Glossary aims to change the language of the care system, urging professionals to swap jargon for words that make young people feel listened to and valued.
Language That Cares at Waltham Forest
To build better relationships with children and young people by using language that helps them feel listened to, cared for and valued
Funded from Waltham Forest children's services’ budget
In 2018, the London Borough of Waltham Forest was one of 15 local authorities that worked with fostering charity Tact on a project examining how social care professionals communicate with children and young people. Children and young people gave their views on the language used with them and about them and how it made them feel. They said some words and phrases commonly used by social workers were confusing, demeaning or too complicated, making them feel disempowered, stigmatised and victimised.
For example, one young person from Waltham Forest said the word “contact” should be replaced by “meeting with friends and family”. The project culminated in the production of Language That Cares, a glossary that aims to change the language of the care system by offering replacements for jargon or negative language.
Inspired by Tact's project, Waltham Forest decided to embed the approach across children's social care.
Drawing on the Language That Cares glossary and its own consultations with children and young people, Waltham Forest ran a six-month pilot in 2019 before rolling the programme out across the whole of children's social care. “As corporate parents it was really useful to hear this feedback from the young people and the fact they didn’t like the words we were writing and felt we could use better words,” says Madalina Chelaru, team manager for families and homes. “If care-experienced young people come to us later on and ask for their file to read, we want that to be a positive experience not a negative one. The professional jargon in common use tends to label the young people and, of course, they just want to feel normal.”
Feedback from the borough's Children in Care Council showed when it came to care plans, young people did not like the inclusion of a lot of information about the past as they said they had moved on. They did not like the use of negative words which implied they were struggling – they wanted positive words to be used, concentrating on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
Based on this feedback and the Tact glossary, the London borough created a list of words and phrases which children and young people did not like, together with suggestions for alternatives. “As part of the pilot we were meeting regularly and looking at how to come up with child-friendly ways of explaining a word,” says Chelaru. “Young people wouldn’t necessarily know what child sexual exploitation is, so we are looking at how to put this in a report. We wanted to write as if the child was sitting next to the social worker. For example, we have used the word ‘case’ for many years, but a child wants to be known by their name, not as a case.”
In order to embed this new language in social work practice, the local authority held practice workshops and forums, set up coaching sessions, and produced resources such as videos and practical examples of letters, phone calls and assessments using simple language. Language That Cares was incorporated into the social work induction programme, and regular feedback and coaching are available to support those who find it challenging to change the way they work.
“Language That Cares is a major shift from our traditional practices, so we co-facilitated, with young people, several learning sessions for managers and staff to help them challenge and change their thinking and practice,” says Chelaru. “We’ve done some exercises, such as a role play looking at how different professionals in a meeting will talk about a young person, encouraging the social workers to put themselves in the shoes of the child hearing these types of judgments.”
One workshop taught participants how use of jargon can lead to unbalanced relationships with children and young people, while simple language can lead to meaningful relationships. “By breaking down professional jargon and using a shared language, power becomes shared and this helps families become more resourceful and resilient,” says Chelaru. Social workers learned the importance of describing people and situations instead of using standard terms and phrases, and were encouraged to remain creative and use words that came naturally when talking to or writing about the child, young person or family. “We wanted to avoid creating more jargon and technical terms,” says Chelaru “So we now choose language that is specific to each family – our language is adaptable, versatile and adjustable. By changing the way we talk about children and young people, we have changed how we think and behave.”
Social workers were encouraged to avoid words and phrases like LAC (looked-after child), foster child and care leaver, and refer to children by their names or as “my children and young people” or “the children and young people I work with”. They were also encouraged to replace terms like placements, units, foster carers and allocated keyworkers with families, homes, carers, or people's names. Other suggestions included replacing LAC visit with “home visit”, care plan or pathway plan with “my plan” or “my plan as I grow older” and “transition” with “preparing for a change”.
“We wanted to build better relationships with children and young people,” says Chelaru. “We know that professional jargon can be dehumanising and disempowering but it can be so habitual that it is difficult to challenge and change. We wanted to use language that conveyed how we ‘hold children in mind’. We wanted children and young people to feel listened to, cared for and valued so that they feel in control and ‘heard’.”
The borough uses its audit and supervision programme to ensure Language That Cares is embedded into social work practice. “We see it in all our reports, case notes and in daily dialogue with colleagues,” says Chelaru. “Language That Cares has been accepted as the standard in children's social care in the borough. It started with the children in care team and independent reviewing officers but now the child protection side is adopting it, the multi-agency safeguarding hub, everyone is using it.”
Waltham Forest social workers say more young people now arrive prepared for review meetings, having read their reports, and want to comment on the content. “Our voice and influence team regularly contact children and young people who say they prefer the new style as opposed to the traditional report writing,” says Chelaru. “Staff tell us this has been liberating for them; they feel free to have more authentic, purposeful dialogue with families. Families tell us that they better understand the care and support available to them and that they feel more empowered to make positive changes in their lives.”
Ninety-five per cent of children and young people taking part in review meetings with their independent reviewing officers agreed they had a good understanding and communication with their social workers. “This is clearly linked to the way social workers write their reports and make use of the Language That Cares,” says Chelaru. The initiative has involved 674 children and young people, and 64 staff across four services.
A recent Ofsted focused visit in May 2022 found: “Observations of children are well recorded, as is the voice of the child. Children are listened to and what they say informs the work. Children respond really well to this approach and progress is made.”
Senior managers plan to continue and improve the programme. Partner agencies are increasingly adopting the Language That Cares approach after seeing it in action in Waltham Forest. “They are mirroring the language and style in their own reports,” says Chelaru. The team wants to extend the use of Language That Cares to court documents, but this is still in development.
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