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Approaches when working with children

Discuss some of the commonly used work strategies or approaches when working with children. How might a social worker integrate the assessment and intervention with the child(ren) in the context of family? What are some considerations in the process?

Before having an in-depth discussion on the issue, I would like to first clarify the structure of this paper. Referring to the selected question, I would like to break it down into two categories to be discussed. The first part would be talking about some of the commonly used work strategies and approaches when working with children. The second part would be discussing the way that we, social workers, integrate assessment and intervention with child(ren) in the context of family, while some considerations and remarks would also be included. Besides, in this paper, children would refer to those who age 10 or below. My points of view would be expressed in detail in the following paragraphs.

Working with children is surely not an easy task. Communication is very important in any relationships, especially facing kids (Children-discipline-with-love, n.d.). Thus, in the following paragraphs, I would like to put forward this golden rule---communication, as the crux of my suggesting work strategies and approaches. One reminder, we should not restraint our scope, assuming that communication is just verbal speeches. Yet, communication can be non-verbal and vary in many ways. It is fair to say that there are numerous work strategies and approaches which are effective in assessing and dealing with children’s problems. Unfortunately, there is a limited capacity of this paper focusing on the social work context. Therefore, I would like to focus on three strategies and approaches that I found as more familiar and effective to me. They are the use of play, the use of art, the behavioural modification. The former two strategies can be used as both assessing and intervention phrase whereas the last one would be an intervention approach.

The idea of use of play is originated from play therapy. However, without attending any qualified courses and degrees, it would violate the regulation if a social worker claims himself or herself as a play therapist. The designation of Registered Play Therapist (RPT) and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor (RPT-S) would only be conferred to individuals who have completed qualified courses and degree (Association on Play Therapy, 2010b). Therefore, in this paper, the use of play refers to the use of toys and other special play tools during the assessment and intervention processes. Nevertheless, the use of play as a means to communicating and engaging kids is both serious and lightweight, which children would prefer, and eventually, would make the whole working process more smooth and effective (Hill, 1999). There are researches supporting the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing various social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems (Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005). They include children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters (Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005). Even though the use of play is different from play therapy, it includes the basic elements and rationales of play therapy. It may be fair to assume that the use of play can accomplish, to a certain extent, the functions of play therapy while working with children. For instance, even though she did not experience serious problem related to life stressors, she experiences behavioral and learning problems, and she is not good at expressing herself. The use of play definitely helps her. It may be a challenge by using verbal words in communicating or interacting with children, especially facing children who are younger, and less articulate, or suffering Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism (Hill, 1999). At that time, using play tool can help them express their feelings which facilitates us to assess and planning further intervention strategies. For instance, in the PBL case discussed, Yee Ling would feel more relaxed and be willing to share more when the social worker led her to the game room and let her play. The use of play is surely one of the commonly used work strategies.

Similar with the use of play, the idea of use of art is rooted from art therapy. Needless to say, a social worker cannot claim herself as an art therapist useless he or she accomplished certain qualified courses and is approved by legitimate authority (American Art Therapy Association, 2010). The use of art refers to people using drawings, clay, charcoal, paint and other traditional art materials to communicate with themselves and others regarding their thoughts and feelings about certain life events (St. John’s Counseling Service, 2007). It is also commonly used while dealing with children and teenagers who lack confidence since the use of art is usually be practiced in a unthreatening and safe environment where only the worker and client. Some children who lack social skills or have difficulties in verbal communication can also be the target clients. The use of art materials can be used to self-discovery, empowerment, personal fulfillment, personal healing, relaxation-stress relief, creativity and imagination (St. John’s Counseling Service, 2007). Most importantly, it does not require any clients, especially children, to finish any masterpieces, but only the “creating” process counts (American Art Therapy Association, 2010). It does not require children to be talented or gifted in any form of art. Therefore, it is suitable for children of any ages and in any conditions, during both the assessment and intervention stages. For instance, using Yee Ling as an example, the social worker can ask Yee Ling to express her impression of her parents by drawing animals as representations, instead of using toy dolls. It does not require difficult skills to both the worker and the children.

