Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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Introducing social work: a starter kit

11 Social work communication with a family group

Working with a family group can make challenging demands on social workers’ communication skills. Sitting down with several family members at the same time involves multiple interactions, adding many layers of complexity to the use of empathic listening and responding, and it is not unusual for social workers to find themselves confronted by different or opposing views within a family group. Families are complex, and effective communication incorporates having an appreciation of diverse family forms and relationships. In the next activity, you will see how an experienced social worker handles a situation where she is required to make an assessment visit to a family, following a referral from a school. The school has expressed concerns about a teenage girl’s behaviour, which may be putting her at risk.

The video you are about to watch is the recording of an unscripted and unrehearsed simulation, in which a real social worker, Victoria Cavalino, briefed only by basic written initial-referral information produced for the simulation task, conducts a family interview. The family members are played by actors. Victoria did not know, had not met, nor had she had any communication with the actors before the moment the actual recording commenced. In addition, the actors had not rehearsed or shared among themselves how they might respond or react in the interview, and the actors were only provided with a very basic outline of their individual storylines in advance. Much of the information brought into the interview by Victoria was genuine news to the actors, only being revealed for the first time during the recording. The interview was filmed in one ‘take’ with none of the dialogue repeated or rephrased. So, in this video, all of the reactions and responses are authentic and captured for the recording in real-time using multiple cameras.

Note: In this course, this activity is not addressing in detail the numerous elements relating to child protection practice and the legal issues raised by the story. Therefore, try to keep your focus primarily on the interactions and on the communication between the participants in the interview, remembering, of course, that the direction and the quality of the communication are being influenced directly by the facts and the content of the story as it unfolds.

Activity 3 Working with families

Part 1 Ellie and her family

Before you watch the video, read the information on Ellie Smith [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   that Victoria received before the simulated meeting with Ellie and her family. Make brief notes about anything that you feel might potentially affect communication in Victoria’s first visit to the family. What might Victoria have been concerned about and what might she have been looking out for, that might be difficult to raise or to talk about?

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After providing the referral information to Victoria, she was asked to write down her initial thoughts before going into the video recording of the interview with the family in the simulated meeting. Read Victoria’s initial thoughts. You may be interested to compare this with your own ideas.

Part 2 Victoria’s interview with Ellie and her family

Now watch the video below and make notes about what Victoria, the social worker, says and does to manage the meeting and communicate with the family. Remind yourself of what you have learned so far about the importance of demonstrating empathy and respect, initial contacts, and relationship-building.

The following prompts may help you:

  • How does Victoria start the meeting and how do family members respond?
  • What does Victoria do to try and engage each family member? How successful is this?
  • What does she do when different perspectives and tensions surface? What is the result of this?
  • How does she respond to Greg’s behaviour and is this successful?
  • How does Victoria enable Ellie to express her perspective?
  • How does Victoria bring the interview to a conclusion?
  • The video is quite powerful: what were your own emotions while watching it?
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Transcript: Video 1

VICTORIA: So I'm Victoria, and I'm a social worker. And you must be Ellie? What would you like me to call you guys?

LISA: I'm Lisa.


GREG: Greg.

VICTORIA: OK. Well, it's nice to meet you all. Thank you for letting me into your home today. Shall I explain a little bit about why I'm here? Would that be helpful?

LISA: Yeah.

VICTORIA: OK. So like I said, I'm a social worker. I work with Children's Services. And some information came through to us earlier this morning, Ellie, from your school. And they have been a bit worried about you. And they asked for a social worker to come out and see how you are and to see, as a family, how things have been. Have they spoken with you at all?

LISA: Yeah, yeah, they called me yesterday.

GREG: I didn't know nothing about it.

VICTORIA: You didn't know anything about it. OK. So Ellie, my understanding is that sometimes you're not at school. And so they've been a bit worried that you haven't been there and have been missing out on lessons. What would you say to that?

ELLIE: Well, it doesn't matter, does it? Because I'll just catch up with something another time.

VICTORIA: OK. So that was one of the things that they mentioned. The other thing that they were particularly worried about was that it seemed that you'd been missing over the weekend and that people didn't know where you were.

ELLIE: I was out, wasn't I?

