So often in the work we do, we are looking for innovative and creative ways to include the voices of the people we work alongside. This can be particularly challenging if we are working with children.
Dr. Lisa Stafford and her team at the Queensland University of Technology, in partnership with UnitingCare Family and Disability Services in Queensland, developed a research project, ‘Empowering Children’s Voices’, to explore the best ways for including the voices of children in human services work.
‘The aims of the project were to understand everyday experiences of hearing children’s voices in practice from both front-line workers’ and children’s perspectives, and to identify how practices could be built upon and enhanced to effectively involve the voices of children more genuinely, and often.
‘This study focusses specifically on two family intervention and support service programs—Intensive Family Support Services and Family Intervention Services—funded under Queensland Government’s Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women.’
Dr Stafford and her team interviewed a number of children aged between 6 –16 years old. They used a range of tools and strategies in the interviews, including Reflexions cards.
‘The Reflexions cards were one of a number of ways children could express and share their experiences of having a voice. The research used a creative participant-centred approach to ensure children’s views were represented faithfully.
‘We used activity-based interviewing for this project (Stafford 2017) which involves the use of art-based activities (such as drawing, collage, building 3D-models) to explore questions like Why is it important for children to have a voice?
‘Giving children choice and flexibility in how they could respond to questions was essential to ensuring we captured the diversity of children’s communication, cognitive, emotional and physical needs.’
Dr Stafford said that the children used the cards in a range of ways.
‘The Reflexions cards were spread out on a table or on the floor and children were given time to look at the cards and select any card that stood out to them. They were then asked to tell us why they chose each card, and how it helped them to express themselves.
‘The cards prompted children to share their feelings and experiences of having a voice. One participant chose the Happy card to share how having a say made them feel. They then went on to tell us about a time when they were asked about their views, which made them feel valued.
‘Another participant selected the Frustrated and Angry cards. The participant was able to share difficult experiences that had occurred in different areas of their lives—at school and in health care—where they were not listened to or taken seriously about bullying and mental health needs, and how that made them feel.
‘The use of the cards as part of the activity-based interviews allowed us to gain deeper insights into the children’s experiences and the structures leading to these experiences.’
Several key themes came out of the research.
‘While frontline workers and child participants agreed it was important for children to have a voice, what was found was that it was not occurring as an everyday practice in the service context and in other key domains such as health and education.
‘A significant number of intersecting challenges prevented the inclusion of children’s voices and child-inclusive practice in everyday practice. These challenges span four broad themes—culture, systems/program, organisation, and direct practice.
‘Our research reinforced the idea that embedding children’s participation is important for their wellbeing, development and safety.’
For this to happen, Dr Stafford says that governments and service providers need to change the way they currently engage with children.
‘This includes the development of a stronger praxis of rights-based child-inclusive approaches in family support services to ensure children’s knowledge and needs are understood and considered.
‘We believe the findings will be useful for policy makers and academics to help them address broader implementation of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) adopted in 1989, which basically says that children have the right to be heard and participate in decision making.
‘It could also assist organisations to meet the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations as well as recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017).’
Here are some of the key suggestions, for workers and organisations, arising out of the project:
- Recognise children as individuals with rights. This is key, as recognition leads to being valued and being resourced. Recognition and children’s participation are directly linked.
- Create a culture that values children and their voices in family support services as part of the care continuum.
- Commit to and embed rights-based child-inclusive practices in family support programs, and build-in appropriate support and resources within contracts and service delivery to do this essential practice.
Dr Stafford’s final message is that we need to actively listen to the voices of children in the development of our services, as children have an enormous amount to offer.
‘The project highlights that we need both attitude and cultural change. We need to recognise and value children’s immense knowledge and insight into their lives and needs.
‘In order to express their voices, children need access to flexible, inclusive communication tools, including play – not rigid tools.
‘A paradigm shift to protection with participation, alongside steadfast leadership to embed a rights-based child-inclusive approach in holistic family support practice, is needed to uphold the rights of children.’
Dr Lisa Stafford is a Senior Lecturer & ARC DECRA Fellow, School of Public Health and Social Work at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Brisbane, Australia.
She worked collaboratively with the following people on this project: Jo Harkin, Annie Rolfe, Prof Christine Morley and Dr Judith Burton (QUT). The project was facilitated by Dr Chez Leggatt-Cook, UnitingCare.