One of the most useful, fruitful and illuminating models I have found of understanding the work of residential child care has been that of lifespace. When I was undertaking my own social work training I remember struggling, at times, to use the methods I was being taught to help me to understand and develop my work within a group environment. Often these models were based upon the assumption that working one-to-one was the norm. It was not that I was unable to amend what I was learning to make it more relevant, but that I had to struggle to make the models fit the complexity of working within a residential setting. The teaching which I received on the concept of lifespace provided me with a theoretical base which drew upon the wider range of teaching on child development and group dynamics. It also provided affirmation of the work I had undertaken, in that it confirmed the effectiveness of working within a group setting as an effective and valid option rather than as a poor substitute for individual work. As Keenan (2002) states:
Life-space work is neither individual casework nor group work, nor even individual casework conducted in a group context but is a therapeutic discipline of its own (Keenan, 2002, p.221).
As I have moved from practice into training, I have continued to draw on lifespace working as a model. In residential work, lifespace is the deliberate and focused attempt to promote individual growth and development within the context of daily events. In teaching about lifespace to groups of residential workers during a three-day training course, I have found it illuminating to draw the participants’ attention to the ways in which the course replicates and illustrates the concepts that are being covered on the course. [In this paper, I describe how I demonstrate lifespace in the training room and give a brief outline of how I try to incorporate the key concepts from lifespace working into teaching about this important model.]
The milieu is the environment and the setting within which lifespace work takes place. It is more than that, however, as it also encompasses the feel of the space which is created from the interactions within it, and what everyone brings with them into the space. Everything that happens in the unit has an effect on the lifespace. The practitioner’s skill lies in utilising this consciously to foster growth and development. Similarly, everything that is happening in the training room has an impact on the training. The training room becomes, in effect, a working model of the lifespace. Managing the space and drawing attention to ways in which small changes can affect the level of involvement and the learning of those in the group can help the participants to get a real sense of what the milieu is. As Burton (1993) commented, “It’s not so much the building as the way you use it” (Burton, 1993, p.90). So, for example, the hardness of the seats, the positioning of the table, difficulties or not with technological equipment, can all be used as part of the learning experience.
Feilberg, F. (2007). Teaching lifespace working by using the lifespace in teaching. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 6(1), pp..32-33.
Burton, J. (1993). The Handbook of Residential Care, London: Routledge.
Keenan, C. (2002). Working within the Life-Space. In J. Lishman (Ed.), Handbook of theory for practice teachers in social work. London: Jessica Kingsley.