Strength-based approaches for children's and adults' services
By Alex Fox OBE, chief executive of Shared Lives Plus and SCIE trustee
Children’s services professionals dedicate themselves to helping children have good childhoods, but a recent Children’s Commissioner report estimates that “the majority of looked-after children – 74% – experienced some form of change during 2016-17: a placement move, a school move or change of worker. This is equivalent to 53,500 children”. Antony Corrigan, now an adult, said of his experience of moving around as a ‘looked after’ child: “You find it difficult to make a friendship group and you become alienated….I had at least 10 placements, including two children’s homes and in terms of social workers, I lost count, but I probably had about 10 in total. I just wish there was more consistency in the care I was given. It’s so easy to get lost in the system, no-one’s pushing you or encouraging you.”
Around the same time, a Times Educational Supplement (TES) article drew fire for labelling parents of children with Special Needs as "challenging", advising Special Educational Needs coordinators in schools on how to manage three kinds of “challenging” parent: angry, pandering and non-engaging.
These felt like two examples of where a ‘strengths’ or ‘asset-based’ ethos was needed within children and families support services. These concepts are based on the simple idea that support services need to look for what people can or could do, and the naturally-occurring resources around them, not only for what their needs or problems are. Our close relationships are one of our most important assets, even where a family or household is under pressure or some things are not working as they should.
Some families become so dysfunctional that the children within them are harmed and need to be elsewhere. But we should set the level of risk or actual harm being caused to a child against the inability of state care to provide the key strength of consistent family relationships to the majority of looked-after children. Responses from parents to the TES article pointed out that parents of children with special educational needs typically contribute vastly more to the wellbeing and education of their children than even the best professional can do in their limited time with that child. Professionals should set the challenge they experience from parents, or their ‘over-protectiveness’ in the context of the very real barriers they may have experienced from professionals who do not always reflect carefully enough on the amount of relative power they hold, and how they wield it. Some families break under the pressures they face, but are they always given every chance and all the support they need to have a chance to fix themselves?
Children and families support professionals aim to empower children and their families, but there can be a gap between that aim and the way that families experience the help offered to them, or the impact of that help. Bridging that gap requires us to be willing to share our power, resources and knowledge, in ways that do not always feel comfortable. This is about the personal skills and values of professionals: having the humility to listen, learn and change, but it is also about the values of the systems we work within: do they give us the space and time we need to form real relationships with people, or do they pressure us to churn people through as quickly as possible? Do they talk about positive risk taking but swiftly turn to blame if something goes wrong? A strengths-based culture is one which does not just build on the strengths of children and families, but also on the strengths and potential of its workforce at every level.