With one bestselling direct work resource under her belt already, Audrey Tait, with Helen Wosu, has produced another must-have guide, full of creative ideas to engage the whole family and effect positive change through direct work. On the release of her second book, Direct Work with Family Groups, Audrey reveals how she developed her direct work activities, her experiences in the field, and her most cherished memories.
Audrey, you have 20 years of experience working with children in social work settings, how do you feel that that experience has prepared you for the work you’re doing now?
I trained as a nursery nurse originally and this gave me a good understanding of child development, but also the importance of play. My career was based in children’s centres, nurseries run by social work which offer a package of care to the whole family, they offer a service to some of the most vulnerable children. It is no surprise then that many of these children had difficulties with speech and language and many of the children had issues with their wider development. They often had no reason to trust adults or expect adults to meet their needs – they were in essence ‘hard-to-reach children’. In communicating with them the workers needed to be very skilled and played a huge part in facilitating communication. This is where I learnt and developed my skills both with individual children, and working with family groups. When I moved to train as a social worker (approx. 12 years on), while doing the training I worked shifts in residential care with children aged 12-18, I realised that my skills were transferable. Arriving in practice teams doing child protection work I naturally used these skills, but I realised in the course of the job that I sometimes needed to be able to talk about difficult things more quickly than I would have liked (i.e. sometimes on first appointment in case of child protection, with really no time to establish a relationship, and in a critical position where not fully understanding the child’s situation could leave them at risk). How to do this in an as non-threatening and as gentle a way as possible was where many of the direct work activities came from.
Activities from Direct Work with Vulnerable Children have been adopted by a large number of social workers – what do you think it is about the activities that appeal to social workers and their service users?
Children respond well to non-threatening direct work, they need you to meet their needs, they need to feel relaxed and to get something out of the engagement with you – play is a common activity that children, and everyone else, is familiar with. It has potential, when used well, to help the participants feel safe and reassures that it can help facilitate communication, and ultimately it is rewarding for all parties. This doesn’t detract from the serious subjects we are often dealing with, adults who work with vulnerable children and adults do so because they care, they want to get it right, and in my experience most will do anything they can to extend this care, ease communication and ensure people get a good service. When professionals use direct work and see positive results, they are naturally motivated to develop their practice in this area.
Tell us about your new book – Direct Work with Family Groups. How is it different from Direct Work with Vulnerable Children?
Direct Work with Family Groups explores the challenges of working with families in the community and there’s a natural progression from Direct Work with Children. In reality, in my practice I will work with the child individually and with the family group. Other times the emphasis will be on working with the child, then the focus will shift to work with family group, then back again and so forth, depending on the needs of the child/family. Many of the activities can be transferable from one-to-one work to group work, and the second book focuses on activities and case studies. With regards to family groups, often people (including me) find this type of work challenging because you have to meet several people’s needs at once, have many stages of development to understand and respond to, not to mention different personalities and group dynamics! The book attempts to give some practical ideas on how not only to begin to offer this work, but also to demonstrate through the practice examples how powerful this work can be!
The activities you’ve developed were borne out of 20 years of experience. How did the activities come about, and was there a moment when the activities started to take shape as a collection?
The individual activities usually come about by thinking about a family/individual, knowing what I need to do with them, and trying to match that with something they will enjoy/respond to. Ultimately most activities are transferable to other children/parents with similar interests or situations.
Can you recall your most cherished memory with a service user?
I really don’t know – I make new ones every week! Today a mother whom I worked with a long time ago brought her little girl in to show me how smart she was in her new school uniform. The little girl was smiling, proudly showing me her new shoes and telling me happily about her new teacher. I was with them not more than five minutes but that meant so much. When I first met the family, the mum was very defensive and didn’t want to work in partnership. The little girl’s needs were not met on any level – poor hygiene, not enough food and poor school attendance to name but a few of the issues and now look! If you enjoy all the small achievements, and the not-so-small ones, your work brings constant rewards.
What do you feel has been the biggest achievement in your career thus far?
Still being in social work! Largely due to working in such a great team and getting to work with some of the bravest children you could imagine.
Audrey Tait is a Senior Practitioner with the Children and Families Practice Team, City of Edinburgh Council. She has over 20 years’ experience working with children in social work settings and for the last 6 years has been delivering a training course, Communicating with Children, for the City of Edinburgh Council’s Children and Families Department. Audrey also co-authored the bestselling Direct Work with Vulnerable Children with Helen Wosu.
Learn more about Direct Work with Family Groups