colleagues who I know are committed and passionate about their work.

‘Only here for the money’

Four staff members who had worked in children’s homes in Leicester, Norwich, Oxford and Manchester, have shared similar stories with me. We agree that staff who cultivate this unhealthy culture tend to be careerists who don’t regard the job as a vocation. They are also people who are in the wrong job and have been told by kids that “you’re only here for the money”.

As a consequence, certain protocols simply aren’t observed and good practice and common sense come second to axe grinding. Should I have an issue with a colleague, the professional and sensible thing to do is discuss it with them in private. If this doesn’t resolve the matter, I then go up the chain of command, consulting my supervisor, deputy manager and then manager, if necessary.

However, I’ve lost count of the times when a worker has gone straight to a manager and caused unnecessary anxiety and resentment for a colleague. A good manager will make this clear to the complainant and dismiss any grievances he perceives as petty, reminding the member of staff to keep a sense of proportion and behave professionally. Of course, disagreements can occur between staff at times regarding what is best practice in a particular situation, but these can and should be productive for all staff if addressed in a sensitive manner.

Children can become upset and confused

The impact on the workforce is that dedicated and hard working people can become disillusioned and demotivated, and the strained atmosphere and damaged morale this creates then filters down to the children. Sensing disquiet in what is, after all, their home, is the last thing they need and seriously compromises their environment.

Kids in children’s homes are acutely aware of workers’ moods and of any tension in the air, and can become upset and confused when the equilibrium of the home shifts. When it involves staff with whom they have developed strong relationships, the affect can be even more profound and trigger challenging behaviours.

Children must be the priority

This is an issue that needs to be tackled. Protocols should be officially stipulated in staff contracts and discussed in supervision, with disciplinary action taken if necessary. This will then work to better the children’s lives and serve to reinforce that they are the priority. Staff are always told to leave any personal problems they may have at the door, as the wellbeing of the children is paramount. Creating problems in their home only undermines this ethos.

In supervision with another manager, she told me that in 30 years of working in and managing children’s homes, she had encountered certain staff whose motivation for working with young people she simply couldn’t fathom. Unfortunately, this is still the case.

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2 Responses to ‘You’ll be fine with the kids, but watch your back with some of the staff’

  1. David Steare September 10, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    Whilst I agree that residential work can be beset by petty jealousies and more serious professional or personal envy, underpinning staff group dynamics may not be solved by supervision, contracts and disciplinary action.
    Better approaches may be via a non-blame culture that however seriously considers what is happening via Bion’s three basic assumption groups and via an approach from the USA that looks at residential child care staff ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’. Similarly, we should not forget the classic texts from the USA on residential child care with children ‘Children who Hate’ and ‘Controls from Within’ (cf. LSCI). Alternatively, use a business approach that analyses problems from a systemic perspective (cf. Eileen Munro) like the ‘Viable Systems Model’.
    When it comes to generating improvement, rather than focus on correcting what is going wrong (almost always a mistake) use an appreciative inquiry approach: get the staff team to think more positively about themselves and each other, redesign the service and then delegate so that they take responsibility for implementing it.

  2. Steve Jones September 10, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    After twenty years working for a local authority in residential child care, support worker through to team leader, I concur that some staff cause a disproportionate level of negativity through their attitudes. Attitudes that are unhelpful, inflexible, thoughtless predicated on ‘getting through the next shift’ in whatever way works from bribery to intimidation cause immense harm.

    I started a training company in 1993 specialising in complex and ‘challenging behaviours’, (SPACE Training). The issues around negative staff have become a feature of our work; developing exercises such as ‘The Magic Ingredient’ which determine whether people are ‘Drains’ or ‘Radiators’, ‘Consequences V Punishment’, another exercise which encourages people to look at their approaches to work generally and Conflict specifically.

    These exercises have taught me, (and hopefully a few others!) that we all have the potential to be ‘Drains’ and to become negative about our work, (God knows this Government doesn’t help) and that the secret to success is determined by the level of self-awareness of individual staff and healthy cultures developed in teams and organisations. Training, accountability and the ability of all of us to challenge what we percieve as bad practice help minimise these issues.