Good quality thinking in child protection work

Making sense of what is going on in families is a difficult analytical task for professionals. Intuitive thinking, while playing a crucial role, is insufficiently reliable to be used alone – decisions about children’s safety and well-being are too important.

So who is responsible for thinking? And how can we improve the quality of thinking in order to better safeguard children? What support do practitioners need to heighten the accuracy of their sense making?

Scie’s Learning Together to Safeguard Children: Developing a multi-agency systems approach for case reviews (2008) draws attention to these questions. It details a new “systems” model for understanding multi-agency safeguarding practice that can help generate new ideas for improving practice, contributing to improved outcomes for children, young people and their families.

Rather than seeing either individuals or systems factors as more responsible for the standard of performance, this model sees people as being part of the system – their behaviour is shaped by systemic influences. Therefore it concentrates on interactions, identifying how the many workplace factors influence individual workers’ practice for better or for worse.

Framework for thought
So what does the model have to say about thinking? It provides a framework for organising all the layers of interaction influencing work with a family. Six fundamental categories of patterns of interactions are identified, each having a set of sub-categories. One of these is “patterns in human judgement/reasoning”. This draws attention to our psychological limitations as human beings and how these can negatively affect our thinking and reasoning.

Sub-categories include common errors of human reasoning, such as failure to revise judgements and plans – a frequent feature of child abuse enquiries. More details are provided in the panel below.

The nature of these psychological limitations means that it is difficult to police our own biases. This underlies the important role of supervisors and colleagues in multi-agency teams in appraising the accuracy of an individual’s thinking. As Eileen Munro, one of the authors of the Scie report, has written: “Knowing how difficult it is to be objective about our own thinking, we need to acknowledge that good reasoning is the responsibility of the whole agency not the individual,” (Munro 2008).

It can be argued that many aspects of the innovations in children’s services in recent years are intended to provide defences against these human vulnerabilities. The systems model draws attention to the need to study whether or not these mechanisms are working and if not to explain why not. Ideas can then be generated about how to secure improvement.

System-wide interactions
Interactions with the wider system are crucial if we are to see how patterns of human judgement and reasoning manifest themselves in practice, since these help or hinder individuals’ ability to reason coherently and critically.

Why, for example, might predictable biases in human reasoning not be being picked up and rectified in supervision? If we want more attention to be given to the critical aspects of the supervisor’s role, what other tasks should they be cutting back on?

In addition to supervision, there is the role that other staff can play. Might challenges to assessments not be aired in multi-agency forums? Is there a shared culture in which it is acceptable and even desirable for professionals to query each other’s thinking? Or are conflicts of opinion repressed, perhaps out of a culture of politeness, so inhibiting good critical thinking about the management of a case?

Four common patterns in human reasoning

● Failure to review judgements and plans. One of the most persistent errors is our human slowness in revising our view of a situation or problem. Once we have formed a view on what is going on, there is a surprising tendency to fail to notice, or to dismiss, evidence that challenges that picture.

● Drift into failure. This refers to deviations from the official procedures that have become normalised in the working culture as a means of cutting corners to free up time for other tasks (Dekker 2002). It looks like a safe and efficient way of coping hence there is drift into failure. Only when an adverse outcome occurs and the practice is reviewed by others, the extent of the deviant culture becomes visible.

● Attribution error. This is the tendency to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of internal personality traits or dispositions without analysing the environment in which the behaviour occurs (Plous, 1993).

● Tunnel vision. This refers to the tendency of people when under pressure to narrow down their focus as a means of making the task manageable (Dekker, 2002). It has the benefit of allowing them to stay focused on one part of the case but has the weakness of making them slow to notice issues arising outside that narrow focus.

More on thinking about practice at


  • S Plous (1993), The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, New York: McGraw-Hill
  • S Dekker (2002), The Re-invention of Human Error. Technical Report 2002-1, Ljungbyhed, Sweden: Lund University, School of Aviation
  • E Munro (2008), “Improving reasoning in supervision”, Social Work Now, Issue 40, August 2008, pp3-10

    Further information

  • Action for Children
  • NCB

    The next three are available from

  • S Fish, E Munro, S Bairstow (2008), Scie Resource guide 13: Learning together to safeguard children: developing a multi-agency systems approach for case reviews

  • S Fish, E Munro, S Bairstow (2008), Scie Report 19: Learning together to safeguard children: developing a multi-agency systems approach for case reviews

  • L Bostock (2005), Scie Report 6: Managing risks and minimising mistakes in services to children and families


    Author: HUGHES, Lynette PENGELLY, Paul
    Title: Staff supervision in a turbulent environment: managing process and task in front-line services
    Publisher: Jessica Kingsley, 1997, 202p.bibliog

    This focuses on the interaction between supervisor and staff in the agency context. It explores the interdependence of task and process in supervision. The study discusses examples of supervisory dilemmas in the current environment of health and social services, and applies a range of theoretical ideas mainly from open systems and psychoanalysis.

    Author: BOGO Marion VAYDA Elaine
    Title: The practice of field instruction in social work: theory and process with an annotated bibliography
    Publisher: Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, 167p, bibliog

    This book is designed to guide social workers in their work as field instructors. It is unique in that it presents a conceptual system that unites social work theory taught in the classroom to actual practice in a variety of community settings. This system gives the field instructor a model to guide the student through a process that focuses attention on common elements of all social work practice situations.

    Author: FIELD, Jo
    Title: Rethinking supervision and shaping future practice
    Reference: Social Work Now, Issue 40, August 2008, pp11-18
    ISSN paper: 1173-4906

    This article considers the literature about supervision practice and then describes the introduction of the group consultation supervision model into frontline child welfare practice in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It is argued that child and welfare practice requires new ways of responding to supervision within care and protection and youth justice contexts.

    Author: TAYLOR, Hilary BECKETT, Chris McKEIGUE, Bridget
    Title: Judgements of Solomon: anxieties and defences of social workers involved in care proceedings
    Reference: Child and Family Social Work, 13(1), February 2008, pp23-31

    Evidence from social workers in child care and child protection was collected for a project exploring decision-making in care proceedings and seeking a better understanding of the causes of delay in the process. Here, this material is used to examine social workers’ feelings about their work and to explore the anxieties they expressed. Isabel Menzies’ work on containing anxiety in institutions is used to discuss how individuals’ unconscious defences against anxiety may affect the policies and practices of the organisation in which they work.

    Author: MUNRO, Eileen
    Title: Improving reasoning in supervision
    Reference: Social Work Now, Issue 40, August 2008, pp3-10

    This study discusses intuitive and analytical reasoning, their strengths and weaknesses, the role they play in social work practice, and the role of supervision in developing these skills.

    Author: MUNRO, Eileen
    Title: Improving reasoning in supervision
    Reference: Social Work Now, Issue 40, August 2008, pp3-10

    This study discusses intuitive and analytical reasoning, their strengths and weaknesses, the role they play in social work practice, and the role of supervision in developing these skills.

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