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In children’s social care, systems are often set up to ‘manage’ the behaviour children and young people display, rather than helping us to understand the reasons behind their behaviour and what it communicates. In this article, The Care Leaders, together with Madlug founder, Dave Linton, discuss supportive foster carers, recognising triggers, and the importance of trust without conditions.

When it comes to communication between adults and children, language is of utmost importance. An adult working with a young person who uses terms like ‘complex’, ‘challenging’, or ‘risk taking’ to describe their behaviour risks creating a barrier between themselves and that young person, who may feel unheard or misunderstood as a result.

Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, says we should stop seeing behaviour as ‘challenging’ and instead recognise the behaviour as a young person being emotionally overwhelmed. 

“When young people [from difficult family environments] start to display similar behaviours to [their parents being violent, for example], we tend to label them as being violent,” says Luke. “They may be displaying a behaviour that is undesirable but often there’s a reason and a message behind it.”

Karylle, a lived experienced leader who has worked with The Care Leaders, adds that we only tend to label young people with negative words and phrases. She says that we tend to automatically assume that the default behaviour has come from the family home and that therefore, as a system, we’ve played no part in this. 

“There’s almost this self-denial as the adults who have been caring for this child or young person for a considerable amount of time that we’ve played no part in how they’re behaving,” she says. “Whilst we can link some of those behaviours to early childhood experiences, we have to understand the dynamics in which these young people recognise their adults play. 

“I’ve been in many foster placements and heard my foster carer being very frustrated with my social worker. Likewise, I’ve seen the remarks or rolling of the eyes or huffs and the puffs that my social worker has made in regard to my foster carer. So we have to understand that at times young people are picking up on our behaviours, too.”

Dave asks about some of the main issues that are creating the behaviours.

Karylle explains that growing up, she preferred living in a children’s home to a foster placement. 

“My reasons were poor really when you broke it down. I suppose I had this gang mentality in the sense that being in a children’s home provided me with some level of safety that a foster placement didn’t. 

“I mean that in terms of ‘we’re now a collection of people and regardless of our backgrounds, how we got here, we all single-handedly know one thing – it’s us versus them.’”

Karylle and her sister grew up in care together but were separated when their social worker found different families that matched their individual preferences.

“They’d put in a lot of work to make sure that both [foster] carers had kept us having regular contact because she was my younger sister and I had built this strong need to want to protect her.”

Karylle says it was rare for her to come home on time but her new foster carers didn’t react in the way she expected to this ‘behaviour’.

“Instead of the first thing being ‘where have you been?’, ‘why are you late?’, or ‘we’ve waited up all night for you’, they would just open the door and ask if I had eaten, and did I need anything. For Karylle, this was a new experience. One day, she returned home around an hour and a half late. “I’ll never forget the foster parent saying to me ‘do you know what a great sister you are?’ 

“She said ‘I’ve noticed the reason you’re late is because you make sure your sister gets home to her placement and then you spend the 30 minute walk from her placement coming back home’.

“In that moment, it was more than just her recognising the message in my behaviour – it was also her affirming to me that I was a nice person, that I was a good sister, and I do nice things. For the longest time in my care experience, nobody had ever said that.

“I think that’s the key thing here in terms of messages in behaviour. It’s more than just recognising the behaviour – it’s recognising what it means but also, what skills can you put out there? What  behaviour is a positive that you can highlight from that for this young person?”

Dave emphasises the importance of listening, stopping before you speak, and stepping out of the victim mindset as an adult in this type of scenario.

“I can learn from that as a parent. There are times I get that wrong where you’re straight into ‘you shouldn’t have done this’ but it’s about asking ‘why?’”

Luke references a story of a young person throwing a bowl of food across the room on their first day of a foster placement. He says that while adults tend to feel, reflect and respond, young people usually just feel and respond. “I feel this way, how am I going to respond to that particular situation?

“This young person is [in their] first foster placement with people that they don’t know, so the environment is overwhelming them. But what can we do about that? We can’t necessarily see if that’s true or not. We can’t really change the environment, so what do we do with that message? 

“The food might look different and it might taste different. Do the new ingredients make them feel a little bit strange inside? Has there been a time in this child’s past where they have maybe experienced abuse around food and around a particular situation that’s presenting itself now? 

“One of the key points here is for adults is to really hone in on that reflection space. If it seems bizarre and strange – why has this young person just done that? – it’s probably because they’ve been triggered by something. 

“There’s something within that space that needs to be nurtured and [responded to] with compassion, empathy and understanding.”

Luke explains that responding with authority in this type of circumstance doesn’t work since “authority gets met with authority”. This is particularly true in a space where the young person is feeling unsafe or unsettled. In other words, “you’re being authoritative, I need to get rid of that, I need to get rid of you.”

