By Cynthia Cross
Cynthia Cross is a generous contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal. Cynthia was originally intent upon becoming a veterinary surgeon and fortunately for us she had a committed and distinguished career in child care instead. She lives in Kent where she is nurtured and encouraged by her dog Lucy. Cynthia is also a member of the goodenoughcaring Journal editorial group.
When I worked as a Training Officer for Children’s Services in an Inner London Borough in the 1970s, I observed on a number of occasions children being rejected from children’s homes and foster homes just after it was reported that their behaviour and ability to form relationships was seen to be greatly improved. The child concerned would suddenly become difficult and unmanageable. Often this was a turning point, and if the adults concerned had withstood them testing the boundaries and safety of their situation, it could have been built upon with good effect.
I worked as an independent trainer and consultant to a number of children’s homes in the 1990s and in one of them, after a training session, the diagram below was produced together with the accompanying explanations.
- What makes a child unsuitable?
- Something about the child?
- Something about the establishment – Environment?
- Something that has been said/implied/communicated to the child/family
- Staff feel Angry
- Staff feelings passed on to the child/children
Staff do not perform well
- Establishment can’t cope with or help the child/children
The thoughts and ideas presented in this paper were developed following a training session with staff working in a residential child care establishment. Over a relatively short period of time a number of young people had proved so unmanageable that their removal had been requested.
Insights were gained by the staff applying these well-known concepts to their particular situation. It is hoped that they will be equally relevant to staff in other group settings.
The process starts with an “unsuitable” child being admitted, or emerging from within the group.
If the child is considered to be unsuitable, then the staff who are suggesting this have a responsibility to look dispassionately at the child and the situation and clearly articulate why this is the case. Is it something about the child, the environment, the vulnerability and needs of the other children, or shortcomings within the staff team?
When the source of the difficulty has been identified, ways of dealing with it without rejecting the child can be explored.
There are a few occasions when the child’s needs cannot be appropriately met by the establishment concerned; the task is these cases is to discover alternative resources and present these to the child (and family) in a positive way, so that any move can be seen as a as a chance for development rather than a rejection.
The majority of cases do not however fall into the above category but some modification of staff practices and attitudes are required before the child can be successfully contained and worked with in the establishment.
A number of questions may be asked to ascertain what action could usefully be taken:-
- Can/should the ethos/environment of the establishment be changed?
- Should /can other children be protected from the child concerned or can they be helped to manage the behaviour?
- Can staff learn new skills so they can deal with the situation?
- Should/can the staff receive more training or support?
- Are staff working together as a team and providing a good model? Are they able to demonstrate how feelings can be expressed non-harmfully and conflicts resolved in ways that provide opportunities for growth and development?
- Are the staff, the child concerned and/or other children reacting to information that has been implied/communicated to them by others, e.g. field social worker, family, friends schools etc. rather than dealing with what they are actually experiencing? A common example of this is when it is conveyed to the child before he joins an establishment, that he is only going there because everything else has failed, and that nothing more can be done to help him.
- Is the child concerned reacting to an external factor that can be confronted/worked with/controlled?
Regardless of the reasons given for rejecting a child there will always be strong feelings of anger, anxiety, powerlessness, stress, insecurity and guilt present within the staff group. Staff do not communicate or function well in these circumstances. In fact it may because of feelings of anxiety and impotence that staff have to show that they have the ultimate power and can have the child removed from the group.
Even when the feelings of the staff are not overtly expressed they are still passed on to the children. They in turn act out their insecurity/fears and try control the situation, which results in difficult behaviour. This reinforces the feelings of the staff, who are then even less able to cope.
In the above situation when a child is rejected from the establishment, staff unfortunately often find that “having got rid” of one disruptive child another takes their place; the first child was only acting out the feeling of the total group (both staff and children). Each child will be feeling that he may be the next to be rejected.
To return to the beginning, the only viable way of avoiding the cycle of disruption/rejection is to ensure that when difficulties occur, all factors are looked at and positive action is taken immediately to overcome them. The staff team have to find ways to work together with the children, to create an environment where it is safe to see conflicts as opportunities for change and development, which can enhance the functioning of individuals within the group.