‘Making time for direct work is my definition of good social work’

Finding ways to build relationships with each individual child reminds Rachel Manley why she became a social worker

Photo: Photofusion/REX

Rachel Manley, social worker

When I was at university, the importance of direct work with children was hailed as the cornerstone of effective and accountable practice. We were taught the theories and models that we should embed into our practice with children and families. On placements, I was encouraged to utilise these models and theories in direct work in innovative ways with individuals, and reflect on their effectiveness.

I have now been in practice in a busy safeguarding team for over a year. Meaningful direct work with children can be time-consuming and I’ve learnt it may take several sessions before you are able to truly ascertain their wishes and feelings. However making time for it amongst the priorities of complex case work is essential – without their voices, our assessments, court reports and home visits are meaningless.

‘Wishes and feelings’

Sometimes I have identified a piece of work that I think will be helpful in facilitating that conversation but found it difficult to work out the best way to approach it with a child.

I particularly remember being asked on my placement to obtain wishes and feelings for a section 37 report to help the court decide if a care or supervision order was required. The boy was seven years old and had experienced his parents’ acrimonious divorce, his mother’s mental health difficulties and his father’s negative views about his mother.

Armed with a stack of worksheets but little experience, I set out on my first visit. The boy completed the tasks quite happily with me, but I found that the best conversations I had with the child were when I was in the car with him or when we went to a play centre for his final visit. As he was so guarded about what he would say about his experiences, it was the analysis of those conversations, his body language when he was talking and the nuances of his drawings that enabled me to unpick his true feelings.

‘Three houses’

The ‘three houses’ direct work tool is used extensively in our team. Although it can be used a ‘one off’ technique to understand wishes and feelings, we revisit it with children to help us identify positive and negative changes in their views of their lives.

I have used this approach in a more basic way with young children, asking them to draw the people in their house, often whilst I sit on the floor drawing my own house with them.

One five-year-old boy drew his twelve-year-old brother with a ‘sad’ face and his father much bigger than his mother. This child was living in a domestically abusive household and his father had been violent towards his brother as well as his mother. The older child was displaying challenging behaviours at home and in school and had been aggressive towards his mother. He was initially reluctant to speak with me but was very keen on motorbikes, so I spent several visits in the garage listening to him talking about bikes (as I knew nothing about them) before we could talk about family life.

Sitting and listening

A teenager that I worked with had been sexually abused by a family member. Her mother was unable to give her the support she needed, due to her own experiences of abuse, she was unable to prioritise her daughter’s needs over her own.

Although she had specialist support from victim support, the teenager wanted to talk to me about what had happened to her as I had taken her to the medical. Listening to her talk about it in her own words and explain how the flashbacks were affecting her at school and at home was incredibly hard, but it seemed that what she needed to be able to move forwards was someone who would sit and listen to her.

At the medical, she was so anxious about what was about to happen. We talked about her pet dog and the dance competitions that she competed in to try and help her relax. I let her guide the conversation and found that silences do not need to be awkward, as it became apparent that at times, she would need time to process her own thoughts.

Embracing our ‘inner child’

Keeping children’s voices at the centre of our work is written into law and policy – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Munro Report and the Children Act 1989 are just a few examples. Although time for direct work with children and families is constantly under pressure from keeping up with all the demands of the job, I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to always keep in mind that this is one of the main reasons I wanted to be a social worker. Making a conscious effort to find the approach that works for a particular child and ensuring that they are at the centre of our practice is how I’d define good social work.

An approach that works with one child will not necessarily work with another and so spending time getting to know that child, their likes and dislikes is important. I firmly believe that we need to able to ‘embrace our inner child’ when doing direct work and be able to interact with children on their level. Being able to marvel at their favourite tattered teddy bear, their collection of bugs or their pet hamster all facilitates the beginning of an effective working relationship with children!

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