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Voice of the child

Effective safeguarding systems must be child centred. When working with children or young people it is essential to gain a clear picture of their wishes, thoughts and feelings.

Everyone working with children and families must seek the voice of the child and reflect and respond to it in all aspects of work. Needs cannot be met, nor situations improve, without listening to what the children have to say and acting on it.

Make sure whatever part of the safeguarding process you are following, you capture and record the voice of the child and most importantly take action on it. This is rooted in legislation and good practice.

Problems can arise in safeguarding systems when practitioners in agencies lose sight of the needs and views of the children within them, or place the interests of adults ahead of the needs of children. In Ofsted’s thematic review of the voice of the child in Serious Case Reviews, they concluded that:

“…probably the single most consistent failure in safeguarding work with children… [is]…the failure of all professionals to see the situation from the child’s perspective and experience; to see and speak to the children; to listen to what they said, to observe how they were and to take serious account of their views in supporting their needs”

There is a legal duty to consult with children contained within many different pieces of legislation which include

  • The Children Act 1989(as amended by Section 53 of the Children Act 2004). This Act requires local authorities to give due regard to a child’s wishes when determining what services to provide under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and before making decisions about action to be taken to protect individual children under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989. These duties complement requirements relating to the wishes and feelings of children who are, or may be, looked after (Section 22 (4) Children Act 1989), including those who are provided with accommodation under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and children taken into police protection (Section 46(3) (d) of that Act);
  • The Equality Act 2010which puts a responsibility on public authorities to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. This applies to the process of identification of need and risk faced by the individual child and the process of assessment. No child or group of children must be treated any less favourably than others in being able to access effective services which meet their particular needs; and
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This is an international agreement that protects the rights of children and provides a child-centred framework for the development of services to children. The UK Government ratified the UNCRC in 1991 and, by doing so, recognises children’s rights to expression and receiving information.
  • Working Together 2018 states that; ‘Children are clear about what they want from an effective safeguarding system. These asks from children should guide the behaviour of practitioners. Children have said that they need ….
    • vigilance: to have adults notice when things are troubling them
    • understanding and action: to understand what is happening; to be heard and understood; and to have that understanding acted upon
    • stability: to be able to develop an ongoing stable relationship of trust with those helping them
    • respect: to be treated with the expectation that they are competent rather than not
    • information and engagement: to be informed about and involved in procedures, decisions, concerns and plans
    • explanation: to be informed of the outcome of assessments and decisions and reasons when their views have not met with a positive response
    • support: to be provided with support in their own right as well as a member of their family
    • advocacy: to be provided with advocacy to assist them in putting forward their views
    • protection: to be protected against all forms of abuse and discrimination and the right to special protection and help if a refugee

Anyone working with children should see and speak to the child; listen to what they say; take their views seriously; and work with them and their families collaboratively when deciding how to support their needs. Special provision should be put in place to support dialogue with children who have communication difficulties, unaccompanied children, refugees and those children who are victims of modern slavery and/or trafficking….In addition to practitioners shaping support around the needs of individual children, local organisations and agencies should have a clear understanding of the collective needs of children locally when commissioning effective services’ [2018: 11- 13]

It is not just about ‘legal duties’, listening to and consulting with children and young people benefits everyone enormously by:

  • Enhancing emotional wellbeing and raises self esteem
  • Developing a genuinely collaborative and inclusive environment and service
  • Increasing knowledge and understanding of how children and young people respond to and value their environment and support.
  • Ensuring children’s individual’s needs are met.
  • Provides evidence for quality assurance and self-reflection.
  • Developing decision making skills.
  • Creating a sense of responsibility for oneself and others.

Every agency listens to the voice of the child or young person in different ways. Practitioners should follow the guidelines used by their organisation which will be age and situation appropriate.

However it’s important to remember that children can’t always put feelings into words, so listening includes seeing their behaviour as communication (often identified as verbal and non-verbal communication).   Children who are unable or unwilling to verbalise (e.g. due to young age, physical impairment or active decision) communicate through body language and actions about how they feel and think.

For some cases of abuse (e.g. emotional abuse and neglect) you are more likely to see this through changes in presentation and behaviour, as opposed to a child coming to you and saying “I am being neglected”.

However there are occasions when children are willing and able to give their views about what is happening to them. In these instances it is good practice to ask the child or young person which practitioner they would like to gather this information from them.

