Real-time communication in residential care

From CYC-NET 23 JULY 2010

Working with young people in residential settings
can feel quite different to other forms of social work, partly because
things may be much less structured and formal than working in an office or
using official meeting-rooms, and partly because there is so much more time
available in which to work alongside the young people and gradually build up
a relationship. Much of the most valuable work arises ‘on the hoof,’ in the
midst of everyday activities such as watching TV or eating supper, or it may
develop out of conflicts or moments of sadness or anxiety in ‘real time,’
perhaps straight after a difficult phone call or on the way to a visit home,
rather than being recalled or anticipated in a planned meeting. Sometimes
the pattern of communication will develop slowly and piecemeal over a number
of hours or days, with comments or reflections being added or reminders put
in as the situation moves on. It is therefore important for workers to
develop an awareness of how communication may build up over time but also
how it may ‘erupt’ in heated moments, often triggered by very minor
incidents. They also need the ability to hold in mind the different levels
at which young people may communicate both directly (verbally) and
indirectly through actions, silences, physicality and symbolism. The
advantage of the residential setting (likewise of foster care) is that the
potential for this real-time communication is immense, but using this
potential does depend on the sensitivity and skill of the workers.

Communicating in residential care also relies
critically upon an awareness of the group and how it operates, as well as on
the workers’ ability to capitalise on the opportunities for mutual support
and understanding which may arise in the group. The ‘group’ in this context
means not only the group of young people and their relationships with each
other, but also the group or team of staff — as well as the whole group of
staff and young people together (Brown and Clough 1989). There is a constant
ebb and flow of feeling and awareness across the whole group in relation not
only to the ongoing dramas of children’s lives, but also to their
relationships both with each other and with their families and friends, as
well as the interplay between all of these elements and the dynamics of the
staff group and their own networks and relationships (Emond 2002, 2005).
These complex inter-relationships and large-group dynamics are there whether
we choose to acknowledge them or not (Ward 1993), and indeed they may not
always be immediately apparent in each dialogue between worker and child,
although they are the texture within which everything else is woven, and
often the individual conversations may make little sense without a full
awareness of the whole pattern. Workers therefore need to develop the
ability to work within and across groups, picking up on the subtleties of
interaction at every level, and keeping all of this in mind even when they
are engaged in a one-to one conversation (Stokoe 2003).

These group interactions are happening all the
time and require monitoring and intervention throughout any day’s work, but
the best way to capitalise on them is for the residential unit to evolve a
pattern of group meetings both for the young people themselves and for the
whole group of staff and children, drawing on the traditions of the
‘community meeting’ in therapeutic communities (Worthington 2003a, Ward
1995). These meetings can be used to promote a culture of open and honest
communication, and to allow for the expression of those strong feelings
which inevitably arise in everyday life in such settings.

In addition to these aspects of communication,
residential care also provides the opportunities for intensive one-to-one
relationships in which a worker can offer a combination of practical and
emotional support to an individual child, often focused on the child’s
ongoing concerns about their future as well as their past (Worthington
2003b). In some cases these ‘key’ relationships may be centred on a sequence
of planned meetings, although again much of the work will arise from the
opportunities which develop in the course of everyday life and its
challenges. For many young people it is this key relationship which can
provide a means of unlocking the anxieties and even despair within which
they may feel trapped, providing a consistent and reliable relationship in
the midst of the turmoil into which they may have been thrown by their
circumstances, and offering the hope that, with the help of a trusted
figure, things may begin to improve and even resolve (Anglin 2004).  

ADRIAN WARD

Ward, A. (2007). Real-time communication in residential
care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 20, 4. pp. 5-11

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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