In this field of work, the term ‘relational practice’ gets thrown around a lot. We are often told to take a relational approach to youth, disability and family work, but what does this actually mean? What do you think when you consider a relational approach?
The topic of relational practice in child and youth care work is prominent right now in the international child youth care space. Here at Allambi we are fortunate to have many connections from across the world, to guide us in best practice and work alongside us to recognise approaches that work well with challenging and troubled youth. Recently I have been contacted by a few of these professionals, who are gathering information and writing about true relational practice. It has made me think about relational practices here at Allambi and how these have developed over time.
When I started in this field as a youth worker in our first refuge, most of my work was done through a lens influenced by my family’s experience as foster carers. Although I tried my best, I didn’t really understand the depth of work that is relational practice.
Back then formal training and induction processes were scarce, and we really relied on the personality and approach of staff to ensure an environment of understanding, empathy and patience was adopted across the organisation. Over time, through both trial and error and more formal training and development, I was able to refine my approach with children and young people. I realised that there was more to my role of youth worker than just listening and striving to be liked by the person I was caring for. The focus on the needs and personal values of the child was more important, as was the need for me to understand their experience to really know what was required from me in terms of their care and support. These kids needed to feel trust; to have an opportunity to heal and feel safe.
This realisation is something that has been recognised by my good friend Jack Phelan, in his recent paper where he explores the foundations and stages of relational practice. As a youth worker relational practice does not come naturally, but rather grows through stages as we learn about the logic and lived experiences of the people we support, who have suffered enormous pain. Our ability to identify the gap between ourselves and this person, and replace judgement with curiosity is something that comes with much experience and personal realisation.
Today at Allambi Care, we know that engaging with the people and families we support is hard and has to be intentional. Our work is not accidental, and a skilled and thoughtful approach is at the heart of what we do here at Allambi. Whilst initially we may draw on our experiences to teach those we care for different ways to respond and approach situations, the next level of care needs more thought. It should not be complicated, but instead intentionally focus on being fully present with the person you are supporting. This is where relational practice starts - looking past your own beliefs and values and considering those of the person you are caring for through a non-judgemental lens.
The relational approach is something that we also adopt here at Allambi through staff training and development. Our Training and Development team has spent many hours developing and refining training content to ensure that it is relatable to our staff, it considers the different levels of staff knowledge and learning ability, and is effective in that it directly impacts the lives of the vulnerable children, young people, adults and families we support.
Teaching staff to put their own thoughts, feelings, and values aside, to instead consider the thoughts, feelings, and values of those we support, is at the core of our framework and our philosophy of care. We must experience the other person’s reality, be curious, not dismissing, and have a muted self-focus to understand what is needed from us. The approach must be needs-based and natural to grow a sense of worth and value.
Another thing I have learnt to understand about relational practice is that it is not time limited. Creating that true connection means you cannot just turn it off. Any of you who have moved teams or changed roles after developing a strong connection, or have had young people grow up and move out of our service would know what I am talking about. Those we care for often come back, seeking support or memories, and our relationship continues in these moments.
I wanted to reflect on this as I think it is at the core of what we do every day. It is incredibly important that we take the time to reflect on our interactions with the people we support, and ensure we are being intentional in our approach. We can have an everlasting effect on those we care for. And this must be reflected in our work.