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Relationships are at the heart of early intervention


22 Jun 2015

Early intervention and supporting people to solve the problems they face is all about human relationships. It is relationships which change people, not systems or processes or anything else. Dez Holmes summed this up well at the NSPCC conference last week saying: ‘Early intervention is not a thing you do to people, it’s a relationship’. The empathy and trust that develops between a skilled practitioner and a parent, child or young person can motivate and equip people to change their lives.

This view is supported by evidence which shows that relationships can support the development of skills, coping strategies, confidence and behaviour change. We know for example, that one important ingredient in building resilience in young people is the power of a strong positive adult relationship. Whilst there is widespread belief that individual grit or innate strength of character can enable people to overcome problems, evidence suggests that it is often the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship that creates the capacity to do well in the face of adversity.

Providing these positive relationships in people’s lives is what early intervention is all about and core to our mission at EIF. Good professionals just do much of this instinctively, they don’t need manuals, but use their social and emotional skills to empathise, listen and encourage. But if we want to support various workforces to provide the best support they can, then perhaps we need to understand all of this a bit better.

There is a lack of understanding about the specific aspects of relationships between a practitioner and a parent, young person or child that lead to change. This is in stark contrast to the amount of work that has been undertaken in other professions, for example teaching, where there is a systematic evidence base on what makes a good teacher.

We need comparable work in the field of early intervention to explore which specific aspects of relationships create change and to robustly test the difference they make to a given group of children or families. The significant body of evidence on early intervention programmes may be relevant here and it would be useful to understand if there are key features that could be incorporated into wider practice.

Once we know more about the key features of relational working then the question becomes how can we support more of these positive interactions and ensure they are purposeful, avoiding (to quote John Forde, one of our EIF associates) ‘aimless cosy couch conversations’. Practitioners need to be clear about the purpose of relational working, keep the end-point in mind and assess progress, shifting direction as needed.

Susan Ritchie has described the three building blocks of relationship-building between the public sector and communities as ‘time’, ‘trust’ and ‘tenacity’. This echoes what we found in work I was involved in previously to identify the factors key to effective family intervention. High on the list was practitioner persistence, which is crucial in signalling to families that here was someone who cares and who isn’t going to give up on them.

So, if we recognise relationships as key to early intervention, then we need to look at how public services could be facilitate this and be more ‘relationship enabling’. Unfortunately too many services are structured around tightly defined functions or processes which can stop practitioners from building relationships and responding to the real issues faced by those they support.

Under our current system, the GP or health visitor who suspects a child’s recurrent chest problems are linked to damp housing, will organise asthma medication, but is unlikely to be able to sort out better accommodation. If more practitioners had the flexibility to respond to underlying causes of problems, then the scope for building the relationships that can create change would be infinitely greater. Again as the research on family intervention shows, it is the ability to deliver initial practical changes or assistance that is creates the basis for a relationship, because families realise the practitioner is serious about wanting to help and so start to trust them.

The reason many people chose roles in public services is often because they want to help people, so a system which prevents them from doing this is bad for morale and job satisfaction. In Lancashire, the Deputy Chief Constable Andy Rhodes is on a mission to unleash ‘public service motivation’ among his officers. He is freeing them up from targets that drive unnecessary or unhelpful activity by making clear that it is taking ownership and going the extra mile to intervene early that will be prioritised at recruitment and promotion panels. This is real innovation. It has the potential to provide more rewarding jobs, better results and improvements in the relationship between the police and the public which we know is crucial to cutting crime.

There is now a strong case that public services need to change. The future has to be about building relational capability among frontline workers, and recognising this as a core skill for the public servants we need in the 21st century. Practitioners must be able to use this relational capability flexibly, freed up from the limits of the overly process driven environments that dominate too many public services. If we do this, then we will be enabling frontline workers to do what they came into public service to do and deliver the step change in early intervention we want to see.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.