Head, Heart, Hands July 2015

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Welcome to the fifth edition of our Head, Heart, Hands newsletter.

A ‘hop, skip and jump’ into social pedagogy

Libby Thornhill, a foster carer, gives a vivid description of how social pedagogy has changed her children’s lives for the better.

To understand the journey our two foster children have made, you need to know where they were when they came to live with us, just under four years ago, when Steven* was nine and Jonathan* was six.

Steven was bright at school but found it incredibly difficult to put in writing all the facts that were whizzing around his head, rushing from one thought to another, trying to always be first with answers, solutions and ideas while often both seeking and then avoiding attention from his teachers at school. He was worried and anxious about almost everything and protective of his little brother.

Jonathan had no confidence at all, was as quiet as a field-mouse at school, not engaged with learning and a non-reader. He was overly compliant with everyone, living in his own little world, and ‘happy’ for others to meet his needs for him. He had become reliant on his older brother to speak for him, make decisions for him and to care for him.

Head Heart Hands Programme

Shortly after the boys arrived, I started the Head, Heart, Hands programme. After each day, I shared what I had learned with the children and my immediate family, becoming more and more enthusiastic as I learned more and began to experience the positive changes in the children and our family as a result. My hops, skips and jumps with the boys increased roughly at the same pace as both my own and the boys’ confidence!

It would be fair to say that some concepts were tricky to explain to a six- and nine-year-old, but some were much easier and actually transformed our learning. It is these, and the resultant impact on the boys’ education, self-esteem and confidence that I wanted to share with you.

We learned as a family to try to use empathy in almost every situation we found ourselves in, both in celebrating successes and working through challenges.

The Diamond Model (Eichsteller and Holthoff, 2012)

We talked to the boys about ‘sparkly moments’ and ‘polishing someone’s diamond’. We focused on positive experiences and how we all felt at the beginning of each day, or how we felt after difficult times. What seemed to work for these children was using ‘thumbs up’, ‘thumbs down’or a thumb ‘mid-way’ to demonstrate whether or not we were each feeling happy, sad or a little of both, so that they could learn:

  • how to express how they felt
  • how to be more mindful of how others were feeling
  • if others needed extra consideration.

Little by little, day by day, week by week, month by month and then year by year, the boys learned that we minded about how they were feeling and that they could also start to consider how those around them may be feeling. This, in itself, started to change the way they felt about themselves and others, and also resulted in changes in how their peers and others saw them, both in social and educational settings.

The Learning Zone (Senninger, 2000)

This was possibly the most important model for the boys. They learned that in all new situations they would experience the Panic Zone, the Learning Zone or the Comfort Zone. By recognising which zone they were experiencing they could reassure and ‘train’ themselves that they could move from one zone to another, using tools that we talked about - whether it was breathing slowly, asking a trusted friend or adult for help or guidance, or taking a moment to slow down and think about what to do next.

Using this model (and associated coping strategies) at home, in school and in social situations, the boys started to change the way they reacted to new or scary situations. Both will happily explain the model to anyone who will listen, because they know and understand how it works for them. In school, the boys learned how to recognise if they were in the panic zone (and therefore unable to learn) and what each of them needed to do in order to move forward into the learning zone, little step by little step.

Jonathan’s ‘learning lightbulb’ well and truly switched on at this point.

The Communication Square (Friedemann Schulz von Thun, 1981)

We used this model with the boys to talk about how we communicate with others, how our relationships all impact on how we hear information, and how we need to think about how others might hear what we said or how we decipher information given to us by others dependent on our relationship with those other people. There have been many humorous situations where we, or they have asked: “And just how would you like me to receive that particular piece of information that you have just given me - as someone who loves you, or just as a piece of information?”

They have learned that the relationship between the sender and receiver is key to understanding shared information.

Steven needed a literacy tutor to help him to understand his teacher’s instructions for homework and to then produce homework in sufficient detail and at an appropriate standard. Luckily, we were able to access a tutor who had done the Head, Heart, Hands social pedagogy training who built a strong, trusting relationship with him. As a direct result, his attainment in literacy-related subjects rapidly increased term by term and he made accelerated progress well above his projected targets.

And finally, The Common Third (Lihme, 1988)

An activity used to strengthen the relationship between the practitioner/carer and child – a common experience and shared learning opportunity where all participants are equal and where both achieve.

This was the model that we feel transformed the boys.

It was also probably the one that, as carers, physically exhausted us most (but in a good way!) and also challenged the boys’ social workers with some of the more risky, but exciting activities we tried together! Being given permission to take these risks without having to constantly ask permission was one of the keys to the success of the programme and empowerment of the boys.

