What is effective professional practice from the perspective of children and young people?
Dr Rachel Carson, Australia, August 2020
Recent research conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) investigated the experiences and needs of children and young people whose parents had separated and had accessed family law system services.
This short article outlines key characteristics of effective professional practice, according to the children and young people who participated in this research. Participants were asked to reflect on their post-separation experiences and their families’ engagement with family law system services.
The Children and Young People in Separated Families Study involved in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 61 children and young people aged 10–17 years. These were supplemented by interviews with one parent of each participating child/young person to collect relevant background information. The research, which was commissioned by the Australian Attorney-General’s Department, aimed to understand children and young people’s experiences of family law system services and how, from their perspectives, the family law system could better meet their needs.
Key characteristics of effective professional practice
Regardless of the role of the relevant professionals or the scope of the specific services, key themes emerged in the data about children and young people’s preferred engagement with family law system service professionals.
Together these data have informed the formulation of the following key characteristics of effective professional practice from the perspective of the participating children and young people as they apply to family law system service providers, both legal and non-legal professionals:
- Genuinely and effectively listening to the views and experiences of children and young people.
- Employing child-inclusive approaches.
- Allowing space for children and young people to speak and to process events.
- Demonstrating an approachable and empathetic manner.
- Taking the time to develop trust and rapport with children and young people.
- Keeping children and young people clearly and accurately informed about the nature of the decision-making process, its progress and the outcomes and decisions made.
- Taking both proactive and protective approaches to participation.
- Accommodating the potential for ongoing communication rather than one-off or cursory interactions.
The discussion below explores what children and young people said about having the space to speak; the nature of genuine and effective listening; and key traits of effective professional practice such as empathy, the ability to develop trust and rapport, and ensuring children and young people are kept informed.
Space to speak and genuine and effective listening
Practitioners providing space for children and young people to speak their mind and actively listening to their views and experiences emerged as a key theme in young participants’ accounts of what helped them to deal with their parents’ separation.
When reflecting on the need for a comfortable and safe space to speak honestly and openly, some young participants suggested that the relevant professionals should not allow parents to be in the room when meeting with children to determine their views, and inform the child or young person of the purpose of meeting.. Having their views and autonomy respected and not being ‘patronised’ or disregarded were also identified as important aspects of providing a space to speak.
When reflecting on genuine and effective listening, some participating children and young people described what it was like to be listened to by service providers, nominating verbal and non-verbal cues that helped them to identify that they had been heard. A ‘genuine’ and ‘good listener’ emerged as someone who:
- focused on the discussion that they were having with the young person by taking notes and by giving other visual cues, such as eye contact
- refrained from interrupting the young person and
- actively participated in the conversation by considering and responding to the comments made.
“Definitely listened to us really well … took things on board, considered it, made comment on what we were saying, anyone is a good listener if they do that.” – Connor, 15+ years
“Well, she wouldn’t speak over the top of me, of course. Um, she wouldn’t fidget or look at her phone or anything, she would pay full attention to me and [brother] when we were speaking and, yeah, that’s what gave me the hint.” – Paul, 10-12 years
Professionals who provided an opportunity to check or clarify the views expressed, or to delve into more detail, were identified as ways of reassuring children that they have been accurately heard.
“Well – well they’d have to be a really good listener and like, I guess, I don’t know, show like good traits of a listener and so you … kind of like maybe repeat what you said and maybe … go back to it and … discover a bit more … That would be reassuring.” – Emma, 12–14 years
“I would like to have maybe had a chance to read over or clarify anything afterwards, just to make sure that what they had in the report was an accurate representation of what I was feeling about the situation. ‘Cause in such a big decision and all that that’s happening.” – Caitlin, 15+ years
Empathy and building trust and rapport
Consistent with observations in previous research (e.g. Bala, Birnbaum, & Cyr, 2015; ACT Office for Children and Young People Commissioner, Roy, McKinnon, & Yates, 2013; Taylor, Gollop, & Smith, 2000), numerous participating children and young people reported feeling that it was important for professionals to be patient, empathetic and to take the time and effort to build a relationship of trust with them.
Several participants identified instances where they felt interactions with professionals had been too brief. They suggested that it often took more than one meeting to develop rapport and to build a relationship of trust, which, in turn, facilitated greater participation on the part of the child or young person.
