Preparing For Adult Life Whilst A Child Or Young Person In Residential Care. By Norman Cooke and Ewan Anderson

Young people may have spent some of their life, most of their life or even all of their life in residential care. Irrespective of their reasons for being educated away from home what benefits might we want them to have as a consequence of their residential environment?

We do not consider a ‘tick box’ culture will be an answer here. We do suggest that there are fundamental objectives that can be achieved through residential care that we might expect all young people to have accessed/achieved in their preparation for adult life.

As we have indicated in our previous papers we consider adult life being for those over eighteen years of age. Irrespective of ability or reason for care, we would hope a bench mark might be considered for all. (Those with additional difficulties will be supported/advised by an appropriate adult/co-worker).

So what sort of things are we looking at here?

It may be of help to consider a group of young people new to life in England and the bench mark we might consider for them; and then reflect this across the sectors.

At the time of writing a significant number of refugees are arriving at our shores. Irrespective of the politics of this, the fact remains that many refugees are arriving and a number will be below adult age, some may spend time in residential care (see Model 1, Paper1).

In addition (and quite separately) many seeking private boarding education come to this country from abroad.

Behaviour is not a ‘stand alone’ attribute in any residential environment. Expectations; mirroring good practice from carer’s; challenging any inappropriate behaviour; all contribute towards a safe environment. Rules and expectations should be understood from the moment of entry and throughout any stay. Even within a secure environment young people should be encouraged – via Young Person’s Council or similar means – to re-visit and negotiate acceptable expectations and rules. This will include consequences and possible sanctions which have to be realistic but there is a better chance of them being accepted where there is group involvement in decision making rather than merely imposed. They should be dated when reviewed and agreed, with an additional review date included and signed by those present as well as an appropriate adult.

Responsibility of an individual will be explained soon after arrival. Rewards are a useful tool for those who contribute well to their stay. With a little imagination this need not cost excessively financially. A special meal, a take-away, a treat, can all make a positive contribution to the general ethos of the establishment.

All this requires keeping within the remit of the law. A special treat is not being permitted to watch an 18 certificate media viewing when you are under eighteen.

It is also important that staff are made aware of any previous forensic history regarding the young person – if there is any – and be aware of any potential for future similar conduct.

The journey for any individual residing away from home involves three very important steps:-

  1. Being introduced to the new environment. This is a two way process, being ‘claimed’ by the institution as well as the individual acknowledging and becoming a part of that new environment to them. Broadly speaking this includes rules, expectations, indicators who to seek advice from, personal space (see later), communal living and more. Some may struggle with this first step. For some it will be their first time away from home, careful parenting skills are needed from those with special responsibility here.
  2. The length of stay may be quite short – a childhood hospital admission, or much longer – school terms or legal detention, as well as intermediate lengths of stay – undiagnosed hospital admission or maybe a Young Person’s Hostel.

The length of stay will in turn reflect what may be achieved both educationally and more. It is not that every moment should be structured and justified but making best time of any and all time that is available.

  1. Moving on. This should never be underestimated. The transition between institutions should be carefully planned – whether returning home or moving to another facility. Enormous damage – emotionally – can be caused at this stage. The angry child who resents being away from home at the start can sometimes become hostile and feel rejected when the time comes to ‘move on’.

In building on Model 2 (Paper 2) we can identify four stand alone areas which will benefit from residential care and may have been neglected prior to referral. We will consider:-

  • Education
  • Health and Medical
  • Care and Welfare
  • Personal and Social.

Whilst distinct they are all interlinked and overlap as we shall see.


Model 3.

Within this paper we will consider what bench mark/minimum standards/expectations that we might wish to provide for all young people in residential care. Here we focus upon those features common to all residential establishments.


Formal education is relatively easily measured. In England we have SAT’s data, GCSE’s and ‘A’ Level or similar qualifications. SAT’s data may indicate academic potential.

Those who have either fallen behind or never accessed our education system previously should be provided with the opportunity to get to appropriate age relevant qualifications through their schooling. This may be through catching up with their peers or support in working towards their next qualification. For those whom English is a second language additional input will be paramount to their engaging with learning. There have been a number of extraordinary success stories here; this support should be accessible for all.

Furthermore, education appropriate for the next age appropriate establishment will be sought through the education system.

In addition to the formal education component additional skills in life and extracurricular activities will offer a broader and more rounded education. These later two features are amplified by those who benefit from a residential education.

If we take Model 2 (from Paper 2) and create the third dimension we can then indicate those areas which can benefit from residential care in a diagrammatic form. There is no particular sequence or pattern here. They all make a positive contribution to the development and welfare of an individual. Education is included as one of four strands. There are likely other areas which in turn may reflect the unique feature of an institution.

For anyone who has missed out on their education, for whatever reason, support and ‘catch up’ should be provided through education channels.

For the purpose of Model 3 we assume that education is being provided and addressed.

Health and Medical.

All residential settings have a duty to monitor and support emotional and mental health. Mental health used to be a phrase that referred to other people struggling with a crisis in their life. I have long promoted that we are all somewhere on the mental health spectrum. Whilst there is a current danger of belief that having a difficult day means I have a mental health problem, there needs to be a balance and support which acknowledges for some there are difficulties and for some there are significant difficulties. The problem is not peculiar to any particular group in society – we are all susceptible to it. It is in identifying a problem, providing appropriate support and sometimes distraction techniques. A difficult day does not always require expert professional intervention. A listening ear (by that I mean active listening) and encouragement may suffice. The problem has been exacerbated by social media. From being very young; children can and are bombarded with all manner of messages – some helpful, some devastating. The negative impact on any individual’s self esteem, more so at a younger age, can be lifelong unless addressed.

