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National research and enquiry has learned of ineffective and inadequate communication and relationship-building with children over many years. A recent study by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol, as part of the Care research series, found that almost half of all 4 to 7 year olds in care have not had the reason for them being taken into care fully explained to them and that one in five didn’t know who their Social Worker was, although children in this age-group were most likely to place their trust in Social Workers.
Such findings demonstrate a clear need for Social Workers to be better equipped in communicating with young children – enabling them to explain their role, provide information, and capture the child’s view of their lived world and experiences in familiar, appropriate and accessible ways.
Entering into the child’s world
Social work is essentially communication- and relational-based, with a focus on face-to-face work, helping children and their families to deal with challenges and change in their lives. Applying Dan Hughes’ PACE model to the Social Worker’s relationship with the young child provides a simple framework for relational roles, built on the core social work principles of acceptance, empathy and trust. The use of Storytelling techniques and methods provide the Social Worker with a way of adapting and applying the PACE model to their direct practice with children, entering the child’s world and using a form of communication that is familiar and appealing.
I’m a Storyteller…
Much of our lives are conducted through storytelling: using verbal accounts of experiences, events and the various relationships in our lives. Storytelling has been an established method of communication across many countries, cultures and races for thousands of years; it exists in the child’s world and uses their language in a format of simple words and pictures that are familiar to them. For many years, therapists and counsellors have used storytelling as a therapeutic tool to support traumatised children. Storytelling has not yet entered universal social work practice, although its techniques support relationship-building, creativity, reciprocity and the development of rapport with children. Storytelling provides Social Workers with a valuable, versatile, useful tool to communicate key messages and convey understanding to young children.
Evidencing the narrative
Storytelling may be viewed by many Social Workers as an exclusive tool for therapists – outside their reach as an everyday communication technique or tool. Over the past 3 years, I have developed and delivered multiple pilots, workshops and training resources in local authorities and independent foster care agencies, evidencing the relevance and accessibility of storytelling techniques in social work practice. Stories were created using interactive storyboards, Homemade Story Books, and other tools – applying the simple formula of words and pictures with a narrative focusing on feelings and wishes. In practice, real children’s true stories were told and heard, loudly and clearly, in reports to Panel, Court and in many forms of planning for their future. Feedback from Independent Reviewing Officers commented on children “presenting their stories at their LAC Reviews,” of “their life in care, their birth family and their wishes as a family about their long term future.” These gave the children an overwhelming sense of ownership and achievement. “The book was brilliant – it was theirs!”
Let’s start with ‘Hello!’
Young children can often struggle to understand the Social Worker’s role and make meaning of the assessment process. If Social Workers are to tackle this thorny issue effectively, they need to start at the beginning – with Hello! Introductions are an essential part of developing rapport, gaining trust and laying the foundations for the professional relationship. Storytelling allows the Social Worker to enter into the child’s world, using their language – through words, pictures, characters and illustrations. The use of storytelling provides a framework from the very beginning of the relationship, supporting the Social Worker to introduce themselves, explaining their role in ways that are simple, meaningful and familiar to children.
The Tale of 3 Houses, a Wizard and a Fairy
Many Social Workers are applying Signs of Safety to their practice, with the “3 houses” tool, and the use of “Wizards and Fairies”, familiar to many Social Workers in their everyday practice. Adding storytelling methods and techniques helps to enrich Signs of Safety, helping the child to conceptualise, express their wishes and feelings and build their understanding. Story telling provides a method of using words and pictures to convey key safeguarding information in a format familiar to young children, that they can understand and make meaning from. However, applying Signs of Safety techniques to practice requires Social Workers to be familiar with and confident in using words and pictures to develop and communicate safety plans with children. Social Workers able to use, adapt and apply storytelling to their practice enable more effective communication with young children. This is a skill that needs to be developed through the provision of good quality training and experiential learning, tailored to the needs of Social Workers.
By Lisa Brett, Consultant Trainer, Creative Training Solutions. Lisa is a highly experienced trainer in communicating with young children. She is a registered social worker, Academic Tutor (Step Up To Social Work) and Guest Lecturer (Social Work degree and MA), specialising in the voice of the child.