“A space that reflects compassion and empathy gets mirrored.” 

Luke says that we also need to be aware of and pick up on what we inherit in these systems and challenge the things that don’t seem to be right to advocate on behalf of the child. 

“The message in that behaviour to your young person is that I, like you, don’t agree with this system. I, like you, feel powerless to change it. But I, like you, have a voice and I’m going to speak.”

When he was 13, Luke wanted to stay over at a friend’s house. At this time, it was a requirement for parents to be DBS checked before a care-experienced person could stay over so Luke’s foster carer called his social worker and asked if he could spend the night. She said no, and Luke’s foster carer pushed back.

“[She said] ‘that’s absolutely unacceptable. Staying over at a friend’s house is a completely normal thing. I’m going to go [over on] Friday and I’m going to shake the hands of the parents, I’m going to check their details and Luke is going to stay there for a weekend. If something happens, you can blame me for it.’

“What I saw my foster carer do in that position [reiterated the] message that I was valued and cared for.”

Luke says behaviour is a form of communication. “There’s a reason why we’re behaving in a particular way, there’s something that we are trying to communicate. And I suppose that’s the thing that we need to try and work out.

“It’s the process of the discovery that shows that we care about people. We’re not trying to say, I need to work out why you behave like that so I can write that down, and then in the future, we’re not going to do that behaviour because it’s about experience. 

“It’s about saying I’m going to make the commitment to try and understand [the behaviours].”

Karylle adds that we need to be aware as adults that we reinforce behaviour. By the time she was five, Karylle had had 15 different foster placements. By the time she was seven, she was on a full care order – something that allows a council to take a child into care for the foreseeable future (typically until the age of 18). But nobody told Karylle that. 

After the breakdown of each of her 15 foster placements, Karylle went home. “In my mindset, this was the pattern of what children’s social care was.” 

Feeling frustrated, Karylle’s behaviour started to change. It was at this point, a social worker told her that if she kept breaking down these foster placements, she would have nowhere left to go. 

“I heard ‘white flag S.O.S’. This is it. If I keep doing this and there’s nowhere else for me to go, the only other place for me to go is home. 

“In my mindset, my goal moving forward was to keep breaking down these placements. One, because now I know I can, because she’s already confirmed for me that I have the power and control here in an instant, and two, [because] there will be no alternative option but for them to return me home. And so I played this game of cat and mouse until I was probably about 13 or 14 when somebody actually asked me, why are you doing this? Do you realise you’re never going home?

“Until somebody was brave enough to tell me that, it continued to reinforce my behaviour.”

Karylle says it’s important to give young people the messages that support a change in behaviour if that’s what’s needed, or that help them understand what the behaviour is. 

Luke recalls telling one foster carer he was going to run away, and instead of telling him they were going to call the police – something that had become a pattern with previous foster carers – this foster carer said “oh really? But we’ll be worried about your safety”.

“When I said ‘I’m not gonna come tonight’, she’d ask me ‘why? It’s freezing outside. You’ve got a really warm bed. Why would you do that?’ She’d say ‘if you’re adamant about doing it, then go for it but we’ll still be here when you arrive in the morning’. 

“It was these kinds of interactions that you never expected.”

Luke said that as a young person, he worked people out and how they would respond to his behaviour. “I would do particular things to get particular responses, and these foster carers would be like I can see what you’re doing there, mate.

“This particular foster carer [said something really powerful to me]. She said, ‘we trust everybody and we trust you, actually’. And I remember being really taken aback by that because I’ve never been told before that I was trustworthy – I was told the opposite – that I had to behave in a particular way to earn trust.

“But this foster carer said ‘we’re not going to ask you to earn our trust because people have broken your trust in the past and you’re not going to value it. Why should we make you value something that has been broken for you? Who are we to say you should earn our trust?’

“They said ‘most people will ask you to earn their trust because they’ve been hurt in the past, just like you have. And to ask you to earn their trust is a self-defence mechanism. If I know that you’ve earned my trust, I know you won’t hurt me. I’m just willing to take that risk because the reward outweighs the risk of having relationships with people based on trust.’”

Luke concludes with the message that we need to stop simply seeing behaviour as being challenging, and instead seeing as young people becoming emotionally overwhelmed. “I’ve got a saying that says you don’t have to sharpen the pencil to improve its ability to draw a fine line – you just change the way you hold it.”

To gain more insight into the real experiences of care, join our FREE online training session Tuesday 6th December at 15:30pm: ‘Living a Careless Life’ – An inspiration story about living in care and the power of relationships. Book your spot here.

Care Leavers Middlesbrough Children Matter Youth Voice Bucks The House Project Buckingham Council Department For Education Leeds City Council
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