'Being-together-with' children: An interpretive phenomenological study of social workers' relationships with young children during initial assessments

Munro, Elizabeth Hunter (2021) 'Being-together-with' children: An interpretive phenomenological study of social workers' relationships with young children during initial assessments. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

[thumbnail of Thesis]
PDF (Thesis) - Submitted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution.



When children are referred to social services in England for assessments for family support or child protection services, social workers are required to undertake a holistic assessment of children and families’ needs. Social workers are expected to adopt a participatory practice approach by ensuring that children are respected, their views heard and that children are able to build up trusting and stable relationships with the professionals who are working with them. It has been found that social workers tend to work in less participatory ways with children under the age of eight years. This study therefore explores social workers’ positive practice experiences of relationship building with children under the age of eight, to identify how increased participation can be achieved.

Building on existing understandings of how to build effective relationships with children that are crucial to social work practice (Ferguson, 2016a; McColgan and McMullin, 2017; Winter et al., 2019; Ruch et al., 2020), this study deepens understanding of practices with two to seven year olds. The study uses an interpretive phenomenological research approach to analyse semi-structured interviews with ten English local authority social workers who shared their practice experiences of working with children aged 2-7 years whilst undertaking initial assessments of risk and need. Phenomenological theoretical insights from
the work of Heidegger (2010), Merleau-Ponty (2012, 2014) and Levinas (1981) are used to analyse and interpret practitioner accounts of worker-child relationship building in order to explore practitioners’ understandings of the nature, meaning and purpose of social worker-child relationships in an initial assessment context.

This study found that social worker-child relationships were an embodied and intercorporeal (Merleau-Ponty, 2014) negotiated accomplishment, where practitioners and children spatially, vocally, and emotionally-physically co-created the relational environment of each encounter and where the generation of a comfortable relational environment was seen as facilitating the process of relationship building.

This thesis also explores the temporal and ethical (Levinas, 1981) nature of human being in relation to social worker-child relationships through the phenomenological lens of lived time (Heidegger, 2010; Merleau-Ponty, 2012), examining the moment by moment nature of social worker-child encounters. This study found that more meaningful worker-child relationships were
generated when social workers were able to be-in-the-moment with children; sustain a holistic personal-professional form of presence; retain a sense of relational proportionality in their interactions; and when practitioners and children were temporally intercorporeally able to co-create an existential ethical sense of 'being-together-with' one another as individuals who were
acknowledged and accepted as persons of equal worth (Levinas, 1981). Temporally sustaining a humane, ethical form of practitioner presence is identified as central to the generation of meaningful social worker-child relationships, as persons are phenomenologically understood as ethical beings before they assume any other identity or role (Levinas, 1981). It is therefore
argued in this thesis, that acknowledging each person's (including social workers' and children's) 'shared humanness' (Horrigan-Kelly et al., 2016: 7) is what makes any human relationship meaningful and is pivotal to understanding how more meaningful social worker-child, or indeed any professional-service user relationship, can be generated and sustained.

Repository Staff Only: item control page