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Thinking about relationships in group care

Christopher Beedell

To ‘achieve a way of living for a group of individuals’: Clare Winnicott (1964) uses this simple phrase towards the end of a short but intensely relevant discussion of the aims of residential care in small group homes. She begins by stating the worker’s responsibility to provide ‘real experiences of good care, comfort and control’, and says, in a haunting phrase: ‘These good experiences are not only the stuff of life, but the stuff that dreams are made of, and have the power to become part of the child’s inner psychic reality, correcting the past and creating the future.’ She goes on to stress the therapeutic and educational importance of individualizing the treatment given ‘so that it becomes a personal real experience for each child’. Then she faces the difficulty of doing this within the complex setting of a group and says that one of the essential skills of the residential worker is ‘to achieve a way of living for a group of individuals’.

In this I think she implies much that I have tried to spell out more extensively: the responsibility of the worker to, and for the unit; the inseparability of system maintenance, therapy and education and so on. But for the moment we can use this phrase to describe the need for a quality of relationships which must be reached for. Well-considered and sensitively contrived daily arrangements may provide a way of existing; they do not, in themselves, achieve a way of living. Adults and children have, minimally, to find ways to put up with one another. For some children, and some staff, at certain times this is perhaps all that can be achieved. Yet, if a residential unit is to be more than a place in which one marks time, children and staff have to achieve some sort of relationship.

Good relationships
Relationship is a dangerous and curious word. It can be used to cover a multitude of interactions, shallow or deep, profitable to the individuals concerned or perhaps even damaging. It is necessary, therefore, to try to specify the criteria by which one may recognize a good relationship. In essence, we can recognize a good relationship between two people when they can be, to some extent, less defended with one another than is generally the case in their social interactions and when this leads to a situation in which there is some mutual recognition, implicit or explicit, of their actual or potential value and threat to one another.

Used in this way, it seems useful to say that the establishment of good relationships between at least some members of the staff and other staff, some staff members and some children, and some children one with another describes the achievement of a way of living for a group of individuals in one limited sense of that phrase.

The topic of ‘good relationships’ could involve us in very wide-ranging discussion, so much must remain unsaid in what follows. But it will be useful to list, very briefly, some of the factors that seem to be necessary for the establishment of good relationships in all settings and then to expand on those which are of peculiar importance in the residential setting.

For there to be a possibility of good relationships developing we can say that there has to be:

  1. a channel of communication between the two parties and some mutually understood language;

  2. a minimal readiness to interact, brought about either by some implicit, or explicitly agreed contract, or by some shared activity or circumstance;

  3. a capacity, at least minimally in both parties, to put together and recognize in oneself and in the other the personal significance of at least some of the multitude of small events which constitute the interaction between the two;

  4. some awareness, often implicit, to the influence on behaviour of bodily states, the immediate social setting, and the past history of the individuals concerned.

To these, (which are almost a priori conditions deriving from the definition) I think most ‘counsellors’ would add:

       5. a sense, at least minimally in both parties and probably more strongly in one party, of one’s own value as a person and thus of some      responsibility and concern for oneself and for the other;

       6. a capacity on both sides to wait on events to some extent.

This implies some perception of oneself and the other as separate, ongoing and potentially independent as well as dependent, and is some guarantee against attempts at total take-over of the other person or an invasion by one party of defences which the other is not prepared to lower or disarm.
In any given situation it may be difficult to achieve these conditions because of the nature and personal resources of the parties involved. For example, one person may be ‘deaf’ to a particular channel of communication used by the other, or unable to switch to another channel. (‘I don’t know what he is getting at’ or ‘what is this strange behaviour going on now?’) Or one person may be unable to ‘hear’ the other, not because he cannot normally do so, but because there is so much irrelevant ‘noise’ going on that the important signal cannot be distinguished. (‘I didn’t realize Joe was so upset because Jane, Gill and Jack were clamouring for attention’ or ‘because I was so cross at his messing his pants’.)

It becomes clear from this that staff in residential units must pay attention to all the persons they are involved with i.e., to each individual’s potential to understand a language, to interact, to integrate interaction in the present, past and possible future, to value themselves and to respect (i.e., appreciate the value of) others. Ultimately the children too must be able to do some of this themselves and be aware of some of all this in others.
These potentials, and the awareness of them, roughly outline the interpersonal context of good relationships between children and grown-ups. But the social context of the unit in which all these people operate and its compounding with their particular natures and resources is often as important, if not more so. This is particularly true in residential work, and other ‘life space’ situations where members of a group have little choice but to continue to interact, more or less publicly, in a whole variety of life situations, some defined by external demands (e.g., provision of food only at mealtimes), some by internal stresses (e.g., having a temper tantrum or a headache), and some by a combination of these (e.g., coping with a child in a temper tantrum when it is time for school and it is your half-day off).

Accepting this formulation it can be seen how agreement on arrangements for daily living affects good relationships and vice-versa. A very large number of interactions will take place in response to the demands of system maintenance. A large number-perhaps as many or more will take place in situations where these demands are minimal or absent. One cannot say that the former are more or less important than the latter in making good relationships but they are different in quality and should be recognized as such.

Now, the task of achieving good relationships among a group of individuals living together can be more closely described. It will require a capacity from the worker to be undefended to some extent and to know in which respects he values himself or is threatened. It will require continuous sensitivity to each other individual he encounters. And it will require, to a very high degree, a capacity to perceive both the boundaries of his situation given by the social context (e.g., whether demands of system maintenance are relevant or not), and the boundaries within himself and the other given by internal defences or readiness to drop them. In this last respect the residential worker’s perception is particularly important, for he operates in circumstances over which he has a considerable degree of physical control and some degree of social control (e.g., he may be able to choose a group of children to play with or put to bed). At the same time because he nearly always operates with individuals in the context of a group (large or small) he has to continuously perceive and re-perceive the boundaries of the particular situation he is operating in for the time being and know which particular individuals are included in it or excluded from it. This ‘boundary consciousness’ is especially important for the leader of a unit in relation to ‘outside’ the unit. In a different form it is essential to each member of staff in all their work with children within the unit. It is also necessary to working relationships with other staff members, although here the responsibility for it is more easily shared.

One difficult point arises here: there is a tension between the rather public nature of the very many interactions taking place (many of which can grow into relationships), and perceived and respected boundaries which imply some kind of insulation of one set of interactions/relationships from another. To achieve relationship there may have to be privacy which allows for undefendedness; but if these relationships are to continue in a context where more people are involved this privacy cannot always be absolute. So the insulation must protect the developing relationship from other people or pressures which might break into it destructively e.g., other children might be discouraged from breaking into a particular child’s play with a worker, or it must not be broken off abruptly because the dinner bell goes. At the same time it may be valuable to allow other influences through the insulating boundary e.g., to point out that other children sometimes share this kind of play with the worker, that it will be Ann’s turn next, or that others (not immediately present) will be affected if we are late for dinner. This kind of management of boundaries so that they can be insulating or permeable is extremely difficult to achieve all the time but represents an ideal of task performance to which one can constantly approximate. The sum total of very many such boundaried interactions, constantly changing through time and circumstances, constitutes the daily space of a residential unit. Sensitive and appropriate management of them is implied in ‘achieving a way of living for a group of individuals’.



Winnicott, C. (1964) Casework and the residential treatment of children. Child Care and Social Work, 28-39, Hitchin, Hertfordshire: Codicote Press


This feature: Extract from Beedell, C. (1970) . Residential life with children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.84-89.