Thinking about relationships in group care

Christopher Beedell (in 1970)

To ‘achieve a way of living for a group of
individuals’: Clare Winnicott (1964) uses this simple phrase towards the
end of a short but intensely relevant discussion of the aims of
residential care in small group homes. She begins by stating the
worker’s responsibility to provide ‘real experiences of good care,
comfort and control’, and says, in a haunting phrase: ‘These good
experiences are not only the stuff of life, but the stuff that dreams
are made of, and have the power to become part of the child’s inner
psychic reality, correcting the past and creating the future.’ She goes
on to stress the therapeutic and educational importance of
individualizing the treatment given ‘so that it becomes a personal real
experience for each child’. Then she faces the difficulty of doing this
within the complex setting of a group and says that one of the essential
skills of the residential worker is ‘to achieve a way of living for a
group of individuals’.

In this I think she implies much that I have tried
to spell out more extensively: the responsibility of the worker to, and
for the unit; the inseparability of system maintenance, therapy and
education and so on. But for the moment we can use this phrase to
describe the need for a quality of relationships which must be reached
for. Well-considered and sensitively contrived daily arrangements may
provide a way of existing; they do not, in themselves, achieve a way of
living. Adults and children have, minimally, to find ways to put up with
one another. For some children, and some staff, at certain times this is
perhaps all that can be achieved. Yet, if a residential unit is to be
more than a place in which one marks time, children and staff have to
achieve some sort of relationship.

Good relationships

Relationship is a dangerous and curious word. It can be used to cover a
multitude of interactions, shallow or deep, profitable to the
individuals concerned or perhaps even damaging. It is necessary,
therefore, to try to specify the criteria by which one may recognize a
good relationship. In essence, we can recognize a good relationship
between two people when they can be, to some extent, less defended with
one another than is generally the case in their social interactions and
when this leads to a situation in which there is some mutual
recognition, implicit or explicit, of their actual or potential value
and threat to one another.

Used in this way, it seems useful to say that the
establishment of good relationships between at least some members of the
staff and other staff, some staff members and some children, and some
children one with another describes the achievement of a way of living
for a group of individuals in one limited sense of that phrase.

The topic of ‘good relationships’ could involve us
in very wide-ranging discussion, so much must remain unsaid in what
follows. But it will be useful to list, very briefly, some of the
factors that seem to be necessary for the establishment of good
relationships in all settings and then to expand on those which are of
peculiar importance in the residential setting.

For there to be a possibility of good relationships
developing we can say that there has to be:

  1. a channel of communication between the two
    parties and some mutually understood language;
  2. a minimal readiness to interact, brought about
    either by some implicit, or explicitly agreed contract, or by some
    shared activity or circumstance;
  3. a capacity, at least minimally in both parties,
    to put together and recognize in oneself and in the other the
    personal significance of at least some of the multitude of small
    events which constitute the interaction between the two;
  4. some awareness, often implicit, to the influence
    on behaviour of bodily states, the immediate social setting, and the
    past history of the individuals concerned.

To these, (which are almost a priori
conditions deriving from the definition) I think most ‘counsellors’
would add:

      5. a sense, at
least minimally in both parties and probably more strongly in one party,
of one’s own value as a person and thus of some responsibility and concern for oneself and for the other;

      6. a capacity
on both sides to wait on events to some extent.

This implies some perception of oneself and the
other as separate, ongoing and potentially independent as well as
dependent, and is some guarantee against attempts at total take-over of
the other person or an invasion by one party of defences which the other
is not prepared to lower or disarm.

In any given situation it may be difficult to achieve these conditions
because of the nature and personal resources of the parties involved.
For example, one person may be ‘deaf’ to a particular channel of
communication used by the other, or unable to switch to another channel.
(‘I don’t know what he is getting at’ or ‘what is this strange behaviour
going on now?’) Or one person may be unable to ‘hear’ the other, not
because he cannot normally do so, but because there is so much
irrelevant ‘noise’ going on that the important signal cannot be
distinguished. (‘I didn’t realize Joe was so upset because Jane, Gill
and Jack were clamouring for attention’ or ‘because I was so cross at
his messing his pants’.)

