The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Residential care – working with children and young people and the contribution that Solution Focus can make.

Just recently I really enjoyed reading a short article by Yvette Stanley, the National Director of Social Care at OFSTED, entitled ‘creating the environment for excellence in residential practice’. Yvette explains that the question that she is seeking to address is ‘What are the ingredients that lead to successful outcomes in residential care?’. This line of course immediately caught my attention as did the methodology she established, talking with 8 managers of ‘children’s homes that have been judged consistently good or outstanding for 5 years or more’. ‘The homes’ Stanley states ‘ came from across our 8 regions, were of varying size and catered for children with a broad range of needs. We sampled homes run by the local authority, and both private and voluntary providers’. Of course in a similar way in Solution Focus we talk about ‘learning from success’ and indeed the model developed by a team of people looking at sessions of therapy in micro-detail over and over asking themselves the question what is it that the worker and the client are doing that is associated with clients reporting change. So inevitably Yvette Stanley’s question caught my attention and as I read Yvette’s piece the contribution that the Solution Focused approach can make in residential settings became clearer and clearer. (I will copy the link so that you can read the whole of Yvette’s piece.) The piece sparked off a heap of thoughts, reminding me just how useful Solution Focus can be both as an ethos and as a practice in residential care.

Yvette starts by pointing out that of course every children’s home is required to have a ‘statement of purpose’ but that ‘in homes that are consistently successful’ there should be a ‘strong sense of ownership of the home’s statement of purpose by the registered manager and their staff team’ and that it should ‘accurately reflect the purpose of, and service provided by the home’. This reminds us that the ‘statement of purpose’ should not be a static, unchanging, fixed statement. If it is to ‘owned’ by what is likely to be a changing staff team, the statement of purpose needs to be reviewed regularly to explore whether the statement remains fit for purpose, ‘is this still what we think?’, ‘does the statement that was formulated a year ago still fit our current thinking?’. And once the statement is ‘tweaked’ or indeed more fundamentally changed to fit with the times by the current team the key questions that need to be addressed are two questions that are fundamental in Solution Focused practice ‘how will we know?’ and ‘how will it show?’. Exploring in detail and describing the lived reality of the statement brings it alive, moves it off the ‘letterhead’ and out of the Annual Report into the daily patterning of interactions between the staff and residents and indeed between the staff themselves. How does the statement of purpose show itself at all those tough moments when life is challenging? How does it show itself at the beginning of a resident’s connection with the home and equally at the end, however that time ends, well or less well? How will all the key stake-holders in the home’s life know that the statement of purpose is alive and well and informing the staff team’s work on a day-by-day basics? Only by unpacking the ‘statement of purpose’ in an observable way can we make it come alive.

Yvette Stanley points to a second distinguishing feature of consistently good or outstanding homes and that is the careful attention that is paid to ensuring that the children coming into the homes fit what the home can offer. Merely establishing that a child or potential resident fits the criteria for admission should not be enough. It should also be important to establish what is the basis for knowing, or believing, that this child, this young person, can respond to, can benefit from, the work that this unit does best. Establishing this as a pre-cursor to admission, as Yvette states and Solution Focus would support, can feed seamlessly into a detailed focus on the question ‘how could we know, in a (year’s) time that the work we are doing with this child is indeed proving useful?’, a description that can again be elaborated in detailed, observable and interactive terms. This question can be built upon by asking ‘what could be the tiniest signs that we might see over the course of this next (week/month) that our work with this child is on track?’. This fluid movement between admission process, preferred outcome and smallest signs helps to keep staff teams focused and helps to keep work continuously purposeful.