Other young participants suggested that professionals should have specialist training and expertise in working with children and young people to ascertain their views, as well as identifying the importance of service providers being ‘supportive’ and ‘caring’. One participant described how family law system professionals could learn that simply asking the child or young person about how they were feeling, and acknowledging those feelings, could be a source of great comfort and support for a young person experiencing parental separation:
“Um, I would say definitely take the time to acknowledge how the kids are feeling, like, the children are feeling through these kind of situations, and try and make it so it’s a bit more – like, a bit nicer for them to go through. It’s – if they’re not sure on why things are happening, maybe try and explain why it has to be like that, or if there’s a reason why a certain decision’s been made and just – and if they feel like it’s not exactly right, then maybe ask them how they would like it to be done and all that kind of stuff.” – Caitlin, 15+ years
Being empathetic was identified as an essential character trait for professionals working with children and young people so that interactions take place in a way that makes the young person feel supported and safe. This included reminding them that their feelings and views are valid and valued, and by simply being ‘down to earth’ and compassionate (Savannah, 15+ years).
Measures that ‘scaffold’ or support children and young people’s participation in decision making (Horsfall, 2013) and steps such as repeating statements back to the child to ensure that they have been accurately understood, are all means by which children and young people can participate in a manner that builds trust and reassurance (see further Kaspiew et al., 2014; Bell, 2017).
Being kept informed
A key finding from the AIFS Independent Children’s Lawyer Study (Kaspiew et al., 2014) related to providing greater information to children and young people about the role and activities of the professionals in their matter. Children and young people wanted to be informed on the steps that would be followed in their case, and the extent to which they would be engaging with the professionals and in the decision-making process:
“Probably, like, don’t leave them – like, don’t leave the kids in the dark about what’s going on. Like, sure, they can’t know everything … ’cause it can be a little too hard when you’re younger to wrap your head around it. But just, like, gauge where they’re at and what their level of understanding is and how much they need to know to understand stuff.” – Scarlett, 15+ years
The importance of professionals prefacing their interactions with an introductory discussion about their role and the nature of their engagement with the child or young person was also highlighted:
“Um, probably like before I actually, like, went in she started asking questions, like, she could have just like told me a bit about like what was going on, you know, like ‘we’re here because blah, blah, blah’. But, like, she kind of just started asking questions.” – Eliza, 12–14 years
Data from the Children and Young People in Separated Families Study revealed a number of characteristics of effective professional practice. Professionals reflecting this practice are approachable and demonstrate empathy, and genuinely and effectively listen to the views and experiences of children and young people. These professionals provide children and young people with a safe space to speak and to process events, and take the time and effort to build trust and rapport with them. Additionally, they take steps to ensure that children and young people are kept clearly and accurately informed about the nature of the decision-making process, its progress and the outcomes and decisions made in their case.
Effective professional practice is child-inclusive in nature and incorporates both proactive and protective approaches to participation for children and young people.
This report discusses the findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Families project.
This video showcases direct quotes from children and young people who participated in the Children and Young People in Separated Families project.
- Giving children a bigger voice more of the time: Children’s and young people’s experiences of the family law system
This webinar discussed recent research on young people’s experiences of the family law system and its implications for child-inclusive practice.
- ‘Give children a bigger voice, more of the time’: Findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Families project
This short article discusses recent research conducted by AIFS that highlights the importance of incorporating child-inclusive practices in the family law system.
Dr Rachel Carson is a socio-legal researcher with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
ACT Office of the Children and Young People Commissioner, Roy, A., McKinnon, G., & Yates, H. (2013). Talking with children & young people about participation in family court proceedings. Canberra: Office of the Children and Young People Commissioner. Available here.
Bala, N., Birnbaum, R., & Cyr, F. (2015). Judicial interviews of children in Canada’s Family Courts: Growing acceptance but still controversial. In International perspectives and empirical findings on child participation: from social exclusion to child-inclusive policies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bell, F. (2017). Literature review: facilitating the participation of children in family law processes. Sydney: Legal Aid NSW.
Carson, R., Dunstan, E., Dunstan, J., & Roopani, D. (2018). Children and young people in separated families: Family law system experiences and needs. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Horsfall, B. (2013). Breathing life into children’s participation: empirical observations of lawyer–child relations in child protection proceedings. New Zealand Law Review, 3(3), 429–444.
Kaspiew, R., Carson, R., Moore, S., De Maio, J. A., Deblaquiere, J., & Horsfall, B. (2014). Independent Children’s Lawyers Study: Final report. Canberra: AGD. Available here.
Taylor, N., Gollop, M., & Smith, A. B. (2000). Children and young people’s perspectives on their legal representation. In A. B. Smith, N. Taylor, & M. Gallop (Eds.), Children’s voices: Research, policy and practice. Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand.