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).
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