Handling disruptive situations in residential care

Staff working in residential child care homes report challenging types of behaviour ranging from defiance and non-compliance to violence against staff, peers or self. However, research shows that most residents do not pose major behavioural challenges to staff and most homes do not experience constant disruption. Indeed, if a home does experience such disruption, something must be wrong.

About 12% of children and young people in public care in England and in Northern Ireland are in children’s homes. Most are teenagers who will have experienced considerable difficulties before placement. Providing a caring and nurturing environment that meets the needs of young people presents a considerable challenge to commissioners and providers of residential child care services. High-quality care is dependent on a staff group with the skills, experience, motivation and support to work with a group of troubled young people in an environment that might be stressful.

Serious incidents of violence are rare in residential child care rather, there is a sense of low-level, persistent, non-compliant and defiant behaviour, which could escalate if managed ineffectively. There is also great variation between homes in their ability to manage challenging situations. This is ­influenced primarily by the nature and stability of the group of residents and the quality of the staff team.

Build relationships

In addition, some homes display high tolerance levels for challenging behaviour, make great efforts to engage and build relationships with young people and have a good understanding of the contextual ­reasons for the young person presenting such behaviour.

Research has identified effective strategies to manage challenging situations. However, there are areas of practice that still need to be developed so that staff can continue to improve and develop their practice.

One of these is the importance of ­improving relationships with and between young people. There are also issues related to the system, such as the need for a wider range of accommodation. These problems need to be addressed now if children who are in residential care are to be offered a quality home and a more life-enhancing experience

Effective teamworking

Alongside the need to build relationships is the need for effective team working. Several factors that enhanced this were identified, including consistency, clear ­policies and procedures, regular team ­meetings and supervision, opportunities for team development and team debriefings to discuss issues.

Other means of building a skilled team were identified as: more targeted training and support for staff, contracting support from other professionals and more staff, although the research review found little evidence that this, in itself, increases effectiveness. Such strategies were reported to help develop staff morale and resilience which were seen by all as crucial for good practice in residential care.

Practitioners’ messages

● Staff who have the skills, qualities, attitudes and motivation to relate to young people and to build positive relationships with them are the key requirements. Recruiting staff principally on the basis of qualification and experience may not be enough. One way to enhance the assessment of the attitudes and qualities of staff is to involve young people in recruitment and assessment processes.

● The over-reliance on temporary bank staff to ensure that staffing levels are met can be unsettling for young people and does not encourage positive relationships.

● The team needs to include a range of professionals such as youth and community workers and those with skills in sports and leisure activities as well as residential social workers.

● Consideration should be given to greater use of outreach work, either using residential staff or teams with a mix of skills: this can give staff the time and space to undertake specific pieces of work with young people and their families.

● Staff need to be deployed at times that best match the needs presented by the residents. The research shows that disruptive or challenging behaviour tends to occur in the evening or late at night. This has implications for staffing rotas and raises questions about the role and deployment of waking night staff.

● Competent management within units is necessary for the maintenance of good order. This includes support to staff, clarity in generating and applying rules and procedures and building and maintaining strong teamwork.

Further information

Working with challenging and disruptive situations in residential child care: Sharing effective practice

National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care based at the National Children’s Bureau

Scottish Institute for Residential Childcare

Research abstracts: challenging situations in care

Author HICKS Leslie et al

Title Managing children’s homes: developing effective leadership in small organisations

Publisher Jessica Kingsley, 2007

Abstract The book develops an interdisciplinary understanding of what needs to be taken into account when establishing and maintaining good practice. The authors explain the variation in quality in children’s homes and how this relates to management style, working environment and staff structures. The skills and qualities that make effective managers of homes are explored. These, along with factors such as the provision of resources, are investigated to show how to attain a successful children’s home environment and longer-term achievement for looked-after children.


Title Residential child care: collaborative practice

Publisher Sage, 2006

Abstract The book analyses the collaborative role of organisations, field workers, parents, teachers, and children, and emphasises how these interprofessional relationships are crucial to ensuring children’s wellbeing. It includes learning outcomes, tutorial questions, and case studies to help aid students’ understanding.

Editor KENDRICK Andrew

Title Residential child care: prospects and challenges

Publisher Jessica Kingsley, 2008

Abstract The publication draws on research to offer guidance for developing best practice, policy and improved outcomes. Contributors discuss the concerns about poor outcomes for young people leaving care and the role of residential child care as a positive choice within care services. Key issues addressed include promoting well-being and development for young people tackling potential discrimination in residential policy and practice and responding to areas of discord.

Authors DELANO Frank, SHAH Jill

Title Professionally packaging your power in the supervisory relationship

Reference Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 5(2), August/September 2007

Abstract The article looks at the dynamic of “power” on both parties in the supervisory relationship. It also looks at the ethical responsibility of supervisors to be aware of their power and to wield it thoughtfully. It addresses the temptation for both parties to “play games” related to power, and the impact power has on other aspects of the relationship. The article discusses how both supervisor and supervised can best balance the power involved to allow for the most productive relationship and to enhance the quality of service to children and families.

This article is published in the 25 September edition of Community Care under the headline “Handling disruptive situations in residential care”

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