Developing a culture from scratch: language  

This is part two of a three part blog series by Leoni, Deputy Manager at Treehouse, the first children’s home of Lighthouse Pedagogy Trust. Part 1 was about our approach to social pedagogy

“It feels like a home where you just want to kick off your shoes and relax” – Quality Assurance inspector sent by the Local Authority.  

Feedback like this makes us very proud, as it reflects the ethos and culture we wanted to achieve for our home and the young people that live here. Creating an environment that feels like home within an institutionalised system is not easy, so we are very intentional with the decisions we make about our home. One key element to developing a homely culture is our use of language – in this blog we’ll dive into our thoughts and experiences around why words matter. 

Children’s home or family home? 

“He’s gone off site”,  

“I’m not on shift now”,  

“I need to update your risk assessment first”,  

“If you’re not home by 10pm, I have to report you missing”,  

“Sign here or you can’t have your personal needs allowance”,  

“Ask the staff or your social worker”. 

These are all phrases you’re more than likely to hear in a children’s home. But how often would you use these phrases in your own family home? Our guess would be that you don’t. So why do we expose around 10,000 children in care across the country to such institutional language and behaviour that lacks care, warmth and compassion?  

The words we use in our day-to-day language have an enormous influence on the culture of the home. We don’t want to constantly remind our children that they are ‘different’ by using institutionalised language – there are enough reminders in their lives already. We could enter into a debate around communication theories (we would highly recommend Schulz von Thun), but this isn’t the point we’re trying to make.  

What we feel is really important, is paying attention to the language the team use with the children, and with each other. We use ‘normal’ words and phrases like: “I want you home at 9pm”, rather than “your curfew is 9pm”. Every team member has a name, so we use their names instead of “staff”. Many children’s homes still have logbooks where they regularly record people as “on site” or “off site”. Do we really want to describe a place where children live as a “site”, or would “home” be a better option? At Treehouse we constantly reflect on the words we choose, and why we use them. 

Do our words reflect who we want to talk about, or ourselves? 

We’re very conscious of the fact that words stick. This is the case for our spoken words, but even more so for our written words. At the end of each day we write daily summaries of what the children have been up to (there are some things we just can’t move away from due to regulations). When we do this, we’re often tired and want to go to bed, so the temptation can be to rush what we’re writing. We might also be feeling other emotions that, if we’re not mindful, can cause our language to become judgemental. It’s exactly these words and the language we’ve written when feeling stressed, annoyed, angry or anxious that will stick with our children for the rest of their lives. 

We have a few real-life examples of these, and we’d invite you to think about what these sentences say about the adults who have written them, rather than the child’s behaviour they were supposed to be describing: 

“Staff thought that your attitude was good but at the same time it appeared as though there was a sense of arrogance and not a care in the world about staying away for 2 days without consent.” 

“This might come with a lot of screaming, cursing and threats of absconding, but this is your means of getting your own way.” 

“You were a lot calmer and not as challenging as in recent history.” 

 “Staff commented on your pleasant behaviour, which you took well.” 

How do we make sure the right kind of language is being used? 

Again, we could go into theories of child development, but that’s not the point here. What we’ve created at Treehouse is a daily summary that is addressed to the child, and sometimes our children write their summaries with us. There are no secrets about what is written. This way, the adult is already more mindful about how things are being phrased, and they’re thinking about how to make it meaningful for the child. But, as the above examples show, this does not completely rule out judgemental language.  

As a result, we’ve developed a team training session where we highlight quotes like those above, and discuss victim-blaming language and self-fulfilling prophecies. The first session we delivered was impactful and encouraged plenty of reflection. Support for our team, to understand how one’s emotions easily influence how and what we write about a child, is ongoing.  

We’d like to end by posing a question to anyone working in children’s homes, or indeed working with children in other areas of social care: What’s your intention when you write a daily summary?  

Is it to capture a snapshot of the child’s day, focusing on their strength and learning?  

Or are you capturing that you, as the adult, have done everything you are supposed to do?  

If we are to create loving, homely places for our children, we need to think hard about why we do things, as well as why we do them in certain ways. 

What’s next? 

Hopefully in this blog post we’ve sparked curiosity about how cultures in children’s homes are developed – in part 3 we’ll talk about how relationships affect the culture of the home.   

Leoni Hagemann, Deputy Manager – Treehouse