Some examples of good practice to ensure both verbal and non-verbal communication of a child’s views are captured would be:

  • talk to the child about their life, likes & dislikes, hopes & dreams, worries & fears
    • talking to children is dependent upon their age and level of understanding
    • if children are able to talk there are a variety of ways of hearing their voice through direct work techniques
    • record what children say in ‘direct quotes’ (e.g. I feel sad/happy/worried when…) as this is more powerful than something interpreted by a practitioner
  • children must be seen alone as they may be inhibited to talk openly about their experiences by the presence of their parent or carer
  • consider the location – children may feel less inhibited about speaking if they are in a safe neutral setting
  • even if children are too young to speak it is still essential that workers convey a sense of what life is like for them
    • this can be done in a variety of ways – describe their presentation, how others interact with them and how they respond, comment on whether you consider they are functioning at a developmentally appropriate level
  • children may have means of ‘speaking’ other than verbal speech such as Makaton or signs and symbols; be creative
    • encourage children to draw or write about themselves and their lives
    • use a range of ideas; start off non-specific such as ‘draw your favourite food, favourite pop star’ then be more directive such as ‘draw where you live, who lives there, draw a picture of a happy day, a sad day, what do you wish was different, who is special’ etc.
  • describe a child’s physical appearance, do they appear thin, pale, dark shadows under their eyes, listless, or do they appear curious, ‘smiley’, active
  • observe the interactions between a child and their parents or carers – is there any difference in their interactions with other people
  • describe the child’s interactions with professionals
    • what is your hypothesis about this behaviour
    • does the child appear relaxed, wary, or overly familiar
    • does the child respond as you would expect a child to respond in that situation
  • use independent advocates to ascertain children’s views as sometimes they can bring valuable context to children’s experiences
  • encourage children to participate in plans drawn up about them – they can do this directly by attending meetings or contribute by putting something in writing or drawing a picture, or giving someone a ‘message’ from them.

However the main tool we need to listen to children is our time and to ensure we listen to hear, not listen to respond.

Eileen Munro (2011), gave a number of helpful suggestions for practitioners to follow when making assessments on children and young people. For practitioners to:-

  • use direct observation of babies and young children by a range of people and make sense of these observations in relation to risk factors
  • see children and young people in places that meet their needs – for example, in places that are familiar to them
  • see children and young people away from their carers
  • ensure that the assessment of the needs of disabled children identifies and includes needs relating to protection

Marion Brandon et al (2016) added further suggestions, such as:

  • Be aware of ‘silent’ ways of telling through verbal and non-verbal emotional and behavioural changes in children
  • Explore creative ways of engaging with children with regards to their age, communication skills and personal history to enable them to share their experiences

Both Brandon and Munro advocate that as professionals we need to be ‘attuned to the child’s world’ and to pay attention not only to what the child says but also what they are not saying.

Ask yourself: ‘Do I understand what this child’s life is like, what do they do each day? What do they feel about their lives, how would they want things to change?’

Professional Curiosity: practitioners need to understand what is happening within a family rather than making assumptions or accepting things at face value. In other words ask questions and observe the child’s surroundings.

Respectful Uncertainty: A term initially used by Lord Lamming (2003) [Victoria Climbie Serious Case Review and again for Baby P] meaning that professionals must remain sceptical of the explanations, justifications or excuses they may hear. Professionals should always ‘check out’ with other agencies and sources of information about what is being said.

The professional requirement to keep records should be explained and the child should be supported to make comments too. This should be embedded in practice and in records and they should be updated regularly, particularly when circumstances change for the child or there is a change of plan. All records should be clear, separating fact, opinion and professional judgement so that when a child becomes an adult and requests access to their records they should be able to understand how decisions were made about the services provided to them and they should be able to see any recording of their own contributions in whatever format.

The voice of the child should be recorded within documents and exemplars in the electronic records. They can also be attached or scanned into records where the child has written their own views or tools have been used which are handwritten or completed by the child.

There are a range of tools that can be used to capture the views of a child or young person. There are different tools appropriate for children or young people of different ages, level of need or understanding. There are no factors including age, understanding or level of need that should be a barrier to capturing the views of a child or young person as part of an assessment.

Children’s Participation Toolkit for Social Workers (activities & worksheets) available from the Social Workers Toolbox website. This resource contains various activities, worksheets and templates assisting social workers and early help workers to involve children in the process of assessments, intervention planning as well as conducting reviews in a positive, supportive and enabling way.

‘Say it your own way’: worksheets facilitating children’s participation in assessment available from the Social Workers Toolbox website. This has 40+ engaging worksheets facilitating children’s participation in assessment. The worksheets help workers to ascertain children’s daily routine, likes, dislikes, feelings, wishes as well as their views on their family, friends, helpers, home, neighbourhood, school etc. The booklet also includes two examples of how to explain assessment in a child-friendly manner.

‘Animal talk’ activity: using animal pictures to get to know children and discuss their views and feelings available from the Social Workers Toolbox website. This tool contains 24 pictures of various animals and suggestions how they can be used to get to know children and discuss their views and feelings in an interactive and fun way.

Getting to know a child’s routine activity tool available from the Social Workers Toolbox website. This tool supports social workers to gain an understanding of a child’s or young person’s daily routine in an engaging way. The document contains 40+ individual slips with various activities/feelings which a child is asked to sort out into three piles – every day, sometimes or never, depending on how often they engage in this activity/have this particular feeling.

Me First developed by Great Ormond Street Hospital for health and social care professionals. A model to guide child and young person-centred conversations around safety, welfare or well-being concerns.

Direct work with children resources compiled by CAFCASS, they have put together a ‘my needs, wishes and feelings’ pack.


Let children know you’re listening NSPCC guidance on helping adults respond to children disclosing abuse.