The Relevance of Social Pedagogy in Working with Young People in Residential Child Care

By Gabriel Eichsteller and Viki Bird

Viki Bird worked as an Learning Support Assistant for 2 years in
mainstream education and then moved into mainstream residential child
care work where she has worked for 4 years. For the last 3 years Viki
has been heavily involved in the implementation of Social Pedagogy which
has been a great source of inspiration for her.

Gabriel Eichsteller is a director of Thempra, an organisation that
provides personal and professional development courses in social
pedagogy and works together with organisations on systemic
implementation projects and promotes social pedagogy across the UK.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once growing up.” Pablo Picasso

The art of being a social pedagogue

In many European countries social pedagogy has historically evolved
as a profession and discipline concerned with holistic education and
well-being. As such it has roots in youth work, social welfare, early
years, formal education, and care settings. Therefore, social pedagogues
usually work in a wide range of settings across the lifespan – working
in children’s centres, schools, youth clubs, children’s homes, with
disadvantaged groups of adults (asylum seekers, adults with
disabilities, drug users, homeless people, delinquents, or whole
communities), or in older people’s homes and hospices. Whilst the
meaning of social pedagogy in practice will differ depending on the
setting and context, there are common principles underpinning social
pedagogy.

Social pedagogy, it could be argued, is all about being………………………….

about being
with others and forming relationships, being in the present and
focussing on initiating learning processes, being authentic and genuine
using one’s own personality, and about being there in a supportive,
empowering manner. As such, social pedagogy is an art form: it’s not
just a skill to learn but needs to be brought to life through the social
pedagogue’s Haltung(her attitude or mindset)[1]. In other words, social
pedagogy is not so much about what you do, but more about the ‘how’.
This perspective of social pedagogy means that it is dynamic, creative,
and process-orientated rather than mechanical, procedural, and
automated. It demands from social pedagogues to be a whole person, not
just a pair of hands. The art of being a social pedagogue can be
illustrated by many practice examples we have come across as part of our
work with children’s homes in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The narrative of one of Essex County Council’s residential workers, Viki
Bird, aims to provide you with inspiring insights into what it means to
be social pedagogical, so that you can explore and reflect on how your
practice connects to social pedagogy. In doing so, we hope that you can
see the potential which lies in social pedagogy, the learning
opportunities it offers us all to become even better and realise our own
potential.

Social pedagogy is not about good practice – it is about better
practice. Rather than having a good-enough approach, social pedagogy
encourages us to be aspirational, to constantly look for ways to improve
our work. After all, it lies within our human nature that we can always
learn more, further enhance our well-being and develop even stronger
relationships. If we as professionals show such aspirations in our
practice we’re not only becoming better through our own efforts; we also
set a positive example to the children and young people we work with,
an example that can encourage them to be more aspirational too.

What becomes apparent in Viki’s account is the journey which Viki and
her team have been on, their eagerness to question, reflect upon and
develop their practice and make things even better for the young people
in their care. Social pedagogy has given them a framework, which guides
them on their journey and helps them identify areas of development. In
this process they have mainly built on the resources and potential
within their team, and their ability to relate their practice to social
pedagogy as well as their persistence to work on some of the more
difficult and challenging issues have led to an impressive journey for
the team and the young people in their care. Here is Viki’s account,
which is based on a presentation she gave at a care leavers’ conference
at London City Hall [2] :

Social pedagogy in practice – Viki’s journey

I’ve been asked to share with you a brief insight into social
pedagogy and the impact it has on our relationships with the young
people in residential care. I’ll begin with providing you with a short
background of our social pedagogy journey, followed by an overview of
how social pedagogy has helped us support young people in developing
their identity, build positive relationships with them and challenge
social stereotypes about young people in care. These three aspects are
at the heart of what’s important to young people in our homes and
explain why the implementation of social pedagogy has become so relevant
to our work.

In September 2008 Essex County Council began to implement social
pedagogy across its children’s homes. This began with the organisation,
ThemPra Social Pedagogy, introducing itself at conferences and visits to
our homes, followed by 6-day training courses on social pedagogy, 2-day
residential courses to develop social pedagogy change agents, team days
to develop a social pedagogic culture and follow-up degree level course
work. But it doesn’t stop there…

I speak as one of many Social Pedagogy Agents and residential workers
who have fully engaged with this holistic and solution-based approach
to working with young people, and as one who seeks to enthuse and
motivate my colleagues and others across Essex and beyond to recognise
the benefits of working with social pedagogy. In my experience social
pedagogy enables confidence, backed up by theory and experience to best
support young people in our care in their learning and development.