Stanley points in addition to the significance of ‘high ambition for children and monitoring children’s progress’ and this leads us to another of the key characteristics of the Solution Focused approach that fits so well with the residential context. Solution Focused teams are constantly sensitised to notice tiny signs of progress, movement in the direction of the preferred outcome, even in the manifestations of the problem behaviour. For example a ‘meltdown’ might last less long, or be less loud, or the child who often self-harms at points of crisis may not do so on this occasion, perhaps throwing things instead; or of course the child who typically throws things might find control earlier. For example a child in a school setting was sent to see a SF coach because he had ‘done it again’, but what emerged in the talking was that he had not ‘done all of it again’. The child had, as he had done many times before, picked up the chair but what had gone unnoticed and unrecognised was that rather than throw the chair he had found a way of putting the chair down. He had not completed the usual sequence. The risk is that in a problem focused context only the picking up would have been registered as (yet) another manifestation of the underlying problematic issue that the child presents. In a Solution Focused context obviously the picking up has to be addressed, and indeed appropriately dealt with, but it is the putting down that is perhaps of even more interest. How did he do that? What does that say about the child and his growing capacity? What does it say about the team’s work with the child? What did the worker do that was associated with the putting down? What in other words worked? And the ‘putting down’ is more likely to be noticed when ‘the preferred future’ for the child has been described and elaborated in living detail. Of course it goes without saying that the ‘preferred future’ description is more likely to be ‘owned’, just as the ‘statement of purpose’ is more likely to be ‘owned’, when it has been jointly elaborated by the key staff, the child, the family and by the other key professionals in the child’s life. Solution Focus really is good at this!

But there is another lesson that emerges from Solution Focus, one that is as important for the SF practitioner as it is for the residential worker, and that is that we should hold the description of the ‘preferred future’ lightly. Picturing and describing a better future, a preferred outcome, is a tool that is intended to facilitate the process of change, and to increase the chances of tiny shifts being noticed, rather than a tool to highlight ‘failure to comply’. If we over-rigidify specified outcomes, making them too definite, then these outcomes risk becoming things that must be accomplished and the risk is that we then start noticing and focusing on the failures, ‘why didn’t you . . . ?’ or ‘you were meant to . . . ‘ and when these descriptions become rigidified then we can often miss what the young person has done, the small difference that happened during the course of the morning, even though the child did not make it to school. Holding these descriptions lightly means that we view then as indicative rather than as contractual and the young person may have many other creative ways of evidencing their progress, things that were never in the preferred future description. Holding the description lightly can allow these tiny changes to be noticed and to make their difference.

Stanley also identifies ‘Support for the staff team’ as a key feature of consistently good or outstanding homes adding that ‘team meetings are a forum for sharing good practice as well as providing training and learning opportunities for staff’. Indeed in a highly energised, high morale and high self-esteem team, every meeting can, potentially, be a place to learn and a time to recognise and celebrate good practice. When managers establish a time in busy home life for each member of the team, perhaps sequentially, to focus on ‘what have you noticed yourself doing over the past (week) that you have been particularly pleased with?’ and then perhaps unpacking the developmental significance of that achievement for the worker, this models and legitimises and reinforces a home culture that is then more likely to be replicated in the interactions between the team members and the children or young people. Finding time to explore the question ‘what have you particularly appreciated about another member of the team’s work over the course of the past (week) that you have not perhaps had the time to fully express?’, again helps to establish a culture where staff members are encouraged to view colleagues through a ‘contributional’ lens, even those with whom they are not necessarily close; indeed perhaps it is of particular importance when they are not close! Moving ‘hand-overs’ away from a listing of crises or challenges or difficulties, towards a predominant focus on what have we learned (this morning) that is useful, that works, or indeed that does not work and is not worth repeating, helps to establish a context of team reflective practice, a team working hard together to find a way forward, within which even those interventions that ‘failed’ can become a part of the team’s learning rather than a source of embarrassment for any one individual.

There is no one approach that can meet alone all the extremely tough challenges that staff face day by day in residential care and yet Solution Focus can offer a great deal that fits extremely well with the culture that emerges from Yvette Stanley’s description of ‘consistently good or outstanding homes’, and it may well be that the conscious adoption of the Solution Focused approach as an ethos, as a template for practice, could even strengthen some of the characteristics that Stanley identifies. And of course we now know for sure, from the work of Medina and Beyebach (2014), that adopting the Solution Focused approach will serve to protect workers, who can feel at times immersed in a never-ending struggle with challenging and often unappreciative young people, from burn-out, an ever-present risk for those working in such a tough and challenging field over long periods of time.

Medina, Antonio & Beyebach, Mark (2014) The Impact of Solution-focused Training on Professionals’ Beliefs, Practices and Burnout of Child Protection Workers in Tenerife Island. Child Care in Practice, 2014 Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 7–36.
Stanley, Yvette (2020) Social care commentary: creating the environment for excellence in residential practice. Published on 13 February 2020 you will find this on the gov.uk website

Evan George
London
05 April 2020