The last discussion on work strategies would be behavioral modification which is a popular intervention approach while working with children. Behavior modification involves systematic application of learning principles and techniques which assess and help to reduce maladaptive behaviors and increase adaptive behaviors. It aims to help people become functional in society by giving punishment and/or incentives (Martin and Pear, 2003). Martin and Pear (2003) also point out that there are seven characteristics of behavior modification. For instance, it emphasizes that problems can be defined in term of measurable behavior. Methods and rationales can be written accurately. Besides, techniques are largely based on learning principles which particularly included Operant Conditioning of Skinner (1953) and Classical Conditioning of Pavlov (1927). These make it practical and effective in adjusting incorrect or undesirable behavior, especially to children. It is because measurable behavior and clearly-stated rules would let children know what should they improve and remind them what they have to do respectively. Moreover, due to the learning theory and Classical Conditioning of Pavlov (1927), the rewarding and punishing mechanism can further motivate children to correct their behavior effectively and efficiently.

Yet, it should be reminded that there are many important principles and facts that we have to considerate while working with children (Jensen, n.d.). We should always listen to children actively and attentively, and be genuine (Children Development Institute, n.d.). For interviewing or having informal conversation with children, it would work the best if an appropriate physical environment is set, under the principal of comfort, safety and cultural-sensitivity (Action for the Rights of Children, n.d.; Vasquez, 2007). It would really encourage them to disclose themselves and enhancing the effectiveness of the communication. Furthermore, Jensen (n.d.), who is an experienced in and qualified teacher of early-childhood education, highlighted that young children have very short attention span, thus it is essential to keep questions and sessions short. Giving breaks and allowing them to have enough space to get up and move around is essential either (Jensen, n.d.). Besides, using a kind of “kid-talk” rather than “formal-talk” would be preferable (Daniels, Beaumont, & Doolin, 2002). It means that simple and age-appropriate words and tone have to be used. Worker can learn those by spending more time with children. In addition, the whole session working with children should be carried out in a friendly, relaxing and informal approach would make the child feel less tense (Action for the Rights of Children, n.d.)

Even though the above-mentioned strategies and approaches are effective and powerful, “family” might be a factor that can make them infeasible and ineffective. In many cases, children’s problems are originated from their family. And, generally, parents would be identified as the “significant others” of a particular child (Sullivan, 1953). Therefore, it seems to be the best if we could integrate the assessment and intervention with the children in the context of family.

Integrating the use of play into the context of family, parents and significant family members can be invited. Actually, the role of family members in the use of play is important. Whatever the level the family members choose to be involved, they are an essential part of the child's healing (Carey & Schaefer, 1994; Gil & Drewes, 2004). Sometimes, children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family (Association on Play Therapy, 2010a). It does explain the case of Yee Ling, since some of her behavior may be largely shared by Mrs. Lee’s Authoritarian parenting style. Besides, the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive (Association on Play Therapy, 2010a). It also fits the case of Yee Ling, since her abnormal behavior, such as stealing, does worsen the emotional and mental status of Mrs. Lee in a large extent. As I found, there are two options--- filial play therapy (i.e. the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment) and family play therapy which involves the whole family (Guerney, 2000). One of the aims of these two approaches is to engage the target children by involving their parents and family members in the intervention process (Guerney, 2000). At the same time, it can ease the stress of the parents and learn how to get along with their children. This would maintain the harmony and support in the family, and eventually, terminate the problems of the children (Association on Play Therapy, 2010a).

Integrating the use of art and play into the context of family, parents can be involved. Parents can act as a facilitator and bridge between the child and the worker, throughout the whole process (Horwath, 2001). It is not uncommon that some children would gain the sense of security while being around with their caregivers and parents, rather than the worker (Butler & Robert, 2004). During those occasions, parents can act as a mediator or broker, facilitating the communication and interaction between the worker and the children. For instance, if a young child would cry whenever strangers approach him, and is not willing to be alone with the worker, his mother can sit with him, pass on the instructions of the worker to him, or even handing him the toys or color pens. Moreover, for younger children, it may not be an easy task for social worker to identify or understand what the child is drawing or trying to tell us. At that moment, parents or caregiver may act as interpreters since they would be more familiar with the drawing and talking style of their children. Surely, during the process, the worker has to be alert to the fact that whether parents are trying to interrupt children’s expression, directing children’s thoughts, or even misinterpreting and twisting the true meaning of the drawing of children (Webb, 2003).