For us in residential child care the framework social pedagogy
provides is most importantly seen to complement our already established
best practice and not replace it. This is vital to its success, so
individual homes and individual practitioners can adapt and evolve its
methods using key elements suited to the current culture and the
dynamics of a particular environment.

My personal workplace is in a long-term, teenaged, mixed gender,
8-bed residential home, and this is where I am drawing my experience
from. And it is my understanding that the crucial factor in social
pedagogy is exactly the ‘social’ aspect.

Developing positive relationships

By concentrating our efforts towards forging authentic relationships
with our young people, we can substantially improve their outcomes. We
have therefore wholly taken on board the ‘Common Third’ element,[3]
which promotes the use of actively creating opportunities for shared
learning experiences within and outside of the home. The Common Third is
best explained by visualising an equal triangle with the young person
at one point, the pedagogue at the next, and the task being the third
point. We are encouraged, then, to translate every available opportunity
when working with our young people as a means of building common ground
through shared experiences. This crucial foundation in relationship
building has had a massively positive impact in our home, and this has
been achieved by providing learning environments where participation
becomes almost a natural desire for all involved.

The resulting outcomes of focusing our attention on our relationships
sees more and more of our young people having the confidence to develop
their personal relationships with family, carers, friends, teachers,
health professionals, and others. Equally this gives them a future
outreach base, with which they know they can comfortably revisit us and
continue to gain support and guidance beyond their time in care.

Changing approaches to risk-taking

To give you an understanding of how far we’ve come in a short time I
ask you to consider how prior to the implementation of social pedagogy
we were almost considered to be ‘risk-obsessed’ and of having a ‘cotton
wool’ approach to care.

For example, our young people were only allowed to go to the beach if
an extensive risk assessment was written, then the area was combed for
dangerous objects, and subsequently, if all was ticked and approved …
they were only allowed to paddle in the sea up to knee height anyway! A
somewhat limited experience as I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet where we were
previously restrained by particularly strict risk-assessment factors
such as this, we have now successfully moved towards a growing
confidence in our own judgement, by questioning and challenging practice
and procedures in order to better socialise and equip our young people
in today’s society.

Now I personally bounded into my role as a residential worker 3 years
ago full of enthusiasm and ideas to generate activities and
experiences, which were often considered ‘too risky’ to undertake.
However, by expanding our knowledge and drawing on social pedagogy
concepts such as risk competence [4]we have found we can shift the
expectations, norms and procedures to help us provide worthwhile
opportunities which enhance our relationships and the care experience.

Supporting young people’s inclusion and identity formation

This progressive shift has seen improved inclusion through reviewing
and updating the consideration towards risk whilst allowing for the
beneficial factors to be given equal priority. I’m not talking about
throwing caution to the wind, but simply enabling a confidence to make a
professional judgement towards developing our young people’s
competencies in identifying and managing risks themselves instead of
having to rely on adults to do it for them.

From this we have been introducing various new ideas such as having
therapeutic campfires in our grounds, embarking on graffiti projects;
young people are taking ownership of their home by being involved in the
decoration and maintenance; they are planning their own activities for
the holidays; we have themed events, activity-based group gatherings and
many, many more simple and effective tasks that occur on a group or
one-to-one basis. Even a basic washing-up chore becomes a valuable
learning opportunity where communication is vital to gaining a deeper
understanding of the young people we work with, their inner worlds, what
they’re thinking and who they are.

We recognise then, the value of quality time spent introducing new
ways to engage and communicate with our young people by simply making
the most of the time spent in their company. These shared experiences
are then crucial to building the firm foundations upon which the
relationship can then explore the many issues facing our young people.

In terms of identity we are empowering them with the confidence to
develop this aspect by individualising their care plans to convey an
in-depth understanding of the whole person, their strengths, their
achievements and their aspirations and not just how to manage their
behaviour.

A good case in point would be one of our long-term school refusers
who had low self-esteem, was insecure with her family’s unconventional
lifestyle and was continually reminding us ‘You don’t know what it’s
like to be a kid in care!’ (minus the expletives).

Her transition back into full-time education and the plan to return
her back to the family home in the very near future has been the result
of extensive work around our relationships with her and her family, and
from this, building her self esteem and helping her to feel secure
enough with her identity to engage with outside assistance and not
remain in the sheltered confines and comfort zone of the care home.

The contributing factor here saw us move away from the expectation we
should not engage with young people who refuse school in order that it
may seem more exciting to remain at home, but instead using those
opportunities as a platform to encourage independence, motivation and
self-worth to achieve a positive outcome.

Here it is important to add that carers, social workers, family and
the wider community are all stakeholders in a young person’s life and we
are increasingly inviting opportunities for communication and inclusion
in order to enhance their care experience.

