Social pedagogy reminds me why we signed up to foster

Social Pedagogy has in my view huge potential to enrich the practice of foster carers and social workers and most importantly, the lives of children and young people. As the

David Kingswood, foster carer and member of the Head, Heart, Hands steering group in Capstone Foster Care gave a passionate and inspiring account of his journey through the programme so far at the visit of the programme funders and at our event for our local authority partners. He describes his experiences of social pedagogy and the impact it has had on him, his family and the teenage girl he fosters.

So powerful was the speech that we thought it is something that needed to be shared with the wider world. I hope you enjoy reading it, and please do make comments and ask questions as we would love to hear what you think.

Social pedagogue and me

Hi, my name is Dave, I am married to Carly and we have two birth children and live in Somerset. I have been a foster carer for about three and a half years and for three of those years we have had a young lady living with us who is now 14. I am proud to say that I foster with Capstone as they are not only supportive, therapeutic and innovative but far more importantly for me they are about kids thriving.

When an introductory day came to Capstone about social pedagogy I was intrigued. For the most part I was amazed that anyone could talk on something which at first appearance had no boundaries, no easily identifiable definition and could barely be pronounced but it is credit to Robyn Kemp and Pat Petrie who explained to us the world it would open up to us as carers.

As I listened I loved the idea but I was fearful. I was fearful about whether it would only be Capstone who adopted it as a way of working. I worried about what it would demand on my time and I wondered whether it would encourage me to make choices I believed to be for the benefit of the child but which nobody else would agree on for fear of risk. At the same time it seemed so beautiful a concept, so great a way of working, that I found myself realising that the only thing to be done was to get involved and regard myself as part of the hope of revolutionising how we work in this country.

Soon after, we started our training our group learnt ways not only to engage with our kids and each other but with other professionals in our caring network. We studied the network around the child and examined how we perceived those people and how they may be regarded by our young people.

We were encouraged to reflect on the ways that we approached our caring and formed a shared and much more realistic understanding of the needs and risks involved in a package of care for a young person. This for me was a stark reminder of the importance of reflection as a foster carer’s life can feel so reactive. If it is not one thing it is another. I was invited to look at how activities or events had gone with my foster daughter. This was not to analyse them for the sake of it but to review and look at whether it had worked or not. Social pedagogy was also getting me to ask questions that I had not formed in quite the same way before. I will give you an example: Occasionally we are invited to do an activity for homework after a training session. One such question we were invited to ask someone around us was

what do you value in your relationship with me?​

Our foster daughter seemed a good a victim as any and within an hour she had written back:

  1. You are there if I have a worry about something. You are there to help.
  2. You look out for me.
  3. I can trust you with a lot of stuff.
  4. You can love me when I am really angry.
  5. You give me good quality food which I love.

Now, this may not mean a lot to you but I can’t read it without filling up with emotion. You see our foster daughter comes from a place where dissociation and neglect were her life. In this small piece of paper all the things that I take for granted in day-to-day relationships with my kids tells me how she really feels about me and our home.

Two things happened off the back of this question. Firstly we got closer because I was able to see the world as she sees it a little clearer and secondly she, who would always choose not to tell you how she is feeling, vulnerably laid out her heart to me. Wow. This happened because I could ask her the right question at the right time and a fresh picture of our relationship came out through that little bit of dialogue. Through reflection on her answers I can see where she is coming from and what she prioritises, what she hopes for and what she enjoys. From this I can build and understand so much as we talk from now on.

The social pedagogy training has also developed and recalibrated some of my therapeutic parental work. It has invited me to ask reflective questions that I would not normally ask such as: What was the outcome of that day or event? Did our foster daughter understand, connect with or enjoy what we did today? Is the way I am feeling at the moment about me or about her? From this I can ask the next question: what can I do to improve what happened, do I need to restore part of my relationship or talk around something which was just left hanging unresolved. Reflection has also given me opportunity to see the reality of events and interactions in a more beneficial way.

It’s not just about my family though. There is also all the people that I work with. In day to day life we have meetings, training and discussions. Social pedagogy has invited me to look at our relationships, to listen more carefully and ask where other people’s thoughts and actions are coming from without metaphorically or physically just shouting my agenda. It also invites other people to ask me what I see. It invites us to look at risk and evaluate if there is a benefit to risk taking because we are trying to help real people, live real lives in real ways through relationship, through activity and through dialogue. No foster carer wants to be at odds with anyone in their network around the child. Pedagogy says that all our voices are important and must be heard. No one is invisible, whether we are sceptics or pioneers, we are all needed.

Sometimes social pedagogy can feel fuzzy and warm and sometimes it can challenge me to my core. I have particularly learnt this in our group work activities which we then review. A few times someone says that they tried to speak but no one heard or their voice was not loud enough. I realised that amongst others it was me who drowned them out or I heard the louder more confident voice and went with that. I have been involved in an activity and gotten stuck into something but someone had a better idea that was dismissed just because a few of us were more confident. We are invited to take a step back and value everyone no matter where they are coming from because maybe the reality of a group situation is not just our perspective. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my ‘haltung’, my posture toward life. It tells me and you a lot about how I deal with the world.

Other activities have made me notice that some people get frustrated and fall away, some don’t feel confident enough to find their voice and others feel left out. Group reflection has really helped me understand how other people are doing and my influence on them. In one activity our group had to get from one place to another across a car park. I and a few others realised through reflection that just because some people were blindfolded for the journey we treated them differently than those who could see. That was very challenging for me as I do not regard myself as discriminatory in any way and yet here I was! I didn’t mean to be dismissive but apparently that is something that is a possibility for me and I have to bear that in mind in real life. When I reflected I had taken it upon myself to get them across the car park regardless of whether they wanted it or not. For others there have been other challenges but we are able to look at positively critique ourselves to ultimately serve each other and our kids better.

I am beginning to understand what a network around a child could look like if we all made sure that everyone was allowed their voice and their voice was valued. I imagine meetings where the child is always put front and centre. Also, when I do identify myself and my posture toward life I can start to see what it must feel like for my foster daughter as well. I understand when she is in a place of learning and comfort much more readily when I take a breath, listen and ask better questions. Although I see myself as someone who produces results, it is as much about the journey to the result as the result itself and it matters who I am and what I say in those moments.

As our training continues, I have already heard stories from own group of carers who have reflected on a situation pedagogically and come up with an idea with their young person that they did not have before. These ideas have creatively dealt with behavioural issues, activity inclusion and helping the child deal with the outside. These stories as you can imagine really boost us on as carers but the thing that you really celebrate is how the relationship has changed between the carer and the child. Behaviour may have been sorted but actually trust has blossomed and that is the real win. One simple activity made a traumatised child nod and smile at their carer after building a shed because for once they felt worth something. My foster daughter finally calls me dad because I tell her that she is not going to be given up on because I have reflected and understood her previous anger was trying to confirm her worldview that she was not worth loving. These things happen because we invest and share in relationships with those around us.

Finally, social pedagogy tells us that there is a diamond inside everybody no matter how dulled it may be. That’s not just kids, that’s all of us. As a carer I have fallen in love with the constant reminder from social pedagogy that we all started this life in looking after vulnerable children because we wanted them to thrive, we wanted them to win and we were going to be the voices cheering them on, forging new worldviews and new hope. I have experienced through reflection, action, creativity and listening, pedagogy encourages me back to why I signed up.

I still have loads to learn and it is much broader that the few things that I have shared but I am discovering through Head, Heart, Hands that we can claim and forge relationships, take and benefit from sensible risks and give the very best life for our children who so richly deserve it.

Thank you.

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