Features: October 19th, 2007

Perceptions of Children With Challenging Behaviour

By Dame Denise Platt DBE

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

When I hear people described as ‘vulnerable’, I always ask what has made them that way – are they inherently vulnerable, or have they been placed in circumstances that increase their vulnerability? Similarly, when I hear children described as ‘challenging’, my response is to ask, ‘is it the children themselves who are innately challenging, or is it the circumstances in which they live their lives?’

Helping children overcome the challenging circumstances of their lives is one of the biggest tasks facing policy-makers and frontline professionals. But meeting the needs of all children – making every child matter – is made harder by persistent public perceptions of some children as being more in need of control than of care. It is easy to drum up public sympathy for the child with neglectful or abusive parents, harder to invite support and understanding for the child who disrupts school, bullies peers and destroys property – even though it may be one and the same child.

Public perceptions of ‘problem families’ make the task of those who make and implement social policy much harder. Social workers are castigated if they are perceived to be rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention and incentives to improve. And removing children whose behaviour may be considered ‘challenging’ from their families raises the question of where they should be placed. One solution that many councils have opted for – even if only in the short-term – is one-person children’s homes.

One person homes

One of the last reports on children’s services published by the Commission for Social Care Inspection before the transfer of children’s responsibilities to the new Ofsted focused on the use of one-person homes. These homes are a type of residential care commissioned by councils currently serving fewer than 200 children – many of whom have emotional or behavioural difficulties.

We were interested in exploring whether councils deliberately commission this type of provision for children because they believe it’s better than any alternative – or whether they end up placing children in one-person homes simply because they have exhausted all other options. But the answer to this question is unclear. Councils gave a number of reasons for using one-person homes. One reason is multiple placement breakdowns in foster or residential care. (The most extreme example we heard about was one young person who had been in 93 placements before arriving at a one-person home.) Councils also said that some children need to be in a place where they are not fighting for attention; some need protection from a hostile environment; and some children’s behaviour is so extreme that it can’t be managed in any other setting. There is a real risk that in some areas, one-person children’s homes are also being used as an alternative to secure accommodation – in other words, young people’s freedom may be restricted without due process of law.

How children saw it

An important part of our research for this report was to ask children themselves what they liked and disliked about living by themselves in a home run by staff. Their responses provide a vital insight into what matters to children, and what makes a difference. When we asked children what they liked about one-person homes, the word that was most frequently used was ‘attention’. They liked the attention they received from staff, and they liked the privacy of living in this type of setting. They also appreciated the opportunity they had to influence their immediate environment, and being away from bullying. However, even children who were positive about some aspects of living in a one-person home cited the negative aspects – many said they missed the company of other young people, that they were sometimes bored and lonely by themselves, and that the constant oversight by staff can be too much.

More research is needed on whether one-person homes represent an effective model of care – both in terms of value for money for councils, and positive outcomes for children.

More work is also needed to deal with the resistance that some councils report from local residents to children’s homes – including one-person homes – being set up in their areas. Children in care are acutely aware of how they are perceived, and this can reinforce the negative behaviour that feeds such perceptions – and it can become a vicious cycle. When we talk to children and young people, the message that comes across most clearly is their wish to be heard – and to be taken seriously. Children in care believe that they have fewer rights than other children, and they are sensitive to being labelled as ‘problem’ children. They tell us that they want to feel safe, to have somewhere stable to live, to be helped with behaviour problems, to have their private problems kept confidential, to make and keep friends, to be treated as individuals, and to know what’s happening and what’s being planned for them – and why.

Getting it right

It is essential that councils, as the main commissioners of children’s services, understand the nature and diversity of problems that children may present. But our evidence suggests that councils’ commissioning strategies are not always based on in-depth knowledge of the needs of local children – particularly those with considerable complex needs, for whom it is so important to get things right.

Getting it right for children means getting it right first time – for all children. This means clear decision-making, holistic assessment, good care planning, and effective communication with children and their families, as well as with the wider community. Making a positive difference to children’s lives is one of the most important tasks in social care. There is a real opportunity now, in the context of the ‘Care Matters’ Green Paper, to tackle the exclusion faced by many children in care. We owe it to them to do better in the future than we have in the past.

Dame Denise Platt DBE is Chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection