This project, funded by the Scottish Government, investigated how well practitioners, across three different services, understood and implemented the full obligations of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ('UNCRC'). Practitioners in education, health and a third sector organisation rated themselves using the Laura Lundy model of participation. They were then trained in a communication technique called Talking Mats©.
Under Article 12 of UNCRC, every child has the right to give their views in matters affecting them. That view should be listened to by those who can influence and bring about the change required to maximise wellbeing.
Talking Mats is a way of having a visual conversation which provides support for thinking and self-expression. Practitioners were asked to create a space to have a Talking Mat conversation and to document the outcome. Case examples were then collated and analysed. Everyone who participated in this project was willing to be a listener who would encourage the children and young people to reflect on their lives and think about what they could do together to bring about positive change.
Practitioners reflected on their own practice and compared the quality of the conversations that were held with and without Talking Mats. Fifty-six practitioners received training and 90 case examples were submitted. The case examples evidenced that (i) effective two-way communication is at the heart of holistic care; (ii) enabling children and young people to talk about their needs and concerns is the first step in providing services that effectively address these concerns and (iii) genuine CYP participation supports learning and enhances wellbeing.
At the outset of this project primary principles were established with the practitioners that: being brave enough to open up conversations also requires a commitment to actually make changes; and making false promises is worse than not asking for the child's views at all.
The key findings from each of the three services are as follows:
In the school setting, children themselves can be proactive in finding solutions to challenges in their lives. Children have unique insights into their own learning and the barriers that they face. Having a conversation with a teacher, looking at the issues together and then jointly agreeing an achievable challenge is a powerful process. The pupil feels listened to and supported to set learning goals; and the professional skills of the teacher can usefully refine that goal to be challenging but achievable. Completing a Talking Mat helps the teacher to understands the broader issues in the life of the child outwith the classroom and so deepens the relationship. The senior management in this project actively supported class teachers to be brave and open up conversations with their pupils by giving them protected time as well as supporting subsequent actions in school, with parents and in the community.
A learning conversation in the school setting.
J is extremely shy, often with low mood and anxiety. He is unable to express his feelings when asked.
"Our relationship after doing the TM reached another stage; he wouldn't talk to me directly before doing the mat, now he is joking with me and saying 'hello'. TM acted as a stepping-stone towards building our relationship – I think he felt heard." Class Teacher
During the Talking Mat he started to open up about lots of things including that he was not happy with his writing and said, "my brother said my writing is like chicken scratches." On reviewing the mat, he said he wanted to improve his writing and together with his teacher they set a goal to work on this. His teacher had never seen him so motivated to improve.
In the health setting, the practitioners reflected that conversations often focus around the parents, rather than seeking the views of the child or young person directly. In contrast, by taking the time to ask the children themselves, they uncovered a unique perspective that altered the focus of intervention. As adults we often make assumptions about the things that children and young people need help with and can be too quick to offer solutions. This may or may not be what is required from the child's perspective. Health practitioners are trained to use focussed and directive questioning in order to quickly establish a diagnosis. Using a technique which encourages a non-directive conversation, to establish what matters to the child or young person, is a very different way of working. Practitioners were surprised at how much useful information could be obtained through a Talking Mats conversation. Having a visual record of a child's view helped to add weight to the child's perspective during multi-agency meetings.
A unique perspective in the health setting.
The child has a powered wheelchair at school but currently does not qualify for an indoor/outdoor one for home.
Objective: to understand reasons for child using/not using the power chair at school. Conflicting views from home and school. Mum wanting K to have access to it when he wants to. School saying that they are giving K every opportunity to use it.
"The talking mat helped clarify K's thoughts and views with regard to him accessing activities at school and in the community"
Paediatric Occupational Therapist
K is choosing not to use his power chair at school as he is worried he will drive into others.
He would like to take his dog for a walk and to go to the park with his brother and friends (too tiring to self-propel in wheelchair). If he feels he can't keep up with peers at school in playground (when in manual chair) he chooses to stay inside at playtime. The child's quotes about his electric chair were included in the report to wheelchair services to support an application for a new indoor/outdoor power chair that he can use at home and in the community.
"Everyone at school thinks it's cool and it's like a "Lamborghini."
"I feel like I'm involved again, instead of being at the back."
In the third sector childcare setting, the relationships are different from the other two sites. There is a difference in the power balance between a teacher and a pupil, therapist and patient and child development worker. The depth of relationship that can be established over many years means that childcare staff are often very well informed about the issues in a child or young person's life. They are used to having informal conversations and often act as advocates. However, reflecting on the learning from the project, there was an acknowledgement that, despite having a culture of listening and consultation, they still needed to actively create opportunities for dialogue. There was an assumption that children and young people (CYP) would seek out a youth worker to talk to if they were having problems. Whilst this was true some of the time, it doesn't apply to every CYP. Scheduling "how's it going" conversations allowed practitioners to pick up on the small things that could be sorted, before they escalated, and/or learn new insights. Early identification means that issues can be dealt with before they become entrenched. A major frustration for staff in this service is that they are often well informed but relatively powerless. They are not always invited to multiagency meetings, despite having a great deal to contribute towards promotion of the wellbeing of the CYP in question.
An opportunity to learn new information in an out of school care setting.
R is struggling with her behaviour and becoming unsettled and frustrated more than usual.
"The Talking Mat helped R to make connections herself, she linked her lack of sleep and her ability to manage her behaviour. She also indicated that she eats to improve her mood. We made up a diagram of her bedtime routine and discussed things she might try to help"
Youth development worker
During the Talking Mat session, we discovered that R is struggling with her sleeping pattern, her mood, her eating and managing her behaviour. She has never mentioned anything about issues with sleep before. She is struggling to get to sleep at night and is lying awake in her bed until around 12:30am until she starts to drift off to sleep.
This project has revealed barriers that need to be overcome in order to help practitioners understand and implement the full obligations of UNCRC Article 12. We came across attitudinal barriers – a reluctance to open up discussions for fear of what that might lead to. We uncovered system barriers – procedures that inhibit, rather than enhance, multi-agency working. Practitioners who know CYP best were sometimes excluded from team discussions and opportunities for onward referral. Most importantly we also encountered cultural barriers - belief systems that fail to give CYP opportunities for participation because adults retain control, ask directive questions and prescribe solutions. Although CYP are right holders, they are dependent on adults to give effect to those rights.
This study strongly supported the belief that, where practitioners are given training that focuses on a child-centred approach, and a suitable communication support tool, they are empowered to open up productive and insightful conversations with CYP. Feedback about decisions taken also needs to be made accessible to include younger children. This in turn enables CYP to take increased responsibility for decision making regarding their own future and wellbeing, as proposed by Article 12 of UNCRC. If the views of CYP are put at the centre of planning this can help overcome the inequity that often exists between services. This in turn helps recognise the unique contribution that each sector (Health, Education and Third sector) plays in providing the right support at the right time.