Residential Life with Children Revisited : conclusion

By Jeremy Millar

Date Posted: June 14th, 2012

Jeremy Millar is a lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. A fuller picture of Jeremy and the first part of his review of Beedell’s classic text can be found in Issue 10 of the Journal at goodenoughcaring Journal issue 10


Residential Life with Children Revisited : conclusion

Beedell, having explored the nature of the challenges facing the children and young people we work with now turns his attention to the residential task. He acknowledges the range of residential provision and difficulties in defining the social structure of units. He commences his analysis by making two clear statements regarding the staff role in the practice of residential care. The first is that there should be the possibility of fairly open communication between all staff members and that the workers recognize that they have responsibility for the unit and to the unit (Beedell 1970). How agreement is sought and negotiated on these fairly fundamental principles forms the focus for the next three chapters.

Beedell captures the essence of the difficulty faced by workers, ‘’Agreement’ is often reached only implicitly, subconsciously or un-consciously; when this happens the provision made for individuals is likely to be, at best haphazard and patchily effective. At worst it can be downright damaging and ego-destructive to adults and children alike.’ (Ibid: 81) For me this describes large chunks of my practice experience. Children and young people have often got through their care experiences in spite of the intervention of the adults ‘caring’ for them. How to offer therapeutic care with a focus on the primary task is not rocket science but it is often tantalizingly out with the grasp of staff groups.

Beedell lays out three benchmarks for attaining our goals; firstly there has to be agreement on the arrangements for daily living that not only meet the needs of all residents and adults in the setting but also are directed to the children being able to flourish and survive outside the care setting. He calls this Agreement on system maintenance. The next challenge is cooperation in maintaining this agreement; Achieving a way of living. This way of living creates the milieu that offers the holding, nurturing and restorative environment outlined in the previous chapters (see part one of this review in December’s journal). This therapeutic milieu revolves around the multiplicity of relationships and constitutes the; Furtherance of the unit task. Whilst Beedell has separated these key elements he is at pains to point out that they are fully interdependent. The functions carried out by different staff members should not be accorded a hierarchy of status. This observation once again strikes a chord in terms of my own experience were I can reflect on some staff members feeling that domestic tasks were beneath them or that people with a passion for outdoor activities could be left to get on with them whilst other staff absented themselves.

In respect of Agreement on system maintenance Beedell looks critically at the ‘hotel’ style meeting of basic needs for the children and suggests that we need to go further and unpick the psychosocial aspects of meeting these needs. Does the sense of security come from the predictability of routine fulfilling basic need or is it as important to have security in terms of the relationships in the life space?

Achieving a way of living draws on the work of Clare Winnicott in her 1964 paper called ‘Casework and the residential treatment of children’ where she states that workers should provide ‘real experiences of good care, comfort and control’ going on to state that, ‘These good experiences are not only the stuff of life, but the stuff that dreams are made of, and have the power to become part of the child’s inner psychic reality, correcting the past and creating the future.’ I can see just why Beedell was so taken by this statement as it encapsulates truly the therapeutic task. The challenge is to move beyond merely coexisting and finding a way of living and not surprisingly this is through the power of relationship.

These are described as ‘good relationships’ and are characterized by a lack of guardedness in the interactions that take place in the setting. Beedell goes on to explore the conditions necessary for good relationships to flourish and these include communication in a shared language, readiness to interact and share in activities, recognition of the significance of these shared activities, the participants mutual history, concern for the other and more subtly, an ability to wait on events, resisting the urge to overwhelm the other or take advantage of their lowered defences. Normally it would be the adult taking the lead. However in building a reciprocal relationship the child would come to be aware of their role and come to trust in their emotional state and ability to offer support to others.

In recognizing the complexity of relationship building Beedell looks at boundary setting and the workers ongoing responsibility for reflective practice. The worker is required to acknowledge moments of defendedness and inappropriate use of power in the relationship. Finally he highlights the public nature of the residential setting and how this can work against depth developing in relationship due to the absence of the privacy required for undefended moments and he suggests achieving ways in which boundaries can be insulated. This involves good planning, clear communication between staff and effective leadership.

Furtherance of unit task is the essential element that creates the therapeutic aspect of the work. Beedell acknowledges the ability of homes to achieve good internal relationships and the external appearance of harmony and purpose but he suggests that sometimes this can be undirected or directed at a collusive unconscious level. He is explicit that the focus should be ensure ‘holding, nurturing, integrity provision appropriate to each child.’ (ibid: 90) He goes on to illustrate this purposeful practice with an illustration of how an unsettled unit with children running away of an evening brought the focus back with a slideshow. This brought up many happier memories of activities residents past and present had taken part in and allowed a discussion to ensue as to how the group could get back on track. The intervention appears superficially to be a distraction but it is much more complex and requires staff to look to positives in fraught times and embed this in their practice. Beedell ends the chapter by calling for more examples of good practice and well functioning homes to be written up and shared. That call can still be heard today.

Beedell now addresses effectiveness and the role staff play in promoting positive outcomes. The staff are responsible and ‘if things go wrong it is no justification to say that the children are ‘too difficult’.’ (ibid: 94) Sadly we still hear this retort or variations on we don’t have the resources or we are unable to meet their needs. Beedell states that the staff requires knowledge, resources and skills to be effective. He identifies that it is an integration of these qualities and that they should work in a harmony rather than anyone taken precedence.

Looking at knowledge first Beedell breaks this down into head and working knowledge. The head knowledge must compliment the working knowledge and he acknowledges the challenges of developing the skills of untrained workers with much working knowledge but little head knowledge and trained workers with head knowledge but no working knowledge.

In terms of head knowledge at the core is an understanding of human growth and behaviour along with large and small-scale social organization. Some practical knowledge around administration and maintenance is deemed useful. In respect of working knowledge it is interesting to note that Beedell looks to an understanding of how and why people behave the way they do in the life space. This leads to an ability to live and work with uncertainty, sadness and pain. There is an optimistic element in believing in the power of love over hate. A holistic understanding is vital and Beedell states; ‘that our present experience has a historical context which to some extent conditions it and, as important, that a person’s present feelings and experience occur in a current life space which includes school and home base, parents and peers, work and play.’ (ibid:98)

Empathy is also essential and he calls for a cultural awareness that avoids imposing the values of one class upon another. The power of psychosocial processes are acknowledged as is the worker’s understanding of their professional role ‘which gives him a working context in which to choose how to operate his own personal responsibility to others.’ (ibid: 99) I admire this statement of professional identity, grounded in head and working knowledge, which implicitly permits staff to use their judgment and work innovatively and creatively within a group setting. For me Beedell’s understanding of what makes a good worker highlights the backwards steps we have taken over the past decades indulging the prescriptive training by numbers and procedural approaches that destroy creativity if not the soul of residential child care.

Next, Beedell looks at the resources that are regularly called upon from workers. He starts with the range of practical every day skills; mending fuses, tending minor aliments that can be picked along the way and moves on to look at resources that provide stimulus and he urges staff to bring their personal passions and skills into the work setting. He acknowledges that not all may have something easily transferable but, ‘a basic interest and minimal competence in one of the visual arts, in music, drama or some sport or craft is an essential resource for the residential child care worker.’ (ibid: 100) Anticipating our current interest in the social pedagogic use of the common third Beedell is clearly emphasizing the need for staff to be active in the life space. He talks of how without these personal resources in staff ‘a child’s life there can be pedestrian indeed and many creative opportunities missed.’ (ibid: 100)

Further resources include workers’ capacity for concern, acceptance and resilience in the face of threatening circumstances. In describing workers’ qualities Beedell himself offers an insight into his own personal humanity acknowledging that even grumpy workers can provide feeling and concern for distressed children. He draws on Winnicott once again to identify the acceptance of oneself as well as the child as essential for anyone practicing in a therapeutic setting. There is a requirement for reflective insight on the part of workers to acknowledge both their areas of strength and of weakness so that they can work to their strengths within the whole staff group as an ‘agency can often act collectively to bear greater threats than could be borne by individuals acting alone.’ (ibid: 102)

Beedell continues to explore in more detail the skills required by workers. He starts by looking at skills in observation and in his description he is clearly drawing on life space approaches as he notes the need for subtle observation of normal behaviour as well as ‘unflurried observation of upsetting behaviour.’ (ibid: 102) He encapsulates the approach by noting that the worker needs a disciplined subjectivity alongside the objective assessment skills and this makes a distinction between ‘a capacity for concern and a skill in objective and subjective observation (which) helps us to reach a better understanding of what we mean by ‘involvement’, ‘detachment’, and so on.’ (ibid: 103) I really like the image of unflurried observation, something that we all had modeled to us by a more experienced worker at some point in our careers.

