Residential Care is local authority and privately owned residences within which Looked After Children (LACs) aged thirteen to eighteen reside. Challenging behaviour is a term defined as two main types: disruptive or externalised behaviours which may include some of the following: aggressive behaviour such as fighting, disobedience, tantrums, destruction of property, bullying and attention-seeking; non-disrupting or internalised behaviours including depression and anxiety. Symptoms of the latter include tension, inferiority complexes, unhappiness, feelings of worthlessness, timidity, social isolation and hypersensitivity (Hayden et al. 1999). Within my research I will be focusing upon externalised behaviours, specifically tantrums which are defined as episodes of extreme anger and frustration characterised by crying, screaming, shouting and violent body motions, including throwing things (Encyclopaedia of Children’s Health [online] 2011).
My interest in this area stems from placement experience when two young men I worked with were reading an article ‘Breaking the law – in and inside’ in Who Cares Magazine (2010), a publication they receive every month. Within the publication was a letter from a young man of a similar age to them (15-16) and he said he behaved badly because people expected him to and he felt that if people expected him to he might as well live up to this reputation. The young men I worked with agreed with this, which made me think about the reasons behind some of the behaviour they exhibit on a regular basis.
Within my placement in residential care the most common form of challenging behaviour I witnessed was tantrums. I feel it is important both for the young person and staff to understand the reasons behind the behaviour; for the young person they will better understand themselves and for staff they will be able to help the child more if they understand the behaviour more and the reasons behind it.
Upon examining this concept closer I looked on the Who Cares website to gain more insight and discovered ‘John’s blog’ and a particular entry from October 2010:
‘…I wasn’t prepared for the Panorama programme ‘Kids in Care’ … The blur quickly fixed itself in the eyes of ‘Connor’, an angry fourteen year old in care. In the short clip, no doubt shown to jack up audience numbers, Connor is shown attacking his social worker’s car and leaving its window smeared with blood (at least I think it was blood). His rage caught me off guard, not out of shock, but more from a forgotten familiarity. I remember that rage and then I remember the vacuum. The hole in my childhood that screamed out to be filled. I often reached for rage. ..’ (John’s Blog, 2010).
This research proposal begins with a review of literature around LACs and behaviour and identifies findings and any gaps in the current research. Examining other literature helps to identify any ethical issues or areas of difficulty others have found and able to overcome or avoid these in this proposal.
The research uncovered in order to shape the proposal is dated from 1998 which is thirteen years old – the most up to date research I found was from 2010. I will examine this literature in a thematic order. These themes will be used to inform the design of the planned interviews and help me to from questions around particular topics.
Life as a looked after child Many of the research projects consider what it is like for the young people to be a Looked After Child (Baldry and Kemmis, 1998; Minty, 1999; Rutter, 2000; Rutter et al. 2000; Munro et al. 2005; McCarthy et al. 2003; Vinnerljung et al. 2006; Clausen and Kristofersen 2008). This was done by looking at daily life, being looked after, contact with family and friends, social workers, planning and reviews, education, and information and knowledge of what is available in the community.
Garrett’s (1999) article highlights that those children who are perceived to be at risk of offending or to be threats to the community are also products of the ‘care’ system. Further to this, in The Guardian (1993) a comment that Kenneth Clarke made when he was Home Secretary regarded offending children and young people when he stated that they are ‘persistent nasty little juveniles’. One of the questions I would like to understand from my research is: what is the impact of these type of labels on LACs?
Action and Assessment Records Several of the articles examine the use of Action and Assessment Records (AARs) from two different perspectives Garrett (1999) was concerned that the AARs are oppressive and contain powerful sub-texts; for example, what is an ‘appropriate’ youth lifestyle and the effects of this on the LACs? Kufeldt et al. (2003) looked at the children’s health, education, identity, family and social relationships and self-care skills. They felt the use of AARs would help their practice and improve outcomes for LACs.
This is a contrasting viewpoint; the expectation seems to be that LACs need to fit into a particular box; it further highlights the concept of labels. Davies and Harré (1990) also look at identity: ‘… who one is is always an open question with a shifting answer…’ I feel this fits LACs very well and other researchers have stated that having a social identity is important and LACs often do not have a confident grasp of what their identity is and this can have a detrimental effect upon them (Biehal et al. 1995; Ridge and Miller, 2000; Rutter,2000). This research intends to engage with young people in order to find answers to these questions.
