One of the undoubted highlights of my summer, bar the exceptionally good weather, was being involved as a volunteer at a children’s soccer school. It was especially enjoyable during the World Cup. Each week children aged between 6 and 8 would come along and attempt to mimic and act out the goals and action they had watched the week before. (It should be pointed out that little witnessed in any of England’s matches warranted such a response!)
Van Persie’s free kick against Ivory Coast proved particularly popular, as did a Kaka goal for Brazil, whilst Ronaldo stepovers were attempted frequently. When we split into teams, countries were allocated on the basis of bib colours – yellow became Brazil, blue became Italy and so on – and a mini World Cup was acted out on a weekly basis.
However, things took on a slightly different tone in the first session following the World Cup Final. Most of the children appeared to have watched it, or at the very least knew what had happened. “Doing a Zidane” became the in-thing for a week or two and we encountered numerous mock head butts and theatrical falls to the floor.
Being involved with the soccer school proved to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking. In particular, the response to Zidane’s behaviour reinforced the huge influence that media personalities and role models have on young children. As an adult, witnessing this first hand as it was acted out in a positive fashion was pleasing and enjoyable. When it involved head butts and violence it provoked different feelings.
As I have progressed through my career in residential child care I have become increasingly aware of the role model aspect of my job. When I became a manager I was acutely aware of the influence and power my staff had in shaping and influencing the views and attitudes of the children we looked after.
I encountered both the positive and negative possibilities that exist in this regard. I can recall a child recounting the story of how, when they had been in town with their keyworker, the staff had helped a mother with a pram and young child negotiate steps into a shop. The concluding remark of the child was that had they been on their own, they probably wouldn’t have intervened. In such instances I hope that the attitude and behaviour exhibited by staff in some way impacted on the children.
Conversely I hoped for the opposite when one of my first work colleagues announced he wasn’t “eating any of this foreign muck” when he sat down at the dinner table with the children. The meal was lasagne! The comment said more about him than the merits or otherwise of the food, but I’m not convinced that all the children present, mostly aged 10 and under, would have appreciated this.
In recent years we have experienced a push to achieve increasingly standardised levels of practice within residential child care. The agreement of a qualifications framework, the registration of the workforce and development of National Care Standards are key amongst a range of measures that attempt to create a regulated and professional service. This ultimate aim is of course a good thing; we should strive to provide the children in our care with the best service possible. Central to this aim are practitioners who consistently act in a professional manner and model appropriate values and attitudes.
This raises some questions for me. How realistic is it, for instance, for staff to be expected to act as the consistently ‘perfect’ role model? I’ve yet to meet that worker in person. The second concerns whether the consistently ‘positive’, if not quite perfect, role model would be totally desirable and in the best interests of the children we are looking after.
Most children are exposed to a wide range of role models throughout their childhood. Their most enduring will normally be their parents or carers. The majority of those parents and carers will, over a period of time, model both positive and negative behaviour and attitudes. This is how children learn – they are exposed to a range of behaviours and emotional responses, and attitudes both enlightened and discriminatory. The task of the adults caring for them is to help them navigate their way through this and allow them to make choices regarding the adults they develop into.
I can personally reflect that, whilst witnessing my parents have an argument as a child may not have been an entirely pleasant experience, it no doubt contributed to my learning and beliefs that relationships can involve a harsh exchange of views but move on from it. Whether through compromise or an agreement to disagree, life continued. This modelled to me some of the qualities required to maintain relationships and friendships. It’s a key social skill and one which many of the children in our care continually struggle with.
Similarly, in response to the actions of Zinedine Zidane, we were able to enthuse about his stunning performance in the semi-final versus Brazil but recognise how he had let himself and his team-mates down against Italy. We used both examples to discuss what being a team-mate is about, the good and the bad. Both had something to contribute.
In residential work do we attempt to expose the children in our care to the good and the bad and help them to make sense of both? I don’t think we do, primarily because it doesn’t quite equate with a world of care standards and professional qualifications.
Yet, if managed properly, witnessing a disagreement being debated and resolved could exhibit some of the key skills the children require to learn. I think there is there a place for staff to sometimes express their difficulties/disagreements – without taking it out on the kids. I’m not advocating that residential staff continually engage in heated debates, and I’m certainly not advocating that it involves ‘doing a Zidane’, but I do feel we need to think about the range of modelling experiences we expose them to.
Most of the children in residential care are teenagers, some may stay only for a short period but quite a number are there for a couple of years and more. It could be argued that they will already have had some negative role-modelling experiences, but what I’m wrestling with is the idea of seeing the ‘other side’, as it were, of adults who are usually very positive role models. We want the children in our care to grow up to be rounded individuals and perhaps, to do that, they have to be cared for in a more rounded manner.
Graham McPheat is a SIRCC-funded lecturer in the Glasgow School of Social Work and is Joint Course Director for the MSc in Advanced Residential Child Care. Prior to this he worked as a practitioner and manager in residential child care services. Contact details: [email protected]