Exploring (appropriate) relationships and friendship groups is part of life. This of course changes as we get older. Making positive decisions, not through coercion, requires careful nurturing once again.

The Residential Environment provides a good opportunity to record an individual’s personal medical history in terms of vaccinations, childhood diseases, dental records, hearing checks, eye site checks and so on. Any defect areas may then be addressed and the outcome documented for that individual in their personal records. Furthermore, registering the child with a general practitioner, dentist and so on should also be recorded. Where possible this should be verified with the child at the time and noted accordingly.

Whilst Personal Social and Health Education are addressed through education; appropriate support in this area through the residential experience is hugely beneficial.

Care and Welfare.

Care embraces the three bullet points identified earlier. It also includes an individual’s ‘space’ – both personal and in a group. It can be difficult for any individual to be constantly under direct supervision – it could feel that the only time for self reflection is during sleep, (which of course does not happen). Making sure of a balance between group involvement and a time for more solitary activity – reading, reflecting with a close friend, listening to music, engaging in computer games – all bring about separate needs and challenges. How long should be allowed for such activity? Getting a balance between casual enjoyment of say a computer game – and the same becoming obsessive.

Establishing appropriate adult relationships. This must surely underpin the success, or not, of an individual’s stay. Parenting skills are probably the most important (and difficult) things we learn in life. Adapting with change (current trends and fads) that all young people go through can be difficult in any family, more so for when we are a surrogate parent to a child away from home.

Emotional intelligence is something else we encourage children in our care to understand. This can be more difficult for a child previously brought up within a hostile environment – sometimes their own home, sometimes when they have been subject to trauma (for example refugees). Whilst emotional intelligence may be part of a taught curriculum – it is better when lived out through daily living.

Restorative justice is also a relatively new concept but the concept has passed down over the ages. Gently and appropriately challenging those in our care to make better decisions and gaining some insight to their current actions are best mirrored by example.

Encouraging play – as an individual as well as part of a group – should never be underestimated. The ability to appreciate one’s own company as well as being a part of a group can be encouraged through many different games which in turn develop skills in turn taking, active listening and fun!

Whilst formal exercise may not be to everyone’s taste all young people should be encouraged to take part in daily exercise. This does not need to be a park run or competitive match. A stroll/walk often leads to conversations which help clear the mind and explore difficult areas in an informal way. Such good practice can underpin better practice in later life.

Adults may refer to a ‘work life’ balance. This also applies to those under eighteen, including those in residential care. Over infatuation with a topic/subject needs to balance with a social life and some exercise. Physical sports and team sports are a great way of engaging with peers from different backgrounds. For some more solitary games become a preference – chess, computer games, ‘boxed’ sets of tv programmes. All fine, but potentially detrimental in the long run if excessive time is given to such pastimes.

For the establishment in all cases, questions need to be addressed and documented regarding risk assessments, who has parental responsibilities off site and on site, who is next-of-kin? and so on.

Personal and Social.

Whilst acknowledging that reference has already been made to this area it is important enough to further consider as a standalone feature. Privacy and personal space should not be underestimated for those in a residential setting. Trying to replicate best practice from family life can be more difficult in this area. Should an individual’s bedroom door be locked? Should that individual have a secure provision within their bedroom for keeping personal private things? Leading questions that need addressing.

The individual keeping a diary may benefit some, all may benefit from a gratitude diary – documenting three good things to be grateful for that have happened each day.

Sleep, rest patterns and bed time – going to bed as well as getting up – may change according to the day (weekday/school day) and weekends and holidays. Some of this may be negotiated, all may change as the individual gets older but the benefits of a routine here should not be underestimated.

Financial planning is also important. Implications of ‘spending beyond income’ can be learned from an early age, progressing through to earned income, deductions (tax and National Insurance etc) and all budgeting. Opening a bank account, or similar should also be supported.

Encouraging and empowering the young person to know where important personal details can be accessed is also vitally important. Such a list may include:-

Date of birth, and birth certificate.

Addresses of people important to them (email and postal).

At the age of sixteen National Insurance Number.

If they have one, Passport number.

Driving Licence number (if old enough and they have one – provisional or otherwise).

National Health Service Number.

Phone numbers for their Social Worker or named adult.

For any off site visits care needs to be given around supervision; who supervises? from fishing trips to shopping trips? This again will change as a young person gets older, but have all eventualities been explored?

Access to siblings can be hugely beneficial both for the present as well as the future. Are Social Services involved and can they offer any advice. (The name and contact details of the Social Worker should be recorded).

Social media is surely one of the most powerful influences of current times – for positive as well as sometimes negative purposes. Who can support an individual in their negotiating their way through so many potential providers? How can this be monitored? Do those in the care of the establishment understand they will be monitored and the reasons why? Who decides which web sites may be accessed? These are difficult questions which need addressing and should in turn become a part of the induction process.

All the above enable the young person currently living in residential care to strive towards the best they could have if living at home. There is no suggestion that this is easy because it isn’t. To encourage and nurture those things identified here can give a better start and outcome to adult life than without them and enhances their independent skills.

We are most grateful to Independent Reviewing Officer Lewis Anderson for his oversight and insight in putting this paper together.

In our next paper we intend to explore further the positive impact Model 2 can have on an individual’s contribution to society.


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