Teaching about Lifespace Working by using the Lifespace in Training

This article will draw on ideas from lifespace theory and how they can be used during training courses for residential workers.

One of the most useful, fruitful and illuminating models I have found of understanding the work of residential childcare has been that of lifespace. When I was undertaking my own social work training I remember struggling, at times, to use the methods I was being taught to help me to understand and develop my work within a group environment. Often these models were based upon the assumption that working one-to-one was the norm.

It was not that I was unable to amend what I was learning to make it more relevant, but that I had to struggle to make the models fit the complexity of working within a residential setting. The teaching on lifespace provided me with a theoretical base which drew upon the wider range of teaching on child development, and group dynamics.

It also provided a sense of validation of work I had undertaken in that it confirmed the effectiveness of working within a group setting as a positive option rather than as a second best to individual work. As Keenan (2002: 221) states, “Life-space work is neither individual casework nor group work, nor even individual casework conducted in a group context but is a therapeutic discipline of its own.”

As I have moved from practice into training I have continued to draw on lifespace working as a model. In residential work lifespace is the deliberate and focused attempt to promote individual growth and development within the context of daily events. In teaching about lifespace to groups of residential workers during a three-day course I have found it illuminating to draw the participants’ attention to the ways in which the course replicates and illustrates the concepts that are being covered on the course.

  • Milieu


The milieu is the environment and the setting. However, it is more than that, as it also encompasses the feel of the space which is created from the interactions within it and what everyone brings with them into the space. Everything that happens in the unit has an effect on the lifespace, and the skill is in utilising this consciously to foster growth and development. Similarly, everything that is happening in the training room has an effect on the training. The training room becomes in effect a working model of the lifespace. Managing the space and drawing attention to how small changes can affect the level of involvement and the learning of those in the group can help the participants to get a real sense of what the milieu is. “It is not so much the building as the way you use it” (Burton, 1993: 90). So the hardness of the seats, the positioning of the table, and difficulties with technological equipment can all be used as part of the learning experience.

  • Boundary and structures; Consistency v Flexibility


 As Clough states, “Residential workers have an opportunity both to structure services and to be alongside people. It is in this combination of practical task and personal relationship that that the opportunity lies for purposeful and valuable work” (Clough: 2000:2). However, many workers struggle to understand consistency and the balance between rules and boundaries and the flexibility required to meet each individual’s needs.

Rules and boundaries protect workers from their anxieties and their own underlying dynamics and serve to “hold” (Winnicott) and “contain” (Bion) the young people. However, flexibility is also required to ensure that the structure can accommodate the developmental needs of each individual young person. There is a danger that “insistence on equality of treatment can be seen as a way of avoiding or denying the reality that different individuals have materially different needs, emotional as when as physical, and therefore require unequal treatment”  (Miller & Gwynne, 1972: 126).

In the training session the participants’ attention can be drawn to the structures and parameters of the day, the timetable and the aims and objectives, while indicating points at which this is amended to suit the learning needs of the group. For example, though there is a set finish time, this may be renegotiated if the participants have reached saturation point and further discussion would be counter-productive. Or when a particular worker raises an important issue from their work, a particular session may run overtime in order to help them fully explore the issue. In addition emotional reactions to the material covered needs “holding and containing” and the trainer giving that person extra time at the end of the day may not be referred to directly but gives a message about the being flexible in meeting individuals’ needs.

  • Assessment and involvement in activities


Working in the lifespace involves ongoing assessment of the emotional, physical and cognitive abilities of the young people in the selection of daily activities and the way they are undertaken. The worker should “weave the activities into the fabric of the milieu, taking into account the needs, interests and limitations of the worker and the resources available to them” (Whittaker in Trieschman, Whittaker & Brendtro, 1969:255).

Similarly, in the training sessions the trainer needs to be constantly monitoring how small groups are responding to the tasks. At times the trainer will draw to the groups’ attention the fact that they seem to be struggling and may restructure the task, abandon specific tasks or spend more time on particular tasks. Healthy independence can only grow out of preceding experiences of dependency needs having been recognised and met.

In a training situation the expectations of a group generally increase as the three days go on. However, when the trainer senses from the group a tiredness or overburdening with ideas, they will often move back from group-centred activities to presentation of material or trainer-led discussion of it, rather than continuing to expect them to work on their own. In doing this openly, the process can be used to illustrate flexibility in assessment and involvement in particular tasks.