Families Research by Biehal et al. (1995) found that the birth family remains very important to LACs. Ridge and Miller (2000) did in-depth interviews to explore the importance of social relationships for LACs and what the impact of the care system is on keeping and maintaining these relationships. Rutter (2000) states LACs usually come from families where the parents exhibit diverse psychopathology and multiple parenting problems. Therefore, when working with families and LACs it is important to remember the impact the care system has on LACs maintaining social relationships and what impact families may have had on children prior to coming into the care system. This identifies another area for investigation in this project.
Social Exclusion A number of the researchers look at social exclusion that LACs may experience. Ridge and Miller’s (2000) core finding is that LACs lack strong family ties and, due to living in care, experience a high degree of social difference. Their study focused in particular on emotional aspects of social exclusion. McCarthy et al.’s (2003) research assessed the level of social impairment and distress experienced by LACs with behavioural disorders whereas Minty (1999) examines empirical findings of behaviour to assess the extent to which LACs experience emotional, social, behavioural and educational problems. Rutter (2010) comments on Minty’s work:
‘Two implications are immediately evident. First when considering the elevated rate of emotional/behavioural difficulties….it will be necessary to ask whether these derive from the risk factors external to the experience of …care or… the care experience itself.’ (Rutter, 2010, p.686).
Behavioural Problems Behavioural problems seem to be a recurring theme within the above research findings and are the focus of some of them (McCarthy et al. 2003; Munro et al. 2005; Hayden, 2010). Coward (1997) in an article in The Guardian argues that the assumption that when children are left to their own devices they will naturally drift towards offending behaviour. The present research proposes to discover how these assumptions and labels have become prevalent in the present time.
Offending Behaviour Hayden and Gough (2010) discuss the introduction of restorative justice in residential settings and the impact this has in counteracting offending behaviour and thereby the above assumptions and labelling. In particular with regard to residential care Munro et al. (2005) state that several of the children interviewed in residential care experienced a culture of delinquent behaviour, bullying, low staff morale and also a lack of empathy displayed by the staff. McCarthy et al. (2003) looked into behavioural problems but only the impact on how this affects the LACs; it does not look at reasons behind challenging behaviour – a gap I wish to examine.
Improving Outcomes Two studies look into improving the outcomes for LACs and the idea of misconceptions of LACs ((Kufeldt et al. 2003; Hare and Bullock, 2005). These researchers firstly examined how children are looked at within legislation; they do highlight that there have been lots of improvements since the Children Act 1989 but my own interest indicates that this may not be good enough. These researchers further advise cautions in attempting research with LACs, stating that LACs are an ‘administrative sample because they are defined by law’.
There is consideration of the difference between ‘movie shot’ samples and ‘snapshot’ samples of participants in that most studies with LACs focus mainly on those who have long-term fixed placements or those that move around frequently. Following this the above study examines retrospective and prospective samples; it examines the rates within which LACs end up in offending institutions to explain the flaws in these types of studies. Many LAC studies rely on retrospective evidence; the major problem with this approach is that it exaggerates links between the past and the present. However, the prospective study hopes to avoid a biased link with leaving care and offending.
In my study I want to remove myself from viewing variable factors of a LAC’s experience as fixed such as: they will all come from feckless, neglectful families. Hare and Bullock (2006) warn of the danger of syllogisms which arise when characterising this group of children ‘all a is b, but all b is not a’. Their example is the relationship between children presenting challenging behaviour and placement in residential care. It is also important to remember that it is not only LACs who experience poor outcomes but they are more visible and they highlight the wider problems experienced by all deprived children.
With all these considerations in mind Hare and Bullock (2006) used a snapshot sample of three hundred and fifty one LACs which then produced four groups of children with common needs: 1) adolescents who need help to improve their behaviour; 2) children who need protection from risk of neglect in families; 3) children in need of nurture and protection from families with serious health problems; 4) children whose needs arise from a specific problem. They state at the very end that the research does identify a risk to LACs but that it may not lead to improved outcomes or dispel misconceptions of them – it may reinforce negative stereotypes. This is possibility that I am aware of and hope to avoid in my own research.