The Environment in Residential Child Care

Our modern concept of the ‘environment’ comes from the work of the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll (1864-1944) who was interested in how organisms perceive the world around them; after all, dogs have no colour vision whereas butterflies can see wavelengths we cannot. He argued that every organism has its own mental picture of the environment which influences the ways in which they interact with anything outside themselves.

If fact human beings’ mental pictures of the environment change to a greater or lesser extent throughout their whole lives. New-born babies can only perceive shapes and shadows; gradually they learn to distinguish other people physically and then as individuals. But young children’s mental pictures are all egocentric; only gradually do they learn to incorporate a view of ‘the other’ physically and then emotionally into their mental pictures. In early adolescence girls’ mental pictures tend to focus on relationships and boys’ on activities and, for some, this divergence can remain lifelong with the opposite sex a ‘mystery’ to them.

If you ask adults to describe the mental pictures they have of their environments at different ages, they tend to include more people and to project further ahead in time the older they get. One reason why young drivers are more likely to have an accident is that they find it more difficult to create a mental picture of all the road users they might encounter over a long enough time ahead. So they are more likely to encounter a situation they had not imagined in their mental picture with too little time to do anything about it.

The Four Stages of Urie Bronfenbrenner

Before some of this research had been done Urie Bronfenbrenner had suggested that human beings can go through up to four main stages in this broadening of their mental pictures of their environments which he called the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro-system levels and Karen Vander Ven (see Children Webmag January 2009) had applied this framework to residential child care.

Broadly speaking, micro-system workers are those who work directly with children, meso-system workers are those who work with groups, exo-system workers are those who understand working with those outside units and macro-system workers are the policy makers, who may never meet a child in care but whose support for those at the other levels ensures that they can do their job. In small units, some people may regularly operate at all the first three levels, much as the crew of a tramp steamer used to have to do all the jobs from going on watch to shovelling the coal out of the hold which would be done by seamen of very different ranks on a freighter.

In another chapter in the book in which Karen Vander Ven set this out, Frank Ainsworth described residential care as involving ‘direct,’ or face-to-face, care and ‘indirect’ care, all the things you do to create the conditions within which the direct care can take place. In other words, to be a residential worker, you have to have a mental picture of your working environment that goes beyond just the children in it to all the other people and things in the environment which contribute to the work you want to do with a child. And you also have to have a time-span which goes beyond your next conversation or interview with the child because in a ‘life-space interview’ the conversation may take place over several days in several locations.

We cannot always influence the mental pictures people have of their environments so that they see things in a similar way to the way we do because, for example, a child who has been physically abused or rejected by a parent may have a mental picture in which all adults are likely to physically abuse or reject them. It takes many positive responses from the people in the environment before they can begin to change the mental picture they have of their environment.

Creating the Right Environment

So, if we do not make the effort to create buildings that look welcoming to most people, use fabrics and furnishings that express care and comfort, provide food that is nourishing and tasty and demonstrate in our non-verbal communication the respect we have for ourselves and for other people, we are wasting the most powerful communicators we have. It is rarely what people say; it is more often what they communicate through their actions that has the most powerful effect on people. Occasionally a word will make a difference, but normally because it reinforces all the other non-verbal communication that people are receiving.

When A S Neill and George Lyward started dealing with disturbed children, they thought they should use individual therapy; they quickly found that the therapy was irrelevant and that it was the milieu that was doing the healing. When King, Raynes and Tizard (see Children Webmag April 2009) looked at what was most associated with quality care, they found it was the verbal and non-verbal communication between the head of the unit and the children, often when engaged in tasks around the unit, which both assured the children of their worth as people and provided a model of positive interaction with children for the staff.

The Need for a Broad Grasp

And therein lies the nub of the problems for social work and residential care in the twenty-first century.

At most, only 20% of the children who come into care need some sort of individual help; the vast majority need a change in their wider situations. But young adults at the micro-system level think about relationships in terms of their face to face interactions with people; in a residential unit, this does not matter because there are normally staff at the meso- and exo-system levels who can see the wider environmental implications of the situation and guide or complement the work of young residential workers to enable them to make a positive contribution to the healing milieu in which the child is living.

In fieldwork, the young social worker is on their own; even if they record the mental picture they have of the situation they are working with, it will inevitably miss out key people and likely trends in the situation. So, even if they are given really excellent supervision, it is unlikely that the supervisor will be aware of all the key elements in the situation and the boundaries to the environment which the worker and the supervisor will be talking about will be much more closely drawn than if the worker was at the meso- or exo-system level.

This was almost certainly a factor in the cases of Baby P and the South Yorkshire ‘Fritzl’; many of the professionals involved would have been at the micro-system level and, though some have acknowledged in the South Yorkshire enquiry that they had suspicions, none of them had the exo-system level of understanding to piece together everyone’s mental pictures into a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Learning the Professional Task

Forty years ago it was commonplace for residential workers to start work in large residential institutions run by residential workers with thirty or more years’ experience who would almost certainly be creating mental pictures not just of the environment of the residential unit but also of the family and social environments of the children, which would enable them to make much more comprehensive assessments of the children’s situations and to plan constructive interventions for them. Those younger staff who were allowed to sit in on reviews or discussions – and not all were – would have benefited from hearing those much broader mental pictures of the child’s situation which would then have encouraged them to expand their own mental pictures and move first to the meso- and then to the exo-system levels of thinking.

This also happened in some voluntary organisations and in some of the smaller children’s departments where there was little staff movement; but with the organisation into local authority social services departments and the reduction in the size of residential institutions – for totally bogus reasons as King, Raynes and Tizard demonstrate – those who would have formed the exo-system level role models in fieldwork and residential care were turned into managers with little or no contact with clients or the younger staff in need of their practice examples.

Very few social work students or beginning field workers now have the chance to work alongside a social worker with exo-system level understanding; they are often supervised by people at the micro-system level whose narrow focus on individual face-to-face interactions limits the mental pictures which they create and which they recognise as relevant for practice.

At least residential workers have the chance to work with meso-system level workers and sometimes with exo-system level workers because, as Frank Ainsworth suggested, you cannot really be a successful residential worker without a meso-system level understanding. So the pull on residential workers to move to the meso-system level is built into the job; the pull on fieldworkers, particularly in a climate of individual accountability, is to stay at the micro-system level – with all the adverse consequences that has for the care of children.

Use the Environment for Good

When Martin Wolins subtitled his 1974 collection of articles about residential child care Explorations in the powerful environment, he was calling attention to the fact that residential care never has a neutral effect; it can be powerful for good or for evil. As child care workers, we should always be concerned to use that environment for good and we can only do that if we understand not only the residential environment but also the environments from which children have come and to which they will be going – something which requires at least a meso-system level of understanding and sometimes an exo-system level.

1 thought on “The Environment in Residential Child Care”

  1. I’ve never met a child in care,or who has been in care, who has received enough individual attention from social workers.

    In my experience social workers involve themselves in many things which are not a part of social work,taking on board reams of red tape and silly rules,to the detriment of the work they are supposed to be doing. Muddled thinking,mindless bureaucracy.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.