  • Use of self and relationships


A key area of working in the lifespace is the use of self in relationships with young people and managing the impact of this. The worker needs “self management in the face of constant exposure to residents, often competing in each others’ presence for a worker’s time, attention and emotional investment” (Davis, 1982: 43). Within a successful training session participants similarly may all be wanting to be heard and responded to, as they share their experiences. Indicating this and the difficulties there can be in giving enough time to each can illustrate this point. Helping the group to draw on one another and support one another also shows how ideally in residential care young people can become a support for one another.

Differences in viewpoint and frictions within the group can similarly be pointed out as learning points. It can be helpful to point out that young people are often expected to get along and yet workers may, at times, struggle to do so.

  • Working with defences


In working in the lifespace, the defences and emotions of the young people are part of the mix along with the defences and emotions of the workers. Workers have been attracted to a profession where they can only ever partially succeed.

This is sometimes called “the self-assigned impossible task” (Roberts in Obholzer & Roberts, 1994: 110-118). This leads to a need to manage the inherent anxiety in the complex tasks of the helping profession. “Instead of reflecting on what is most appropriate issues are polarised around right and wrong” (Roberts 1994: 115).

Often the projection focuses on differing values with each group taking the moral high ground. This is not to say that there are no genuine differences, but they are not looked at or discussed as the position becomes polarised. Polarised discussions of why a particular rule has to stay in place or not can become quite heated, and it can be helpful to suggest to the group that sometimes this is likened to their own anxieties and defences. In exploring the demands on them of the work they undertake, the trainer can help them to tease out the defence mechanisms they use to manage the work.

  • Self awareness and supervision


When working with young people one of the aims is to help them make sense of themselves and their lives. This developing self-awareness comes from learning in the group and through individual work with their key workers, all taking place within a context of meaningful relationships. Within the training group there is the chance to look at painful, exciting, frightening, challenging and rewarding experiences within a “safe enough” space and this can contribute to a developing self awareness. This can be noted by the trainer and links drawn between the young people’s experiences of being heard and the participants’ experiences. It is also a good opportunity to underline the need for supervision which in its function can mirror key worker time.

Lishman (2002) indicates that self-awareness hones the worker as a resource but stresses in addition the developmental and protective functions of developing self-awareness and of supervision. Not only are they important for ensuring good practice but they also allow the worker to make sense of what is going on personally and professionally.

This can allow them to process the negative feelings and difficulties they are having and help them to survive and thrive within social work settings. Workers “need themselves to be contained in a system of meaningful attachments if they are to contain the children effectively. They need firmly bounded situations in which to work and they need the support of being able to talk things through in quieter circumstances away from the core of children’s distress and problems” (Whitewell, 2002).


The aim of this article is not to imply that training in any way involves the same depth and complexity as that of working within residential units but that in many ways it draws on the same skills in a different context. The fact that is does so means that learning experientially from events during training can make the knowledge and skills of lifespace working real to the participants.


Burton, J. (1993) The Handbook of Residential Care London: Routledge.

Clough, R. (2000) The Practice of Residential WorkLondon: Macmillan.

Davis, L. (1982) Residential Care: A Community Resource (Classic reprints) London: Heinemann.

Keenan, C. (2002) Working within the Lifespace In Lishman, J. (Ed.) (2002) Handbook of Theory for Practice Teachers in Social Work London: Jessica Kingsley.

Lishman, J (2002) Personal and Professional Development In Adams, R., Dominelli L., & Payne, M. (Eds.) Social Work: Themes Issues and Critical Debates 2nd Edn.  Basingstoke: Macmillan pp. 95-106

Miller, E. J. & Gwynne, G. V. (1972) A Life Apart: a pilot study of residential institutions for the physically handicapped and the young chronic sick London: Tavistock Publications

Roberts, V. Z. (1994)   The self-assigned impossible task In: Obholzer, A. & Roberts, V. Z. (eds.)The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organisational Stress in the Human ServiceLondon: Routledge

Trieschman, A. E., Whittaker, J. & Brendtro, L. K. (1969) The Other 23 Hours: Child Care Work with Emotionally Disturbed Children in a Therapeutic Milieu New York: Aldine.

Whitewell, J. (2002) Therapeutic Childcare In White, K. J. (Ed.) Re-framing Children’s Services London: NCVCCO

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