We have seen the benefits of inviting all those involved in regular
BBQ events, where our young people are fully involved with the
preparation and everyone has enjoyed a day of participation in
activities and guests have been presented with a showcasing of talent.

This extension of the Common Third doesn’t only have a tremendous
impact on the self-esteem of our young people but brings about yet
another valuable opportunity to forge strong relationships with those
involved in looking after them.

Building bridges into the community

Whilst it’s fantastic to bring the community in, it’s equally
important to encourage our young people to go out and contribute to the
wider community, and this has been evidenced via articles of achievement
being reported in the local newspaper, contributions being made to the
Care Matters magazine and project work such as with the local Carnival
Organisation, all of which help to promote positive publicity and a
sense of acceptance.

A recent example highlights this: one of our young people actually
wrote a letter of complaint to a sports organisation after having had
his place withdrawn due to the behaviour of another resident at our home
who attended the same club. He challenged their discrimination,
successfully and quite rightly, and was sent a substantial letter of
apology and invited back with immediate effect. His talents have since
awarded him a special mention in the paper for fastest lap time despite
being the youngest member of the club! A great outcome, I’m sure you
will agree.

But this is just one of many recent examples whereby our young people
are confidently contributing to their development and to society by
making their voice heard and by making their voice count. However,
whilst we strongly encourage participation by our young people, we
cannot do this effectively without increasing our own participation by
way of looking at ourselves and consistently reflecting on our practice.

Being professional and personal

The core of our work focuses on the ‘3Ps’ element[5] of social
pedagogy: the Personal Pedagogue – what we give of ourselves, the
Professional Pedagogue – our knowledge and conduct, and the Private
Pedagogue – our lives outside of work. It is through this means that we
are able to consider how we as workers can approach our young people and
become authentic practitioners by working with their best interests in
mind. Through constant reflection on our own experiences in life and not
just in the working environment we learn an awareness of how our
Personal, Professional, and Private involvement affects our practice and
our approach towards our young people.

To convey this better I’d like you to picture, if you will, the
London Underground network with the care system being the circle line
and the many routes to and from this central hub being different stages
in the young people’s journey through care. Both the young people and
their carers all need maintenance, direction and a network from which to
make their journey through care as comfortable as possible.This network
has to cater for the individual traveller as well as transporting whole
groups towards positive outcomes and desired destinations. I, for one,
strongly believe that social pedagogy provides us with the network to do
this.

Concluding thoughts

Given the scope of social pedagogy, I have only been able to touch
upon a mere fraction of the wealth of knowledge and evidence that backs
up this insightful approach, which can forward our thinking and support
us to responsibly consider the future of care. But essentially, social
pedagogy encourages us to be an artist and think creatively and
imaginatively, to challenge ourselves and overcome barriers to
communication within our homes and out into the wider community. It also
teaches us to be adaptable and resourceful, which is a necessity in
today’s current climate. That said, we do, however, have an appreciation
for social pedagogy not having a ‘magic wand’ effect, but indeed a
profound effect on positive outcomes nonetheless. And when I said at the
beginning ‘It doesn’t stop there!’, it is vital to recognise that our
momentum continues to gather pace as we pro-actively contribute to the
practitioners forums within Essex Residential Services, host our own
pedagogy team days and reflect on and share our practice as an extension
of the training that was initially given. The aim is to become a
suitably self-sufficient, holistic, flexible and well-educated workforce
within the Children’s Service.

So having been provided with a cleverly adaptable framework and a
complementary approach to our practice I hope you can appreciate why we
are hugely enthusiastic about exploring, evolving and improving our
future role in caring for and meeting the needs of our young people.

And finally, we also hope that by sharing this brief insight you have
gained an understanding of the relevance of social pedagogy in
residential work. If you wish to find out more please get in touch with
us (“victoria.bird@essex.gov.uk”; “gabriel@thempra.org.uk) or visit http://www.thempra.org.uk”.

Notes

[1] For a detailed explanation on the notion of Haltung please see “http://www.childrenwebmag.com/articles/social-pedagogy/the-notion-of-%E2%80%98haltung-in-social-pedagogy “
[2] Evaluating the Care System for Young Londoners, organised by the
‘Children Living Away From Home’ Division of LB Redbridge and the
Children and Young People’s Unit of the Greater London Authority, 13th
October 2010.
[3] For further information about the Common Third please visit “www.thempra.org.uk/concepts_c3.htm”
[4] See Eichsteller & Holthoff (2009), which is available on “http://www.thempra.org.uk/downloads/Eichsteller%20&%20Holthoff%20-%20Risk%20Competence.pdf”
[5] For a comprehensive explanation of the 3Ps, please visit “www.thempra.org.uk/concepts_3p.htm”

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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