The skill in communicating is covered next and Beedell recognizes the skill of communicating both verbally and through action as in touch and gesture. He also talks of workers’ skill in ‘listening to the music behind the words’, or ‘listening with a third ear.’ (ibid: 104) He calls up the pioneers in the field as examples of skilled communicators.

Whilst observation and communication are both essential Beedell identifies a third component that brings everything together and this is an awareness of the psychosocial space. An awareness of the group task, the characters of all who inhabit the life space including the influence of those not present and the patterns in the interactions within the life space are the constituent parts of this skill. He gives examples of group and individual defence mechanisms and how they need to be read in the wider context. In rounding off this chapter Beedell makes links to studies in group relations from both UK based research at the Tavistock and the work of Henry Maier (1965). He arrives at a description of good discipline, one that works in a consensual manner lead by the skills of the staff rather than as a result of coercive or repressive measures.

The next area tackled by Beedell is Unit, agency and Institution. Here he looks in more depth at the remit of the unit and how a well-resourced and skilled staff team can manage and maintain boundaries. The overarching requirement is for the unit to be clear regarding their remit. This should be evident to all staff and protected by strong leadership. This is vital, as the unit should offer stability and constancy to children who have been subject to previously chaotic lifestyles.

One key if not essential component is the ability of the unit to select and manage admissions and transitions. Subsequent research by Berridge and Brodie (1998) supports this assertion yet we often find in residential child care a pattern of unplanned emergency admissions into units whose notional remit is to provide stable longer term care.

Open communication between staff and management is key to this common purpose and Beedell details the importance of regular meetings. He acknowledges the challenges of the task and advises that external supports are vital to support the staff group. In terms of the procedures for staff he lists the following; a knowledge of the child’s background and history, opportunities to discuss their experiences with children with other staff, to form an assessment utilizing the observations of the staff group, to utilize the collective assessment to draw up a care plan which may be a plan of relative inaction which Beedell describes as ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’. (ibid: 112) It is in these counter intuitive observations that Beedell reveals his true connection with the nature of residential child care. How often do wise heads stand back, even sleep on it before offering an opinion whilst many of our new generation of workers feel the constant pressure to evidence through action their worth as a staff member. Finally there is review and evaluation of planned and unplanned work with the children. The opportunity led work is as important as the care plan related interventions and they all require an evaluation as important information can be fed into the ongoing assessment.

Beedell makes this telling observation, ‘a residential unit is deliberately separated from the rest of the community in order to give special environmental opportunities and it is a waste of these to merely reproduce in miniature, within the unit, the pressures and sanctions of the world outside, except in so far as these meet individual needs and further the purposes of the unit.’ (ibid: 113) This statement goes to the heart of the therapeutic task and explicitly states why we should be clear about the unit task and the specific nature of the therapeutic practice. To do otherwise is to completely sellout the children in our care. To this end Beedell states that the ‘unit head, in particular, should have the experience and authority to protect the unit when need be, or to encourage stimulus from outside when this is required.’ (ibid: 113) There is a requirement for the professional status of the residential workforce to be able to speak out on these matters and be able to absorb and respond to external criticism. I sense that he is calling for a professional voice and a language of residential child care. Something that we, as a profession, are still striving for 30 years on.

In the next chapter Beedell moves on to discuss some of the problems of residential work. He covers issues around resources, funding, quality of staff and training. He brings a refreshingly pragmatic approach stating for example that whilst the physical condition of the building is important and having space is vital, often a rough and ready home can do great work if the money is invested in high quality staffing. In terms of training for staff he makes the enlightened point that one reason for having well trained staff who put the needs of children first is so that they can resist the bureaucratic pressures placed on homes by external managers. He also recognizes the changing nature of the task in relation to the complex needs of the children and suggests that the intellectual demands on staff are underestimated. He highlights the ‘widespread assumption that higher education or even high intelligence automatically unfits a person for work which requires sensitivity and emotional resourcefulness.’ (ibid: 128) Echoes of the anti-intellectual stance that has met the recent drive to get the workforce qualified. Arguably aspects of this perverse belief led to the dumbing down of the basic qualification bar to a NVQ/SVQ 3 with a HNC in anything. Beedell is clear that these children deserve intelligent and capable staff at all levels to avoid receiving a second-class service. Sadly I think he would be most disappointed in the current provision for many accommodated children, especially those farmed out to the worst aspects of the private sector.

For anyone interested in the evolution of training for the residential sector Beedell provides an interesting guide in this chapter. Suffice to say that many of the debates are ongoing and many of the issues in 1970 have not been satisfactorily resolved. He also looks at the allocation of resources and how to meet complex needs for children with learning and physical impairments who are deemed to be at risk. He is clearly saying that for some children a quality residential setting is best but where the issues are more about poverty and family resources to cope the emphasis should be on support in the home.

He goes on to look at the social understanding of the family and notes the use of familial terminology within residential care expressed in a manner that preserves the emotional and social realities of the task but avoids a sentimentalisation of the work. Have we moved too far in the direction of legal speak with reference to looked after and accommodated etc?

The tension between residential and field workers is addressed and once again Beedell summarizes the debate that sadly also continues to this day. He locates the root of the tension in lack of understanding of the different contexts in which people work and an uncertainty as to whose child it is. This can be likened to the parent teacher relationship. He states that we need to explore these different relationships to the child and truly recognize the shared nature of the task, one that also involves the biological parents. With the implementation of subsequent legislation it could be argued that we have progressed practice in terms of the involvement of parents but we continue to be aware of value driven judgments that can compromise/oppress the parents role and disadvantage the child.

Beedell moves on to reflect on the skills and role of the residential worker and he acknowledges Henry Maier’s work in this area (1963). In terms of the relationship the worker has with the child Beedell utilizes a wonderful quote from Clare Winnicott (1964b) ‘ First we try to reach the children, to establish communication and to construct a working relationship with them which is personal and yet structured. Having reached the child we try to look at his world with him, and help him sort out his feelings about it; to face the painful things and to discover the good things. Then we try to consolidate the positive things in the child himself and in this world, and to help to make the most of his life.’

How much longer will we go on reinterpreting our role when such a beautifully succinct statement already exists? Central to this facilitating relationship is acceptance, as previously covered, and an understanding of transference and counter transference. Beedell correctly identifies that these processes are more likely to occur in intimate relationships in the residential life space and that cognizance should be made of this and suitable supports offered to staff. This could be best managed through the use of external consultants. Why does this recommendation still appear somewhat idealistic?

In addressing the role of residential workers’ contact with the childrens’ parents he identifies the tensions inherent in their substitute parenting position and suggests that they ‘find (an) understanding of, and compassion for ‘difficult’ parents. How else can they represent to the child a safe and loving ‘parent’ image?’ (ibid: 143) Sage words indeed.

The emotional commitment required of staff is tremendous and Beedell discusses how workers can have their ‘fund of love and concern’ (ibid: 145) replenished. He uses the term emotional economy and makes links to individual workers external sources of replenishment facilitated by their upbringing experience and current loving relationships and the capacity for replenishment within the work setting which can be inhibited by a whole range of factors related to the overall functioning of the unit.

The positive functioning of the setting is linked to the responsible exercise of power by workers and their leadership. There is a philosophical point around how the staff negotiates external societal expectations around the exercise of power as evidenced by the appearance of control and the more micro negotiation of power within relationships. Linked to this is how the practice of the staff team can evidence both internally and externally the exercise of fairness and proportional justice. We all recognize this dilemma in which some members of the staff group look for equal shares of resources regardless of individual need and others who can grasp the therapeutic benefit of responding fairly in the face of specific a child’s specific needs. Beedell correctly points out that over time fairness to individuals can average out to a position of proportional justice. Essential to this manifestation of the power over resources is open and collective discussion and as far as possible decision-making. He acknowledges that this is often achieved in more traditional therapeutic community models.

Motivation to become a residential child care worker is another fascinating area for reflection and Beedell identifies a range of motivations traversing the political activist righting societal wrongs to individuals seeking safety in an institutional setting that ‘contains’ their pain and zealous missionaries wishing to share their good fortune in healing relationships with the less fortunate. The reality is that each setting presents a unique mix of people across the motivational spectrum and the magic is to get them all playing to their strengths for the overall pursuit of the primary task.

How workers act out their roles in the semi public sphere of the residential setting is related to aspects of the constraints both real and implicit that they experience. Some people thrive on the freedom from certain constraints that a therapeutic setting permits and others look for constraints that clearly define their role and offer an illusion of emotional safety. This can be most clearly evidenced in the ways in which settings and the staff therein tolerates dependence and damage within the children that they are caring for. Beedell refers to Isobel Menzies Lyth’s work on institutionalized defences and acknowledges that more work needs to be done in this area. This requirement clearly continues to this day as contemporary responses to pain and trauma based behaviours in children can often result in a retrenchment into behavioral sanction based approaches that go against all the research and practice based wisdom on how to operate a healing and therapeutic setting.

