This is my third blog and I’m still finding my feet as a “blogger” (if I dare call myself that) so I am exceptionally grateful for all the feedback I’ve had so far. Keep it coming. Feedback is particularly useful in these blogs as they are intended to be my own mind dumps. These are specific spaces for me to throw ideas out there, ideas that are not intended to be RIGHT, final or fully formed.
Asking questions and challenging our thinking is so essential to being reflective practitioners but we so quickly close down these spaces when we leave the universities and training rooms and instead jump on board with the routine of professionalism. Shouldn’t we feel we can expect all the spaces and individuals we work in and with be open to unfinished ideas, to putting something out there so they can be easily questioned and developed (even retracted) through open dialogue with others? I’m not so sure we all feel we can expect that. I’m even less certain that there is a majority that experience that.
I want to make clear at this point that I have never been a care practitioner and I look back to my own time in care as a child and wince at the challenging times I gave some of my staff and feel for them. I have come through my own journey of getting to know staff groups in the various roles I occupy and immensely value the work that many of you do. Not so much as a child, but as an adult I have seen the amazing things that good practitioners, good cultures and good organisations can do. Highly qualified and well trained staff alongside good leadership are seen as central to positive and child-centred practice, but if we do not regularly have space to reflect, ask questions and challenge then poor practices, attitudes and cultures soon set in.
In this setting, I sometimes find the word “professional” can so easily equate to expert, all-knowing, unquestionable (sometimes unwittingly even from those genuinely wanting to be open and welcoming of new ideas and thoughts). If you’ve read my blog on passionate scholarship you’ll know that I believe this to be a load of baloney and that, instead, we are better practitioners and better able to do the work we do when we reject traditional and outdated ideas of professionalism.
At the heart of this though is a profound need to strive for good practice. Children’s homes are spaces that can quite quickly become negative, even poisonous spaces to both young people and staff. We can easily get ourselves into situations where we cease to ask questions. We also need to recognize that being complicit may not feel like we are a part of a poor culture but if you do not question poor/bad practice – yep, you are! If we don’t take Individual responsibility it can soon become group mentality. It is important that we are able to question and challenge each other rather than have splits and divides in the staff team.
In writing this blog I’ve been plagued by two examples of practice that I would like to share:
The first took place five years ago when I was doing some research with a group of young people and staff in a local authority run children’s home. There were a very high number of physical restraints and police being called to incidents. In talking to the staff they relayed many examples of why the young people needed to be restrained or the police called on them. One example given was where a young person before going to bed had refused to hand over a letter that had been posted to her. The night staff tried continuously throughout the night – waking the young person up – to get this letter. In the morning the manager came in and directed a male member of staff to hold the young person’s legs down and a female member of staff to search her room, bed and person in order to get the letter off her. Over the course of the next week working with the staff no one was able individually or as a group to identify that there was any problem with this practice.
A second group I worked with two years ago (again another local authority children’s home) had, on one day, two new young males beginning to live with them. Full of teen anxiety and excitement the young males were running up and down the corridors chasing one another. One by one the staff came out of the office (a total of 7 staff) and congregated on the young people in the corridor. The young people did not yet have keys to their room and the bathrooms had been locked as soon as the boys started running up and down the corridor. In short they had no where to go when staff were confronting them. This resulted in both the boys being physically restrained. After settling the situation and coming back into the office a discussion and debrief was had. I was a witness to this and within 20 minutes as individuals and as a group they could easily recognize the part they (the staff) had had to play in creating physical restraints that weren’t necessary. They worked together to talk with the young people to apologise for the situation. Since then the boys have never been physically restrained but have been active in the weekly community meetings.
There’s a stark difference between the two examples above. They show that a level of reflective practice takes a lot of hard work and cannot be achieved overnight. It takes the building of relationships between staff and young people. It takes the strength to say to a colleague and/or a young person – “I was wrong.” Being reflective is not about listing what you did and didn’t do and if you could have done it better. Young people and your colleagues need to see you disagreeing, they need to see you apologizing, they need to see you working through difficulties, that you don’t have all the answers nor all the control – they need to see you being authentic and modelling different ways of being in the world than what they may have seen in their home or their community.
Always being open to asking questions and challenge the practice of each other is a basis for a healthy and therapeutic environment for both staff and kids.