A little bit of TLC: Helping social workers talk to children

Professor Gillian Ruch leads the Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) initiative, which provides social workers with skills and physical tools to improve emotional literacy when working with families.

Kitbag tool for social workers

Kitbag: a tool for social workers

“The challenge social workers face in communicating with children, particularly in the family home and not in a clinical setting, has been the golden thread throughout my social work practice and academic career. The criticism of social workers not engaging with children sufficiently is also a recurrent theme across public inquiries and serious case reviews into child deaths.”

As Gillian Ruch, Professor of Social Work at the University of Sussex, makes clear, good communication is central to social work and in extreme situations it can involve a matter of life and death. Effective communication can be the key to gaining trust in challenging circumstances from children and parents who may be hostile, nervous, or suspicious about the presence of professional authority in their lives.

“The key to effective communication as a social worker comes down to uniqueness – being able to relate to every child as a unique individual in their own unique context,” she says. “It is also about how the social worker is able to remain authentic and transparent.

“It is such a complicated role, being both a caring protective arm of the state but also having the statutory responsibility to protect vulnerable children. The key is being clear with the child and parents about the purpose of your involvement and retaining a child-centred mindset in the face of the competing demands relating to pressing organisational priorities and performance outcomes.”

The ‘invisible’ trade

But while the value of good communication has always been recognised by social workers, observing it directly in practice in order to generate research evidence to inform improvements in skills training has not been easy.

“The knowledge gap around social workers’ communication with children has been recognised as far back as the 1970s,” says Ruch. “Social work has been referred to as an invisible trade. It happens out of the public eye in people’s homes. There is always that challenge for social work of balancing the need to be seeing children in the private space of the home and managing that sense of intrusion. There is the added challenge for researchers to find a way to observe social work practice in the home without imposing upon families more than they already might feel intruded upon by outsiders.”

The Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) project launched in 2013 and explored how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice through ethnographic and video observations and interviews with social workers.

The research, a collaboration between the University of Sussex (headed by Ruch), Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, has generated invaluable new evidence and knowledge to enhance the quality of social work education, practice and policy and, in so doing, improved children’s everyday experiences and wellbeing.

In its initial phase, ethnographic observations were undertaken in eight child care teams across the UK as social workers undertook the full range of key tasks associated with social work with children.

In phase two, social workers in two local authorities were videoed meeting with a child and the video was used in interviews with children and workers to stimulate their reflections on the meeting.

Phase three involved the development of dissemination and training tools, utilising the data from the first two phases, plus videoed discussions of the findings with groups of practitioners from the four local authorities involved in phase one.

Urgent need for resources and materials

“One of the key findings was just how few social workers used any sort of child-centred resource to engage with the children,” says Ruch. “Some were engaging with children with pens and some bought Lego beads for making bracelets but there was no bespoke material and no resources provided by the local authority.”

The work of the TLC project highlighted the very urgent need for materials that social workers could bring to a visit that could help effective communication with children. That key finding was the starting point for the most recent development and research impact associated with the TLC project in reapproriating existing educational materials to be used in a social work setting. Kitbag is a toolkit designed by the Scotland-based educational charity International Futures Forum initially for use in schools but repurposed by Professor Ruch to promote socially and emotionally literate relationships between children, professionals and carers. The kit contains prompt cards (e.g. feelings and presence cards), timers, a talking stick, puppets, visualisation exercise, and calming oil, and is now being used by social workers in interactions with children and families.

Initially introduced to eight local authorities in 2019, providing a small number of Kitbags to share among staff alongside training from Professor Ruch and her team on how to best use the resources during family visits, the project has now been expanded with support from the Higher Education Innovation Fund to allow for a Kitbag to be provided to more than 400 social workers, foster carers and family carers in two authorities: Brighton & Hove, and Rotherham.

Another two local authorities will also have the same scale of access to Kitbag thanks to What Works for Children's Social Care - a funding success that has meant a lot to Ruch as it marks recognition of the project’s potential from a government-funded centre and highlights the significant progress made from the project’s origins involving a small number of staff in a few councils.

“My initial discovery of Kitbag was in the context of education,” she says. “But its aims of promoting emotional literacy speaks to what social workers are trying to do to understand the internal world and everyday experience of children, and give them the vocabulary to explain their feelings.

“It is a really apposite resource to help social workers recognise what their core role is and promotes a sense of being valued as a professional. It’s the equivalent of a doctor’s stethoscope.”

The impact of Kitbag is not just felt by individual social workers and the children they interact with. Ruch says it can have a much wider influence on organisational culture.

“By taking up Kitbag, the whole authority organisational culture can be impacted upon. Its resources can be introduced at the start of team meetings with colleagues, making use of the cards in mindfulness tasks to ensure staff are paying attention and fully present in the moment, and not mentally flitting off to their next meeting or task. It can help all professionals within the organisation to become more emotionally literate. We are on an exciting trajectory sharing the TLC research findings and potential of Kitbag in social work contexts and I feel privileged to be leading on these research impact initiatives.”

Contact us

Research development enquiries:

Research impact enquiries:

Research governance enquiries:

Doctoral study enquiries:

Undergraduate research enquiries:

General press enquiries: