Summer Institute Week 2: Social work as a relational and socially constructed activity

Week 2 of the Summer Institute explored social work as a relational and socially constructed activity. On Wednesday, Dr Karen Treisman began with an introduction into child development.

Subsequent sessions focussed on the impact of relational and developmental trauma on children’s (and our own and parent’s) brains, bodies, emotions, behaviours, and relationships. Related topics were explored, including emotional regulation, toxic stress, behaviour as communication, and multi-layered triggers.

Karen used metaphors (the parenting patchwork, the treasure box, shark-infested waters, and desolate islands), case examples, video clips, and some group relaxation and pipe cleaner exercises to bring the material to life. This day was centred around the importance of relationships, interactions, and human connections – “relational trauma requires relational repair”. The day closed with some ideas and studies around hope, resilience, and strengths-based practice, and a seminar where participants applied the day’s learning to a live anonymised case study.

On Thursday, the aim of Prof David Shemmings’ session was to strengthen and deepen participants’ working knowledge of attachment theory and research.

He started off by discussing an important, recent paper by one of the pioneers of attachment theory and research, Mary Main. Main set out to dispel a number of misconceptions about attachment that have developed and gained traction over the years. For example, that most of the population is securely attached to a primary caregiver. The actual figure is 55-60%.

David used film clips to illustrate the ‘goal-corrected behaviour’ of toddlers when faced with a sequence of separation and reunion episodes involving a primary caregiver and a stranger. The three different reactions of the children at reunion made sense when we appreciated that their (unconscious) task was to keep the caregiver in the room.

David then turned to some contemporary successors of John Bowlby’s innovative work, each of which has, he argued, more relevance and resonance with child and family social work in the 21st century. He looked at:

  • ‘mentalisation’ and ‘mind-mindedness’;
  • the importance of ‘secure base priming’, the provision of a safe haven and a secure base by practitioners;
  • why it’s important to have an insight into one’s own attachment organisation (but not necessarily that of children or family members);
  • the notion of ‘epistemic trust’, as distinct from ’empathy’ (which has come under a degree of criticism lately); and later on the Friday
  • how ‘speaking for the child’ interventions can offer an interesting way of helping families.
  • After showing a film to bring these attachment-related concepts to life, David concluded by asking participants to think about these ideas as a group.

Karen kicked off Friday with an introduction to parenting, followed by a video and lecture on caregiver sensitivity by David. The participants watched clips of video-feedback intervention, and from Help me love my baby – Channel 4’s documentary on post-natal depression featuring Dr Amanda Jones.

Following this, participants rotated through three seminar groups for the remainder of the day, exploring parenting in the contexts of domestic violence, mental health difficulties and learning disabilities. These seminars gave participants an opportunity to have some enriched discussions about these areas, whilst keeping a focus on exploring multiple perspectives, and also one’s own biases, assumptions, values, and experiences.