I used this model to support Jonathan to learn to read. Using multiple Common Third activities, each directly linked to different stories in different books (some books with words, others without),his increasing enthusiasm for the Common Third activities led to his learning to read almost ‘by accident’. The focus on the activity rather than ‘learning to read’ meant that he lost his fear or reluctance to read, and he began to enjoy a wide range of books, rather than be frightened or reluctant to pick them up. This was because he knew there would always be an activity we would share together at the end that was directly linked to the story we had looked at, and talked about, together. Once he had discovered he could actually read, he galloped through his school’s reading scheme from beginning to end within six months, becoming a ‘free reader’ at the end of that period.

We have continued to use Common Third activities with the boys, strengthening our relationships both with them and between ourselves.

We do not live in Utopia and experience highs and lows, celebrations and challenges like every other family. However, both we and others see the changes in the boys, which are truly remarkable, considering where they started.

Nearly four years later, where are they now?


  • is working towards his gold award in scouting where he is a deputy patrol leader in and is a member of the regional youth forum
  • is aspiring to achieve a maths degree at university.
  • loves all sport and is a good cricketer
  • takes part in local pantomimes with enthusiasm.
  • will have a go at almost anything . . . a truly sparkly diamond!


  • achieved his silver award in Cub Scouts where he worked his way up to pack leader, before moving up to Scouts
  • is deputy chair of the school council and a reading mentor
  • Is recognised as a buddy in his primary school’s buddying system
  • aspires to study zoology, having developed a keen interest in animal
  • loves music and drama and takes part in local theatre productions and pantomimes with huge enthusiasm
  • has a brilliant sense of humour
  • With his ‘learning lightbulb’ well and truly switched on, he crammed six years’ academic learning into three and a half years, reaching expected levels for his chronological age, with some at a higher level . . . a truly sparkly diamond!

What am I saying?

I am not saying that all children living within an environment where social pedagogy is practised will automatically achieve exactly the same as these two truly remarkable children. However, what I am saying is that I passionately believe that most children, given the opportunity to experience social pedagogy as the basis of their care, will be empowered to achieve more of what they are capable of and, with the ongoing support of their carers and social workers, will be able to achieve yet more.

*names have been changed

Why did my foster child run away from home?

Recently a foster child ran away as a consequence of having to deal with too many big changes in her life. Her foster carer used the Four Fs model to reflect on what happened and why, how she and the child felt about it and what can be done in the future.

As someone who has worked in social care and education for more than 20 years, reflection is nothing new to me. However throughout my time as a practitioner nobody gave me any guidance on the best way to ‘reflect’.

Reflection is an important part of social pedagogy as it supports continuing development as an individual and foster carer. We need to be able to stand back and reflect on situations that arise, how it affects the child, our reactions (use of self) and what perhaps we would do differently next time. Through social pedagogy, for the first time, I was given a choice of models to help me to reflect; the one that I particularly like is the ‘The four-stage reviewing cycle’ commonly known as the Four Fs. An example of how I have used this follows:

When our foster child was returned home after running away, she said she wanted to ‘go away’ to think and wanted to go into respite. It was thought by all involved that if this happened she would not return.

In conversation with my supervising social worker, we felt that the Four Fs model may be a good way of not only recording the facts of the incident but helping me to reflect in depth on the situation and perhaps find ways of moving forward.


This provided all the information that would be asked for in an Incident Report.


This part allowed me to reflect on my own feelings about the incident, but more importantly to reflect on the various professional visits and birth family contact running up to the incident. These events had a massive impact on the foster child and evoked very strong feelings and emotional responses from tears to anger.


Before our foster child ran away she had received some very difficult information that overloaded her. This was a young person who was feeling absolutely out of control of her life and desperately trying to hang on to control in the only way she knew how. She shut down and could not be reasoned with. She was trying to withdraw from everyone, including us.


Filling in the form helped me to recognise that we need to acknowledge that her stubbornness and tenacity mean that if she is feeling out of control she will carry out her threats, such as running away. Therefore, I needed to reflect on how I could best help her as she was unable to have the respite she wanted. I therefore wrote her a letter and told her that I recognised that she needed space to think and she could stay in her room as much as she wanted until she felt ready to re-join us. However, one of my conditions was that I would just need to check on her each morning and if she wanted food she’d need to communicate this to me. She then started sending me notes such as ‘I’m hungry - food please x’. So I spent the next two days taking snacks to her room and slowly conversations started. She then agreed she would come down to eat when I was the only one home and after five days she was back eating dinner with us.

Finally, as foster carers we have also recognised that if or when an incident like this happens again, we will react differently in order to de-escalate the situation and be aware to give her space when she needs it.