It becomes clear from this that staff in residential
units must pay attention to all the persons they are involved with i.e.,
to each individual’s potential to understand a language, to interact, to
integrate interaction in the present, past and possible future, to value
themselves and to respect (i.e., appreciate the value of) others.
Ultimately the children too must be able to do some of this themselves
and be aware of some of all this in others.

These potentials, and the awareness of them, roughly outline the
interpersonal context of good relationships between children and
grown-ups. But the social context of the unit in which all these people
operate and its compounding with their particular natures and resources
is often as important, if not more so. This is particularly true in
residential work, and other ‘life space’ situations where members of a
group have little choice but to continue to interact, more or less
publicly, in a whole variety of life situations, some defined by
external demands (e.g., provision of food only at mealtimes), some by
internal stresses (e.g., having a temper tantrum or a headache), and
some by a combination of these (e.g., coping with a child in a temper
tantrum when it is time for school and it is your half-day off).

Accepting this formulation it can be seen how
agreement on arrangements for daily living affects good relationships
and vice-versa. A very large number of interactions will take place in
response to the demands of system maintenance. A large number-perhaps as
many or more will take place in situations where these demands are
minimal or absent. One cannot say that the former are more or less
important than the latter in making good relationships but they are
different in quality and should be recognized as such.

Now, the task of achieving good relationships among
a group of individuals living together can be more closely described. It
will require a capacity from the worker to be undefended to some extent
and to know in which respects he values himself or is threatened. It
will require continuous sensitivity to each other individual he
encounters. And it will require, to a very high degree, a capacity to
perceive both the boundaries of his situation given by the social
context (e.g., whether demands of system maintenance are relevant or
not), and the boundaries within himself and the other given by internal
defences or readiness to drop them. In this last respect the residential
worker’s perception is particularly important, for he operates in
circumstances over which he has a considerable degree of physical
control and some degree of social control (e.g., he may be able to
choose a group of children to play with or put to bed). At the same time
because he nearly always operates with individuals in the context of a
group (large or small) he has to continuously perceive and re-perceive
the boundaries of the particular situation he is operating in for the
time being and know which particular individuals are included in it or
excluded from it. This ‘boundary consciousness’ is especially important
for the leader of a unit in relation to ‘outside’ the unit. In a
different form it is essential to each member of staff in all their work
with children within the unit. It is also necessary to working
relationships with other staff members, although here the responsibility
for it is more easily shared.

One difficult point arises here: there is a tension
between the rather public nature of the very many interactions taking
place (many of which can grow into relationships), and perceived and
respected boundaries which imply some kind of insulation of one set of
interactions/relationships from another. To achieve relationship there
may have to be privacy which allows for undefendedness; but if these
relationships are to continue in a context where more people are
involved this privacy cannot always be absolute. So the insulation must
protect the developing relationship from other people or pressures which
might break into it destructively e.g., other children might be
discouraged from breaking into a particular child’s play with a worker,
or it must not be broken off abruptly because the dinner bell goes. At
the same time it may be valuable to allow other influences through the
insulating boundary e.g., to point out that other children sometimes
share this kind of play with the worker, that it will be Ann’s turn
next, or that others (not immediately present) will be affected if we
are late for dinner. This kind of management of boundaries so that they
can be insulating or permeable is extremely difficult to achieve all the
time but represents an ideal of task performance to which one can
constantly approximate. The sum total of very many such boundaried
interactions, constantly changing through time and circumstances,
constitutes the daily space of a residential unit. Sensitive and
appropriate management of them is implied in ‘achieving a way of living
for a group of individuals’.


Winnicott, C. (1964) Casework
and the residential treatment of children. Child Care and
Social Work, 28-39, Hitchin, Hertfordshire: Codicote Press

This feature: Extract from Beedell, C. (1970) .
Residential life with children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,

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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