Family stories project: What does real change, really take?

Some good news – I am here to announce the launch of a the Family Stories project – a research and intervention project to help parents find solutions for their families, long term, in collaboration with Portsmouth City Council and as part of the MICE Hub. I am setting out to contribute some findings to the paradox of a revolving door. To address the question why do over half the families supported by social care return repeatedly for more help? A problem so significant, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (2018) have termed it a national crisis. Think of the human suffering in children and adults needing specialist help time after time. Think of the money and resources occupied by that revolving door. Ask a single question; what does real change, really take?

As a former social care practitioner and manager, in my days before academia, I know the strain this puts a sector groaning with outstripped demand. I can still feel how demoralising it is for the media to overshadow the successes of safer children with the shortcomings of simply not having a magic wand. But through my doctoral research, I realised the paradox rests between the perceptions of parents through lived experience and the expectations for change placed upon them by agencies. Therein lies potential for a fresh approach.

It is a question of what is normal? Our perceptions of reality are subjective (Bruner, 2002), but every reality has a context (Bhaskar, 2010; Pycroft & Bartollas, 2014). Within professional practice, such questions of normality tend to be answered by established indicators, framed by the statutory responsibility to safeguard children from harm (Working Together, 2018). When we see improvement, it is measured by lessened risk for a child; the family has engaged and worked hard, children are in school, learning better and looking better. But what just happened? I have to question, how does it feel to a family when agencies arrive and explain that something is not right, and what if the concerns do not seem troubling to the family, but normal? (Hayden & Jenkins, 2012). Do we even have the language to identify, express, or contest dysfunction when it is the way things have always been; accepted, and unchallenged?

This indicates the sheer level of complexity we expect people to engage in when we ask them to change, and how obscure, confusing, and threatening that might be. I’m thinking here about the father I interviewed who sought his own father’s permission to stop hitting his child. Of the mother still deciding if husband was abusive when he locked her out of the house and threw her son out of the family home while she was in the supermarket – ten years after the event. And of the worried grandmother whose daughter’s drug problem had led her to phone social services, but still could not explain why her grandson was the way he [was]. She could explain however, that to her family, asking for help was a far bigger crime than leaving the children neglected. These points of utter confusion reflect disruption to the homeostasis of the family (Schneiderman et al., 2005) prompted by challenge, and usurping the ability for family members to navigate their own dynamics. Even if they were problematic before, at least it was possible to function through familiar patterns of behaviours (Pycroft & Bartollas, 2014).

I argue that the work of making change happen surrounds not just the behaviour we see, but the human psychological reaction to cognitive dissonance, where expectation jars with lived experience, and leaves us feeling so threatened that our drive to overcome it is as strong as hunger and thirst (Festinger, 1957; Calsmith, 2012; Cooper & Carlsmith, 2015). It is a primal response enabling us to reduce threat so that we can function effectively, and we all do it. A normal psychological drive to help us cope in a threatened state. Festinger’s theory (1957) suggests that hearing we have got it wrong by our children would force us to prioritise reducing this dissonance over anything else, by one of three routes. Firstly, we can learn and adapt to the new messages (cognitions). Secondly, we could play down the significance of these conflicting messages, realigning ourselves with what feels familiar. Thirdly, we fake it till we make it; enacting, but not embodying, those expectations of change. A false presentation of self, enabling us to fit for the time being, and avoid threat, stigma and embarrassment (Goffman, 1956). So I propose, that our success stories have taken route 1. Practitioners have worked with families to create meaningful and lasting change through learning and adaptation, so they are able to better support their children, now thriving. They walk through the door and do not return, because the change is theirs to keep. The revolving door, however, is full of those who take the downplayed second route, refusing to engage with uninvited ideas which threaten self-assured identity, and of those who take the third route; who enact, but do not embody, change. They have risen to the challenge of meeting expectations in the here and now – extrinsically motivated. They are richly rewarded by a reassured practitioner, and a case closed.

So what does real change, really take?  My hypothesis is that we need to hold in mind the psychological stress taken by feeling threatened, in a life already threatened with violence, abuse, poverty and marginalisation. We need to give time and credit to the work within that space, and embrace the potential for meaningful change through making sense of experience in non-threatening environments in order to enable families to own their transformation; embodied and applied for their own lives.

Comments and contributions are welcome in forming this project; please contact emma.maynard@port.ac.uk, @maynard_emma.

Reference list

Association of the Directors of Children’s Services. (2018). Safeguarding Pressures phase 6; main report. Retrieved from https://adcs.org.uk/safeguarding/article/safeguarding-pressures-phase-6

Bhaskar, R. (2010). On the Ontological status of ideas. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 27 (2), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/epdf/10.1111/1468-5914.00031

Bruner, J. (2002). The Narrative Construction of Reality. In M. Mateas, & P. Sengers, (Eds.) Narrative Intelligence. (pp41-62). Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins.

Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dissonance theory. In T. Kruglanski., A.W. Lange., P. Van (Eds) The Handbook of theories of social psychology, Volume 1. (pp377-397). London: Sage.

Cooper, J., & Carlsmith, K. (2015) Cognitive dissonance. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (2ndEd), 76-78 https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60121-5

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). Embarrassment and social organisation. American Journal of Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2772920.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Afc90e2af9e437fec521c2d4b4aad79f1

Pycroft, A. & Bartollas, C. (2014). (Eds) Applying complexity theory; whole systems approaches to criminal justice and social work. Bristol, England: Policy Press

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. (2005). Stress and health; psychological, behavioural and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology. https://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

Displaced Children in a Global Context

On the 8th of July, the MICE ( Mental Health in Childhood and Education Hub) organised a conference: ‘Displaced Children in a Global Context’. The conference was attended by guests and visiting speakers from various countries such as Norway, Pakistan, and the UK presenting their research with a focus on child refugees, displaced children, racism and inclusive practice. There were many different professionals from across the country present during this conference.

What happened at the conference?

After the welcome speech from Dr Wendy Sims- Schouten, founder of Mental Health in Childhood and Education (MICE) hub, Sonia Carr, Chair of the Wiltshire Racial Equality Council talked about unconscious Bias from the victims perspective. Following Sonia’s talk, Yvonne Joseph, a very talented poet from Wiltshire shared her poems around her experience with racism and refugee children. The poems were very beautiful and thought-provoking. Yvonne has been writing poems for years and said that it is her “coping mechanism”. She was very pleased to share her poems at the conference and encourages everyone to start writing to cope with their emotions.

Dr Rana Dajani, Associate Professor at Hashemite University, Jordan and Founder and Director of ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees was unable to attend and deliver her presentation due to visa issues however we were able to see some of her work in video form. The video involved people from different parts of the world engaging in the ‘We Love Reading (WLR)’ programme and sharing their positive experiences. A link to the video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux_GXei0lPY. In the video Rana shares how the program has changed the mindset of people around the importance of reading. The programme has three outputs:

  • It fosters the love of reading among children so they can reap the benefits of reading
  • It empowers adults and youth mostly women to become changemakers.
  • It creates a community with the mindset of I can.

Furthermore, Dr Rana Dajani’s programme ‘We Love Reading’ has been beneficial towards vulnerable children who have experienced trauma, emotional instability due to war and displacement. WLR is a scalable, efficient, sustainable program that started in Jordan and has spread to 52 countries and counting.

Image. Dr Rana Dajani delivering the ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees.
Images. Dr Rana Dajani delivering the ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees.

Dr Nora Wiium, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway and an expert on youth development in a global context shared her project called ‘Positive Youth Development’ (PYD). This project seeks to examine developmental assets that are available and accessible to youths and emerging adults and how these assets, in turn, relate to thriving and positive outcomes such as the 5 Cs of PYD ( Confidence, Competence, Character, Caring and Connection) and subsequently, to young people’s contribution to their own development and the society they live in. Dr Nora Wiium presented the data from a cross-national project on PYD which involves over 10,000 adolescents and emerging adults, from over 20 different countries across Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle, East, the US and Latin America. This project aims to influence programmes and policies to encourage the developmental assets required to promote positive development and contribution among young people in the participating countries.