A risky business

Jean has talked with her 12-year-old foster child about the Head, Heart, Hands programme and the concept of being risk averse and risk aware. Prior to coming to live with Jean, she had been severely restricted in what she was able to do, and she had a lot to say:

I have always felt different because of being in care; there are so many rules and things you can’t do, and I say this on behalf of all kids in care.

Since coming to my current carers who are part of the Head, Heart, Hands programme I have been able to experience a lot of new things. They don’t automatically say no, they try to be risk aware, this helps kids in care not to have things prevented because of the risks. So far I have had my first sleepover, been allowed to play at a friend’s house, do a girls’ group and go to my first swim party.

Social pedagogy – An Invitation

Social Pedagogy – An Invitation is a great resource for people who want to find out about social pedagogy and for those who want a quick refresher. It introduces the key thinkers, approaches to learning and some useful models for building relationships and reflecting on practice.

At the beginning of July, Jacaranda published Social Pedagogy – An Invitation the first pocket book on social pedagogy. This book is aimed at a wide audience including social workers, foster carers, residential care workers and managers who are interested in exploring social pedagogy. It provides the reader with a concise introduction to the approach, its key values, main principles and core concepts.

The Fostering Network’s Head, Heart, Hands operations manager, Freya Burley, says:

This pocket book is a really lovely resource. It is a great first step into exploring social pedagogy and learning what it has to offer. It talks you through the key values and practice approaches of social pedagogy alongside short case studies that help you to ground concepts in reality.

If you would like to order the pocket book, priced £5, please email us abby@jacaranda-development.co.uk or call Jacaranda on 020 3384 0989.

Viva la diferencia!

Marta Blanco, a social pedagogue working in Staffordshire as part of the Head, Heart, Hands programme, explains her view of social pedagogy based on her training in Spain.

I am originally from Spain where as social pedagogues we study a variety of social sciences and theories in depth and from this reflect on and consider who we are, how we act and how we can use our knowledge in our work. This training is also very experiential as it helps us to use ourselves and our knowledge in practical ways. The goal is to train technical specialists in education and social intervention who are able to develop projects in very different circumstances and contexts.

These specialists then promote empowerment and growth of individuals, communities and groups.In Spain, and across Europe, social pedagogy is applied in many different aspects of social care. However, in all the examples, the common basis is the relationship we establish with the person. We also have to consider their community, the team around them and decide on realistic goals.

Social pedagogy is an approach that doesn’t fit into a rigid structure and needs to be flexible to meet the person’s needs. We work in multidisciplinary teams. For example, with a child who has suffered neglect, we could make sure their health needs were met through to searching for a suitable school.

In Staffordshire we are helping our foster carers to develop professionally in a pedagogical way so that they can encourage the children to fulfil their full potential.

Social pedagogy is not just a discipline or a job, it is a way of looking at the future of the people we are working with and, as social pedagogues, it is also our own way of life.

Social pedagogy and professionalisation

Orkney Island Council and Aberlour Fostering have set up an exchange programme called ‘Sharing Learning’ as part of their ongoing desire to deepen the understanding of social pedagogy for professionals after the core training.

As well as developing an ongoing understanding of social pedagogy, the ‘Sharing Learning’ exchange programme aimed to give foster carers the chance to see how social pedagogy could be practised in different services (for example, a local authority compared with an independent voluntary provider). It also aimed to strengthen the partnership between both services, demonstrate collaboration and exchange good practice.

During a group discussion that took place within the exchange programme, it became apparent that foster carers were increasingly seeing themselves as empowered and confident. This may be part of a longer-term process and not only as a result of social pedagogy but rather the entire support package (for example, relevant training to foster carers, supervision, 24-hour on call service and so on) provided by Aberlour Fostering. However, there does seems to be evidence that foster carers who are keen on social pedagogy are more likely to confidently stand up for the child, take the lead on moving things forward and also speak up in panels, looked after children reviews or conversations with social workers. The foster carers are also confident in using theories to underpin their practice and guide their reflection and action.

During the group discussion there was also a discussion of finding a balance between being professional as foster carers and still providing a warm, loving and safe home for children. Within the discussion it was agreed that being professional does not stand in the way of using yourself as a person and having an individual parenting style.

Having a group of empowered foster carers who confidently advocate on behalf of a child definitely contributes to positive long-term outcomes. Foster carers who feel listened to and accepted as professionals will filter this down to the children they look after. For example, having strong relationships between children and adults could contribute to long-term outcomes such as placement stability.

As well as foster carers developing their professionalism, social workers also need to reflect on their own power, their roles and provide space for the foster carers’ professionalism.