Using solution focused approaches to connect with young service users with behavioural difficulties

Jackie Bateman is co-author with Judith Milner of the recent book, Working with Children and Teenagers Using Solution Focused Approaches, which illustrates communication skills and playful techniques based on solution focused practice principles that can help young people overcome a whole range of difficulties – from academic problems to mental health issues – by helping them to identify their strengths and achievements.

In this article, Jackie talks about some of the successful ways in which she uses solution focused approaches in her work at Barnardo’s The Junction, a service in the UK which works with children and young people who display sexually concerning behaviour and their families.


The primary aim of our work at The Junction is to contribute to the prevention of sexual abuse by children and young people, and as such we are mindful of the victim’s safety from the beginning. The Junction clearly positions itself within a child protection framework and is aware of the responsibilities to the wider community. The Junction’s assessment considers what safety and concerns presently exist. As a result it also aims to highlight any need for further intervention with the young person in order to increase the likelihood of their being safe from displaying sexually harmful behaviors in the future.

The approach adopted by The Junction is strongly influenced and underpinned by solution focused and narrative principles and practice and the Signs of Safety Assessment model (1999). From our work with children, young people and their families, we believe that focusing exclusively on risk and deficits hinders engagement and is unproductive in working towards safety. Over the years we have recognized that solution focused approaches increase the level of engagement with families and promote respectful practice, ensuring a comprehensive assessment that documents and encourages active participation in change.

It is increasingly recognised that the application of strengths-based approaches, a greater inclusion of family within the work and a wider understanding of how a young person is engaging with society – rather than an exclusive focus on their sexually harmful behaviour – will increase the likelihood of successful outcomes. Furthermore, there is increased acknowledgment that simply adapting models and approaches used with adults who engage in this behaviour does not adequately reflect levels of understanding and developmental factors, or the differences in motivations/reasons between adults and young people who engage in this behaviour.

A focus on denial as an indicator of risk is also an area where the service has shifted and we challenge the traditional and dominating view in Child Protection which asserts that cases in which there is denial of responsibility are essentially unworkable and untreatable.

At the Junction we take a position of neutrality, emphasizing that we neither disbelieve the ‘story’ of the ‘victim’ nor that of the young person who has displayed the behaviour, and we concentrate on assessing the knowledge, motivation and capabilities of the young person to display safer sexual behaviours and gather evidence of how and when they have demonstrated more appropriate behaviour.

The work of Alan Jenkins (1990) has been extremely useful in considering the contexts of denial and supporting professionals to consider the varying reasons why a young person may take a position of denial. When a young person is in denial and there is a need to engage the young person in an assessment of their understanding of consent, power, respect, victim empathy, responsibility to keep safe from further allegations, etc., we employ the Resolutions Approach developed by Susie Essex (Resolutions Approach 1999). Within this strategy, ‘similar but different’ stories are created that mirror the behaviour that is similar to that detailed in the allegations. This enables an exploration of the issues relating to this type of behaviour within a neutral context.

The Junction facilitates collaborative working with the service users whenever possible. In this respect effort is put into exploring service users’ perceptions and their position in relation to the concerns that have arisen. There is a focus on existing and potential responsibility taking and on concerning signs of behaviours within relationships and interactions. The concerns of others are gathered from a variety of sources depending on who has been involved (e.g. Police, Social Services, School, etc.), and these are shared openly with the young person and their family. The Signs of Safety Assessment Tool is used to document both concerns and safety.

When we begin our work with children, young people and their families, we work towards establishing what their goals for the work would be by asking such a question as: How will you know that the work of The Junction has been helpful? Inevitably there are times when a young person will make reference to no longer needing to come to the service. Whilst this could be interpreted as a negative comment, it is clearly understandable. Furthermore, it enables us to ask questions that appropriately place responsibility on the young person: What needs to happen? What do you need to do differently? What do you need to demonstrate to others for them (professionals) to be confident that you no longer need to come to The Junction?

Identification of goals is also asked of referrers. This has enabled the families to have a clear understanding of the professional’s concerns and what changes in the young person’s behaviour they need to see. Families have fed back that this level of transparency has been helpful and enabled them to understand what is expected as well as ensuring that professionals are clear about their objectives.

Alongside recording individual goals, we explore people’s perspectives around the young person’s current ability to control their behaviour. The technique of scaling is employed at this point and enables a worker to ask questions to gather evidence that the young person has reached a particular point: How has the young person achieved this, or What have you seen that shows that the young person has got to this point?

When we meet with a family we begin to ask questions informed by a solution focused approach. These questions are framed in such a way that they consider and/or build upon what the family has been doing to increase the safety of others and levels of safety per se within the home and in the community: Since the behaviour happened, what steps have you taken to increase safety within your home? This information is documented within the Strengths/Safety column of the Signs of Safety Evidence Sheet. There are simultaneous conversation which both support the young person and their family in talking through the behaviour that has happened and recognise the concerns, whilst identifying individual strengths and resources to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour happening again.

During these conversations, the family and young person begin to appreciate that the behaviour is conveyed in a way that isn’t shaming of the young person and their family whilst promoting responsibility taking. The family often become comfortable quite quickly in discussions about what has happened. The ability for families to communicate in this way about the behaviour can greatly increase the levels of safety within the home.

The young people and the families we work with are often embarrassed, ashamed, distressed and fearful of the possible consequences, so we use solution focused and narrative approaches in creative ways, aiming for a light touch so that we can connect more easily with our service users. More information on how to put these principles and techniques into practice can be found in our book: Working with Children and Teenagers using Solution Focused Approaches: Enabling Children to Overcome Challenges and Achieve Their Potential.


Judith Milner and Jackie Bateman are both solution focused practitioners, trainers, consultants and writers. Jackie previously worked as a social worker in child protection and then youth offending before joining Barnardo’s in 2002. She is currently a Children’s Service Manager for Barnardo’s The Junction.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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