After the coffee break, Professor Helen Haste, University of Bath and an expert on youth civic participation in a global context shared her study around civic engagement in young people that goes beyond voting. She discussed interviews conducted in China among young people who were asked to express their opinion on a specific topic around civic participation in China. From the interviews, it showed that some people felt like it was unnecessary and some people felt like it will have a positive influence on people of China. Professor Helen also discussed another interview with a young individual in South Africa around the subject of apartheid and explained the importance of narrative in the interview.

Dr Wendy Sims- Schouten, Associate professor in childhood studies, University of Portsmouth presented her research on ‘Historic and Contemporary voices of displaced children’. This research focuses on the varied and developing child welfare practices regarding child refugees, unaccompanied minors in different international contexts. This research will help provide greater understanding and conceptualisation of the role migration played in childcare provision across Britain and imperial contexts. She compared the historical and contemporary child emigration schemes and stated that very little has changed over the last years. She also explained her communication with offspring of displaced children who migrated to Canada in the 1930s, through emails and shared their experience and story. In her research Wendy uses a variety of sources including correspondence, archival data, memoirs and interviews to showcase children’s experience of both the positive and negative outcomes of humanitarian schemes. The outcome of this work adds to current understanding of the social, emotional and material histories of displaced children and children in care.

Image. Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten presenting her research ‘Historic and Contemporary voices of displaced children’

Dr Ann Emerson, Lecturer in Education presented her research ‘Challenges & Opportunities for Education of Displaced Children: A case study of Pakistan’s Jalozai Camp’. This study focuses on primary data collected in 2013 in Jalozai camp which housed around 65,000 internally displaced people in Pakistan. The study focuses on the education provided for the children in the camp and challenges that they experience whilst pursuing education. For example, Dr Ann Emerson explained that even though children go to school, the challenges around attending school regularly is still a problem in the camp. The study shows that family issues, illness or even the weather can prevent children from attending school regularly.

Blog by Manisha Thapa, Research Assistant MICE Hub (Education and Sociology, University of Portsmouth).

Safeguarding, Signs of Safety and ‘Safety First’- the Dutch and English contexts

On the 7th of Dec, Wendy Sims-Schouten gave a talk (a ‘masterclass’) at the Verwey-Jonker institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands on child protection and safeguarding in the Dutch and English contexts. The Verwey-Jonker institute is a research centre for social sciences research and impact.

The talk was based on research undertaken by Kayleigh Rivett (research assistant at the University of Portsmouth) and Wendy Sims-Schouten (associate professor) with a focus on risk driven care in cases of child abuse and domestic violence.

Comparing key documents used in the Netherlands (namely ‘Working together first for safety’, by  Vogtlander and Van Arum, 2016) and England (the NSPCC, 2013 document on ‘Signs of Safety‘) and data from interviews with 17 Dutch and English safeguarding practitioners and professionals.

The research has highlighted some key differences in practical applications in the Netherlands and England. In England, stronger reference is made to involvement of the education system in safeguarding and related multi-agency collaborations, whilst in the Netherlands more links are made with the prosecution system and the police here.

In both countries the importance of muli-agency teamwork is highlighted and flagged up, but there are also signs of ongoing problems in this area – in part due to ongoing cuts in funding and a patchwork of practice. Both countries show similar objectives in relation to developing good working care and individualised support that is inclusive and benefits the family as a whole.

Yet, whilst the Dutch approach is ‘head-on’, with clear procedures in order to ‘listen to families’, the English approach makes reference to ‘protocols’ and the ‘voice of the child’, which is not as clearly defined as the Dutch approach. In both countries though, there is a sense that more can be done to support the most vulnerable people. The talk was attended by academics, as well as social workers and developmental psychologists.

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten is project lead for the MICE Hub and Kayleigh Rivett is contributor and author of content for The MICE Hub at The University of Portsmouth School of Education and Childhood Studies.

*To reference/cite this article as follows: The MICE Hub, Tuesday 11th December 2017, Safeguarding, Signs of Safety and ‘Safety First’- the Dutch and English contexts.*