Finally in this chapter Beedell takes the unconscious projection onto the unit by others of the unit’s substitute parenting role and how this can, if not consciously acknowledged and engaged with result in ‘the dangers to child, parent, and workers, unconsciously taking over a parental role and thus reducing and ultimately destroying the real parents in the child’s internal world…’ (ibid: 152) Once again the clarity of Beedell’s message is stark and one that needs constant repetition in order that the best interests of the child are truly served.

In his concluding chapter Beedell utilizes a life space model to examine the degree of overlap and influence that exist in the differing social contexts that the children and staff inhabit. He offers a schematic representation of the interaction between education and social work and would have added health but decided not to make the model too complex. In this case less is more as he utilizes the model to demonstrate how the assumptions and differing value bases provide unique challenges to the professionals engaged in their core tasks.

Educationalists have a remit to convey a value system and knowledge base to their children with a working assumption that 90% of their charges will be familiar with this educational context were as the social worker is working exclusively with the 10% who struggle in the mainstream and their task is to support the child to reenter, cope and ultimately progress without additional supports or ensure that where required supports are in place. Both sets of professionals will have contact with both ends of this spectrum but ultimately their values bases merge on the desire to promote individual growth and the realization of potential. It is in these overlapping areas that life space approaches come into their own and Beedell’s model offers great potential for developing collaborative practice that is in the child’s best interest.

The skills of a life space worker extend to the ability to move between value systems and appropriately manipulate boundaries in order that the overall goal of supporting the child can be realized. Beedell describes this ‘magic’ far more poetically than I could paraphrase; ‘Within these boundaries, and using the inescapable tensions of his position, and those of his clients, he must then learn to orchestrate the music or noise in which he finds himself to a pattern which is satisfying and acceptable to his clients, to himself, and to the agency in which his work is based, producing a harmony where once only cacophony existed.’ (ibid: 158)

Beedell ends his analysis with a superb distillation of the tension in the social work/life space workers role. Are workers primarily a systems expert or a dyadic/relational interaction expert? The answer is complex as one is tied to a more sociological explanation and the other draws on psychological theories. Beedell offers a poetic analogy, ‘life is a swallow and theory is a snail’. In applying relatively powerful but still painfully inadequate theory to actual practice we must respect swallow and snail, neither allowing theory to cramp or weigh down life experience, nor allowing life situations to fly on regardless of steadily won theory.’ (ibid: 159) a current example of this would be the integration of advances in understanding the impact of trauma on brain development assisting our practice in relation to attachment promoting practice. Beedell goes on to explore how our understanding of these conceptually different positions influence our approach to understanding identity and he presents a small case study revolving around a meal in a residential home at which the staff member is perceived differently by all present. He is both a representative of the social system in the home and as an individual person in relationship to varying degrees with all those present. How we understand this complexity is an area in which Beedell is calling for further research and conceptual understanding. In my opinion we can do a lot worse than revisiting ‘Residential Life with Children’ as the starting point for developing our ideas.

It has been a pleasure to explore this book in depth and address my ignorance of the often-overlooked British perspective on therapeutic residential child care. I would use this book, if it was in print, as a course reader today. It would sit nicely alongside contemporary contributions to developing the discourse on residential child care such as ‘Rethinking Residential Child Care’. (Smith 2009)


Beedell, C. (1970) Residential Life with Children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Berridge, D. and Brodie, I., 1998. Childrens Homes Revisited. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Maier, H. (ed) (1965) Group Work as part of Residential Treatment, New York: Nat. Assoc. of Social Workers.

Maier, H. (1963) Child Care as a Method of Social Work, Training for Child Care Staff, New York: Child Welfare League of America.

Smith, M. (2009) Rethinking Residential Child Care: positive perspectives, Bristol, Policy Press

Winnicott, C. (1964a) “Casework and the Residential Treatment of Children”, Child Care and Social Work, 28-39, Hitchin, Hertfordshire: Codicote Press.

Winnicott, C. (1964b) “Face to Face with Children”, Child Care and Social Work, 40-58, Codicote Press.