Relationships and goals: creating the right balance

We have found it difficult to land on the language that successfully differentiates the West London Zone model over the years. The key to our Early Action model is being child-centred, but that has become an over-used expression to the point of meaninglessness, as have so many other similar expressions like wrap around or holistic support.

While that is what we offer – we help children to build the relationships and skills they need to progress socially, emotionally and academically to thrive into adulthood – we think it’s our way of listening and getting to know the children and their entire social and developmental context really well, combined with how we help them to achieve their goals using our rigorous frameworks and targets, that has enabled the children who participate in our programme to make the progress they have made.

Professional boundaries and multiple skills are critical. We train all of our Link Workers carefully to ensure they have all the tools needed to support children in different ways according to the highest quality and standards. We know that if we don’t take a relational approach to all of our interactions with the children and their families, we won’t build the trust we need to support them to progress. This means really listening, noting what is well received and what is not, logging what motivates progress, removing barriers that stifle aspiration. And that’s different for every child and family.

“if we don’t take a relational approach, we won’t build the trust we need to support them to progress.”

We have also learned that depth of relationship is required not just to build the trust with a child and their family, it’s also what’s required to ‘broker’ programmes. If that sounds like a business term, consider the alternative of ‘referral’. That sounds pretty cold to me. Our experience tells us that cold referrals into unknown programmes delivered by people we don’t know, teachers don’t know and a child or family doesn’t know, often result in the child not turning up, or not fully engaging, and even dropping out pretty quickly. So we ‘broker’ and that’s all about getting people together to make programmes work. We don’t engage in the ‘people or programmes’ debate, to us it’s common sense that it’s people and programmes.

We made the mistake early on in our delivery of rushing children into specialist support programmes from which we felt they could benefit. But had we stopped to ask if they felt they could benefit or whether they thought that it was a good idea to attend? Was there sufficient trust in their relationship with us that they would listen to our thinking that it was a good idea? Did parents reinforce these goals, given that they didn’t really know our Link Worker at this point? The answer to all of these questions on occasion was probably ‘no’ – and so the engagement was not there.

We now extend that deliberate approach to relationship building across our entire community. I’ve always said that as innovators in supporting children, the most ground-breaking thing we can do today is collaborate well. And by that I don’t mean me, as the CEO, sitting in a room with another CEO talking about how we might strategically align our organisations – although that’s important too. I mean practically bringing people together around individual children, and that’s what we do with all sorts of people and entities across our whole community – in the public, private and social sectors.

This matters for long-term sustainability of impact. If we can broker relationships for a child and family across their community – ranging from the person who runs classes at the local library to the BMX track or theatre – so that there are trusted relationships in multiple places and organisations for each and every child and family, then they are more likely to continue to benefit from those local assets long term, and to continue the progress they have made during their 2 years with us.

So what is our differentiator? There are lots of features of our programme that we think are important; we work in lockstep with schools, based in them every day, working towards the same goals as the teachers with every child. And we have outcomes-based contracts with councils. So we are as held to account as anyone in terms of achieving targets and goals and evidencing our impact with data. But we think it’s our way of deliberately building multiple relationships around each child that makes the difference. And it’s our Link Worker role that is key to this.

That's our child-centered approach in our community.

Louisa Mitchell, CEO of West London Zone

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