Exploring how social workers communicate with children – it’s a complicated business

Last week we launched our on-line practice resources for social workers about communicating with children. Our resources are framed around a ‘home visit’ and the interactions between child and social worker that take place in this context. They are the culmination of the Talking and Listening to Children study, and as well as using findings from our research and real-life practice scenarios from our data, they also include films of social workers from across the UK discussing and reflecting on their own practice.

The TLC study was a three-year project, funded by the ESRC, which explored how social workers communicate with children and young people in their everyday practice. It was developed amidst concerns that children are not seen or heard sufficiently by social workers and other professionals when there are concerns about their welfare. The idea that children may become absent from the gaze of professionals when there are welfare concerns, is brought into sharp focus when we consider a persistent finding from reviews of child protection or inquires following the injury or death of a child, that social workers have not effectively engaged with children. To help understand this, our research set out to explore social work practice as it unfolds – we wanted to get as close as we could to social work practice, so we could so that we could learn and makes sense of why communicating with children can be so difficult in a social work context.

Our research involved members of the research team being based in 8 social work teams across the UK, trying to get a sense of what it is like to be a children and families’ social worker. We accompanied social workers to the meetings they had with children and observed what happens in these encounters. In total we observed 82 meetings between social workers and children (from babies all the way to 17 year olds), interviewing social workers before and after each of these meetings. These observations and interviews allowed us to see up close how complex and nuanced social workers’ communication with children may be. We also filmed and observed a smaller number of meetings (10) between children and social workers and then interviewed children and social workers. This allowed us to explore both child and social worker’s experiences and perspectives.

When I talk about our research, I am often asked questions like: ‘what works when communicating with children?’ or ‘why do some social workers do it well and others don’t?’ or ‘what tools should we be using to make communication with children better?’ These questions are undoubtedly driven by a desire to improve social work practice and, importantly, children’s experiences of it. However, like so many other things in life, communication between children and social workers is complex and there isn’t a quick fix.

However, just saying something is complicated is unsatisfactory – and perhaps a classic academic thing to do. Stan Cohen made the important observation back in 1975 that while its ok for sociologists to ask questions, social workers must act as if they have answers. So we’ve developed a model from our research that we hope will be helpful to social work practice in this area. The Child-Case-Context Model© uses an ecological approach to help social workers understand and think about the communication that takes place between themselves and children. To be clear – our model is not intended to be a panacea for communicating with children. Rather, we hope it will encourage social workers to consider and articulate the complexity that exists in their communication with children,  and in doing so, critically reflect on their own practice in this area. The Child-Case-Context model© has been woven in throughout the resources we have developed, showing how it might be ‘a way in’ to consider and unpack what happens and why during the different encounters that social workers have with children. Let me explain:


During the course of developing our resources, Gillian Ruch (the Principal Investigator for our project) said, ‘When you’ve met one child, you’ve met one child’. While this might be something that sounds quite ordinary, it is incredibly important (and applies equally to social workers). Social workers work with a vast range of children – each with different personalities, at different ages and stages, gender, disability, those who have had previous relationships with social workers, likes and dislikes etc. etc. I could go on listing an infinite number of variables but suffice to say, each child will be unique and as we saw in our research, all of these factors and more affect communication.


Likewise, the nature of the ‘case’ affects communication. How you communicate with a child that you have a long-standing relationship before an up and coming LAAC review is very different to how you might communicate with a toddler on a duty visit following allegations of abuse. The relationships that social workers have with parents, siblings, wider family members and other professionals, all exert influence over communication with children. Being involved with a child on a statutory basis versus a voluntary basis matters and will affect communication. One of the marked differences between social work communication and ordinary communication is that as well trying to develop build rapport and relationships with children, social workers are always assessing, thinking and making decisions or at least recommendations about children’s welfare – and this, of course, has implications for their communication and relationships with children.


Spending time with social workers has really underlined to us that the political context, the organisation and the culture of social work permeate and affect the ways in which social workers and children communicate. Working in a team with low-staff turnover, where you feel well supported by peers and your manager makes a difference, as does having supervision where there is space to focus on the relationships you have with children and to explore how you communicate with children. If relationships and communication with children are not valued in things like supervision, casenotes or even in KPIs, then it seems obvious that this will affect the way social work is practised with children. Public service reform and the wake of austerity also bear influence. The advent of agile working involving hot-desking and having to keep all your things in a locker affects how social workers feel about themselves and the value placed on their work. Under these circumstances, opportunities to ‘offload’ to someone when you come back from a difficult visit – perhaps where you have been shouted and sworn at – becomes more limited and social workers can become isolated. Likewise, if you don’t have a budget or it’s not easy to access a budget for resources and materials for doing direct work with children, there is an extra hurdle to get over, before you can begin to do what should be core to social work practice. Having a high caseload, rushing from one visit to the next, not having a chance to pause and think about what is you are going to say or do with a child, or even how you are going to ask to speak with the child on their own, all have repercussions for practice.

So, if we want to support social workers’ practice and their communication with children, then we need to be open to hearing and thinking about the messy reality of practice and acknowledging how complex it can be. Unfortunately, that means that there isn’t a quick fix for communicating with children – rather we need to focus more on how social work is practised and place greater value on the relationships that social workers have with children.


Dr Fiona Morrison

Research Fellow in Social Work

17th November 16



Child-Case-Context Model© http://www.talkingandlisteningtochildren.co.uk/

Cohen, S. (1975) “It’s all right for you to talk”: political and sociological manifestos for social work action, from R. Bailey and M. Blake (eds) Radical Social Work, Edward Arnold, London, pp 76-95.