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Summer Institute Week 4: Understanding the needs of children

In week 4 the focus shifted to the needs of children, beginning with teaching by Dr Sajid Humayun on human growth and development. This is a core area of knowledge for social workers and the challenge of beginning to understand this extensive topic was embraced energetically by Frontline participants.  It’s unlikely many will forget Sajid’s passionate declaration that children are “not, not, not little adults!”  

Teaching looked at how children’s abilities vary hugely according to age, with a steady progression across cognitive, emotional, social and physical abilities. Dr Humayun made a strong case for the importance of taking account of children’s capabilities in understanding their responses and challenges.  Participants rapidly made connections to key questions, such as the problems that can be created if parents over estimate (or underestimate) their children’s abilities.  

Day 2 centred on understanding developmental challenges and child mental health issues. The teaching was led by Dr Matt Woolgar and a team of clinical psychologists whose speciality is working with children who have been abused and neglected, and who are fostered or adopted. The stark statistic that almost half of the children who are looked after or adopted have an identifiable emotional or behavioural mental health problem served as the context for the importance of social workers being able to recognize these problems. Alongside this came the  hopeful message that if problems can be recognized, there are effective, evidence based interventions which can greatly reduce these and increase the child’s life chances. 

Seminar activities looked at formulating problems to aid consideration of what interventions could help children. Participants were introduced to the idea of a Bio/Social/Psychological approach to formulation, which involves systematic consideration of information across a range of domains. A key message was that “every child is different” and that help is more likely to be effective when it is tailored to the child and their immediate situation.

On day 3, Dr Woolgar focused on attachment theory. Participants engaged well with the complexity of distinguishing between central concepts, and recognising essential aspects of attachment related behaviour. A fundamental message was that the attachment relationship is a vital aspect of a child’s relationship with their caregiver but that it is only one part of that relationship. 

Wednesday afternoon concentrated on the quality of parenting in relation to outcomes for children. The teaching was led by Dr Moira Doolan, supported by an excellent team of Frontline graduates.  Because the quality of parenting has the most direct effect on children, careful consideration was given to the factors that influence parenting. Seminar work focused in particular on identifying the factors that influence someone’s ability to parent, in order to support them effectively in their parenting.

The week ended on a high with a whole day focused on communication and direct work with children and young people. Dr Louise Grant and Jo Williams gave a keynote lecture outlining the legal context and some of the evidence base for gathering children’s wishes and feelings. We were then joined by young people from Central Bedfordshire and Enfield’s Children in Care Councils’ who gave some remarkable presentations, filled with insight, honesty, power, passion and hope. This included an emotional performance by a young woman relaying her relationship with her social worker through a song she had written. 

The young people did an excellent job delivering workshops they had designed themselves, and where participants engaged enthusiastically. The week came to a captivating end with two lectures from Professor David Shemmings, on attachment theory and working with childhood trauma. The energy in the main lecture theatre was palpable, with participants from cohort 2015 joining the last session, ready for more fun over the returners’ weekend.