Communicating With Children and Young People: A Quick Guide
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
When working with children, communication and trust-building is the key. At times it can be tempting, and easy, to place the views of adults ahead of children, as these can more easily accessible and forthcoming. However, the importance of a child’s voice is enshrined in law and cannot be overlooked or sidelined. Communication with children should be based on trust, respect, stable relationships with practitioners and collaboration.
The importance of a child-centred approach is written into the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, ratified in 1991 by the UK government. This highlights their rights to access information and free expression. The Children’s Act 1989 (Amended by Section 53 of the Children’s Act 2004) also promotes the wishes of a child when deciding the services they receive and before taking action to protect them under Section 47. The Equality Act 2010 similarly highlights the importance of eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity. This relates to the process of assessment and identification of needs and risks. There must be equality of access to services for all children regardless of their background or circumstances.
There are various ways in which we can keep our focus on the child. They can be encouraged to make recommendations about the help or services needed. There should always be independent advice and support easily available to them (such as children’s rights officers or advocates) to give them a voice in decision-making or express their views.
Practitioners should listen to any wishes or feelings about their present situation and hopes for the future. They have a right to hear honest and accurate information about their actual situation and the possibility of future interventions. If they have a right to assistance or protection, they should be made aware of this. Any issues related to trust, low confidence, culture, faith, sexual orientation, diversity and identity should be explored with them.
Children and young people should feel supported to share information with practitioners. This entails a process of gaining trust and may not happen overnight, particularly if they have mental health problems, learning disabilities, a communication impairment or are very young.
It is particularly important with children to speak clearly and on their level, avoiding professional jargon. They should be given ample time to answer questions and should not feel pressured. We should listen openly and wait for their views without judging or advising them. We should also be clear about what the next step will be.
Effective coordination with other professions can ensure that children do not have to repeat information unnecessarily. This can also ensure consistent, less confusing messages. It is useful to explain the situation to parents and carers, asking for consent when deemed necessary. It can help to provide written material to parents and young people, giving them the opportunity to discuss this at a later date.
Research suggests that children react well to a stable, trusting relationship with people trying to help them. They should be supported individually, as well as within a family context. When they feel their views have not been adhered to, they should feel that sufficient explanation has been given. They should be kept abreast and involved in decisions, plans, worries, and the outcomes of assessments.
Children and young people need to fully understand what is happening to them and feel that they have been heard and understood. They should also feel that this understanding is being actioned. When something is wrong they need to feel that adults are aware. Above all they should feel that they are respected and competent. When necessary they should be provided with an advocate to help express their views.
Children have the right to contribute to professional records, and the need for these should be fully explained. Circumstances can change quickly, so these should be kept updated. Records will be available to the individual when they come of age, so they should be clear. Fact, opinion and professional judgement should be separated. The individual’s own contributions should also be clear and can be scanned into the records as handwritten documents or referenced within reports.
The needs of children in a local area should form a key element of the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment developed by the Health and Well-being Board, helping local authorities to react to the ongoing needs of children in their area. As all social work professionals know, reacting well to the needs of younger service users can reduce the pressure on social services further along the line, and encourage individuals to feel comfortable seeking assistance when their circumstances demand it.