When applying the behavioral modification model, parents should also be involved, especially in the baseline phrase and the treatment phrase mentioned by Martin and Pear (2003). First of all, it is important to motivate the children and parents, in order to make the modification work. In this case, empowering both parties is crucial. Empowerment can be done by involving children and parents to participate in goal setting and contracting (Horwath, 2001). In the baseline phrase, parents can help assessing what kind of target behavior has to be adjusted by providing objective information adopted from daily lives. It is because, in many cases, it is hard to identify the exact problem by obtaining information solely from children (Horwath, 2001; Webb, 2003). To make it more effective, parents can help decide the presentation of reward and punishment in the treatment phrase since they know children’s “likes” and “dislikes” well. During the goal setting and contracting stages, parents can act as a witness and co-signer of the treatment contract which is a black-and-white agreement between client and social workers that showing how workers will help the client improve behavioral problems (Martin and Pear, 2003). It is because children may not be mature enough to understanding the seriousness of it, and may not have the self-control fulfilling the requirement of the contract. Besides, it is impossible for the social worker to keep an eye on the child throughout the whole implementation stage. Yet, parents, being the supervisors, can bear the responsibility to monitor the progress of the child. Parents really play an important role in assessment and intervention of children.

Yet, it should be reminded that there are several points that we have to be aware of while whole integrating process. For instance, interrupting should always be inhibited while children are expressing their feelings by using toys or any art materials (Children Development Institute, n.d.). Moreover, a non-distractive environment with no anxiety, uncertainty and change, has to be set (Action for the Rights of Children, n.d.). Before starting the session of use of play or art, ground rules have to be set that parents are not allowed to order, distract or interrupt children’s expressions of feelings. For example, if Yee Ling would like to expression her perception on her parents by drawing, Mrs. Lee is not allowed to “guide” her or order what to or what not to draw. Beside, the issue of confidentiality has to be highlighted. Some parents would like to know in great detail, what has been discussed and what the feelings and thoughts of their children are, of which their children do not want to let their parents know. In this case, we should always explain to parents in the session, in particular any potentially sensitive or embarrassing questions, in advance (ESOMAR, 1999). Potter (2009) also suggested the worker should leave a card so that they can contact the worker if they have any problem. Yet, we should still keep the detail content of the session concealed, according to the wish of children (Webb, 2003). Moreover, it is necessary for the worker and parents to keep a genuine and non-judgmental attitude (Action for the Rights of Children, n.d.; Butler & Robert, 2004). For instance, Mrs. Lee was pre-occupied by the thought that Yee Ling was lying to and stealing from her. However, the social worker kept a genuine attitude while assessing and talking to Yee Ling, and did not judge her by her stealing behavior, throughout the whole process. This would encourage children to express their true feeling, voice their thoughts and sustain their motivation of change, which is the ultimate aim of whole assessment and intervention phrases.

To conclude, it is definitely not an easy task to work with children, even though we, social workers, have several commonly used and effective work strategies or approaches, such as the use of play, the use of art, and the behavioral modification. There are many important principles to be borne in mind during the process. Besides, it would serve the best if we can integrate the assessment and intervention with the children in the context of family. Once again, several considerations have to be aware of, since children are vulnerable to their surroundings. We, social workers, should always handle children’s cases in the most careful and sensitive manner. One mistake might leave an indelible mark in their heart or even lead them to an unfortunate future. I would like to end my paper by quoting a part of a meaningful poem by an anonymous writer (Children Development Institute, n.d.):

If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.

If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight…

If a child lives with honesty he learns what truth is.

If a child lives with encouragement he learns to be confident.

If a child lives with friendliness, he learns the world is a nice place in which to live to love and be loved.

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