VICTORIA: OK. Maybe we could talk about where you've been and what you've been up to.

LISA: I still don't understand, really, why you're here when we've just been called out to school a couple of times. All kids do that, don't they? She's 15.

ELLIE: I did nothing wrong. I ain't done nothing.

GREG: Right.

VICTORIA: OK. Shall I share with you what my role is? Would that be helpful?

LISA: Yeah.

VICTORIA: OK. We are there to try and support families and to try and make things better if there are things that we're worried about. Right? So that's our first goal.

Today, I'm here to just ask some questions to hear what you think. Obviously, the school have shared some of their thoughts. But I haven't heard from you guys.

Ellie, I'd like to hear what you think has been going on. And so we can try and get to the bottom of maybe why the school are worried, maybe some of the things that have been a bit difficult, and to see if there's any way for us to move forward together. OK?

LISA: All right.

VICTORIA: Ellie, do you want to fill me in on what you've been up to over the last weekend and where you were?

GREG: You know where she was, right?

LISA: Well, she said to me she was staying with Emily, her friend.

ELLIE: Yeah.

VICTORIA: OK. How do you know Emily?

ELLIE: Through school.

VICTORIA: Yeah? Is she in your year?

ELLIE: Yeah.

VICTORIA: OK. And what were you guys doing together?

ELLIE: Just hanging out. Then I watched a movie around her's.

VICTORIA: So you hung out with Emily. You watched a film. Did you guys go out at all?

ELLIE: Mm, well, we went to the park, and stuff, just hung out there.

LISA: Ellie, I do think you should probably say the truth as well.

ELLIE: I'm telling the truth.

GREG: What do you mean, the truth?

LISA: I thought she was with Emily. But I think she was also out with a couple of other people as well, maybe that Darren.

GREG: Who's Darren? Who's this fella, this kid?

LISA: Her boyfriend.

GREG: So why haven't you told me that?

LISA: I didn't-- I only just found out about it.

GREG: When?

LISA: I just found out about it--

GREG: When?

LISA: --just yesterday.

GREG: Why? So you found out about it yesterday, and you haven't told me.

VICTORIA: All right.

GREG: Huh?

VICTORIA: Ellie, why don't you fill us in on who else you've been with?

ELLIE: I told you. I was with Emily.


VICTORIA: Was anyone else there?


LISA: It's OK.


GREG: (WHISPERING) Stop it. No. If this stuff, you're not telling me--

ELLIE: Oh, my gosh, stop, all right?

LISA: I don't want an argument, not when this lady's here. Please, come on. Just be nice. It's all nice and calm now.

GREG: No, it's not nice and calm, because suddenly, once again, I don't know anything that's going on.

LISA: OK. She's going through a bit of a phase at the moment.

ELLIE: I'm not.

LISA: Just a little bit of a phase where she's keeping a few secrets. But it's what teenagers do, isn't it? She was with her friend. And also, I think she might have been with a few other people and with her boyfriend. But she was all right. She's all right with them.

VICTORIA: So you've been hanging out with your friends. And so that sounds like maybe you're having fun with them. What about how are things at home?

ELLIE: Mum's been drinking, so--

LISA: Hey, just one. But just a couple, I ain't nothing-- I don't know what she's making it out like. Ellie, it ain't like I've got some kind of a problem, or anything.

VICTORIA: No one's saying that you've got a problem. But like I said, I'm here to try and find out what's been going on and maybe why you guys are struggling to get on sometimes.

GREG: You've gotten easier on all that.

LISA: I ain't gotten easier.

GREG: We're in this situation because of her, so that won't help.

ELLIE: I ain't done nothing, so I don't understand.

VICTORIA: Ellie, from what you've said, it sounds like maybe you're not very happy about your mum's drinking. Why do you think your mom is drinking?

ELLIE: I don't know, probably because of him, isn't it?

LISA: Hey, no it ain't. It ain't.

ELLIE: Well, I know you slapped her.

GREG: You didn't see nothing.

LISA: You didn't see the row, did you?

GREG: You didn't see nothing.

LISA: You didn't see the row.

GREG: You didn't see nothing.

LISA: Ellie, we're talking about you here, OK?

VICTORIA: OK. But I'm also aware that whatever's happening to Ellie will be affected by what's going on at home as well. So it sounds like you guys had an argument. Do you want to tell me about that?

GREG: No. No, we don't.

VICTORIA: Hey, Greg, I'd like to hear what Lisa was saying.

LISA: We just had a row. It was both of us. We were just arguing with each other. And it just got a little bit heated. And I actually did-- I pushed him. And then he pushed me back. It wasn't a hit or anything like that.


LISA: No, I'm just trying to-- I'm just explaining, OK? It wasn't nothing. That's what I'm saying. He's never hit me. He's not like that. He's lovely. He looks after us. And because she thinks she's in trouble, she's trying to make it out like it's something different.

ELLIE: I'm not. I'm just saying.

VICTORIA: OK. Do you want to tell me what you saw or what you heard?

ELLIE: Well, I didn't see it. But when I came in the next day, they were talking, and stuff. And then when I walked in, they just stopped talking. And then I could see it on her face. It was bruised right here.

VICTORIA: When was this? When did this happen?

ELLIE: Last week.

VICTORIA: OK. And how often does this happen?

ELLIE: I don't know.

LISA: That's it. There's just been one. There's just been one big row. That's it.

GREG: I thought you come around here to talk about her not being at school or where she was at the weekend.

VICTORIA: But whenever there are concerns about a child or young person, there's always a bigger story. And it will be relating to what else is going on in their lives. And a big part of that is family and what's going on at home as well.

So although you guys might feel like what happens at home and what happens at school are different things. My guess is that, for Ellie, those things are related, which is why what we're talking about now is important and why I do have some more questions about that.

GREG: So what about Ellie? What about what she brings to-- she creates most of the hassle we have in this house. Disappearing for the weekend, we still don't even know where-- where was you?

LISA: We do. We just went there.

ELLIE: I told you.

GREG: What?

VICTORIA: OK. Perhaps--

GREG: Who is this boyfriend? Who is he? Well, and so we're all right with that, are we? So you're all right with that, just going off with someone.

LISA: [INAUDIBLE]. But she's 15. She's going to have a boyfriend.

GREG: Who is he?

LISA: He's Darren.

GREG: How old is he?

LISA: She said he was 17.

ELLIE: 23.

GREG: She said--

LISA: What, Ellie?

GREG: He what?

ELLIE: He's 23.

LISA: Oh, I didn't know he was 23. How was I supposed to know? She said he was 17.

GREG: Because you don't know anything, because you don't ask her anything. Because you let her get away with everything, that's why. No, because you don't bother asking any questions. 23?

VICTORIA: Greg, can you hang on a second? OK. Ellie, talk to me about Darren. Who is he?

ELLIE: Some guy I met. I don't know.

VICTORIA: Where did you meet him?

GREG: He's a nonce. 23?

ELLIE: Would you just shut up?

LISA: Ellie, please, he's just worried about you.

GREG: You know nothing. Absolutely, you know nothing. Is he the one that's bought you that phone? Is he the one-- is that where that phone comes from? That phone she had the other day, is that where that's come from? Where is it? Is it in here?

ELLIE: Stop touching my bag. Get off.

VICTORIA: Please, Greg.

LISA: Greg, stop. Stop, please. Come on, stop.

VICTORIA: Can I ask everyone to calm down? OK, thank you. Ellie, sounds like you've got a new phone. What happened?

LISA: Ellie, just talk to the lady, please.

ELLIE: For heaven's sake, all right. So he gave me a phone so we could text, and stuff.


ELLIE: What's wrong with that?

VICTORIA: There might not be anything wrong with that.


VICTORIA: What's Darren like?

GREG: A nonce.

ELLIE: He ain't. Would you just shut up? Stop calling him that. I don't know he's like. Nice. He's really kind, and stuff. And--

LISA: Calm down.

ELLIE: --just makes sure I'm all right. And I'd rather be at his than here. I don't know, he's just--

VICTORIA: So you enjoy spending time with him.

ELLIE: Yeah.

VICTORIA: OK. I think it sounds like your parents are worried because he's a bit older. And I've got a few questions because he's a bit older as well. OK. Can you talk to me a bit about the kind of things that you do together?

ELLIE: So I go out and hang out a bit. I don't know, he took me to a cinema.

VICTORIA: One of the things the school have been a bit worried about is that maybe you've been using drugs. And they wondered if a boyfriend might be involved.

ELLIE: Well, it's--

VICTORIA: OK, hang on a second.

ELLIE: --just I tried it once.

VICTORIA: What did you try?

ELLIE: I ain't using. I ain't using.

VICTORIA: What did you try?

LISA: Oh my, let it stop, please.

ELLIE: Just gave me a bit of weed.

VICTORIA: OK. When was this?

ELLIE: A couple of weeks ago.

VICTORIA: Has he given you anything else?


VICTORIA: What about alcohol?

LISA: Ellie, you've got talk to the lady.

ELLIE: My god.

VICTORIA: What does a shoulder shrug mean?

ELLIE: It was just a little bit. But no, we don't get really drunk, and stuff, not like this.

LISA: Ellie, that ain't fair, is it?


GREG: Don't stop being [INAUDIBLE]. Answer the questions.

ELLIE: I'm trying. I'm trying. Didn't you hear me? I just said--

VICTORIA: OK, Ellie, I will come back, and I've got more questions for your parents, OK? But it would be helpful for me just to hear about what's been going on for you and where you've been spending your time.

ELLIE: Well, I just said, I was with Darren.


GREG: It makes me sick.

VICTORIA: Were you spending your time with him, as well, this weekend?

GREG: Just lying-- lying the whole time, and you take it.

ELLIE: Just stop butting in, all right? Ain't got nothing to do with you.

VICTORIA: Can we pause again? Can I share with you what I'm hearing, so far? And you can correct me if I'm wrong, OK?

What I'm hearing is that there have been arguments. Sometimes that's become quite aggressive at home. It sounds like there's also been some drinking of alcohol, which maybe Ellie has not been very happy with. We can talk more about that in a minute.

And then, Ellie, it sounds like, at school, you've been spending time with some friends. And you've been introduced to an older boyfriend as well. OK.

Ellie, can I ask you a question? If you were to tell me how you feel at the moment, with 10 being that you're really happy all the time, everything's going really well, and 0 is that you feel sad all the time and really low, where would you say you are today?

ELLIE: Don't know, like 2.

VICTORIA: That's pretty low. Why is it a 2 today?

ELLIE: Well, it's just that it just kicks off all the time, not-- it just come on in a minute. It's just in your face the whole time.

GREG: Well, you do that.

ELLIE: I don't.

GREG: You come out, and you kick ass.

LISA: It's not all her, Greg.

VICTORIA: Greg, if I was to ask you the same question, where would you say you are?

GREG: I don't know. I don't know.

ELLIE: Go, just pick a number between 1 and 10. It's not that hard.

LISA: Ellie.

GREG: I'm like 3, something like 4, I don't know.

VICTORIA: OK. So you're also feeling maybe more low?

GREG: I'm more-- yeah, it's just this crap I don't have to-- don't want to put up with.

VICTORIA: All right. Lisa, can I ask you the same question about how you are feeling?

LISA: Well, today, probably 1, because this is all worrying me out of my mind now. It's stressing me out. I don't think we need social workers around here. I think, well, we have to sort this out, and now, don't know.

VICTORIA: OK. You've all shared with me lots of really important things today. And I do think that we probably need to meet again and talk. Ellie, I'd like to come and see you in school, maybe, and talk to you more about what's been going on for you and how you've been feeling.

And Lisa and Greg, I'd like to see you guys as well, maybe together, maybe separately, to talk about what's happening at home. I'm worried about your arguments and that they've become physical at times.

LISA: It was only once.

VICTORIA: OK. But we might need to talk a bit more about that.


VICTORIA: And Lisa, I'm a bit worried that I'm hearing that you're drinking, because it sounds like things have been strained for all of you. And if social workers are there to try and help to make things better, we need to know what we're trying to make better. OK? So if it's OK with you, we'll make plans to come and see you. And so we can continue those conversations. Would that be all right?

GREG: Ain't got much choice, do we?

VICTORIA: Greg, I know that this is difficult. And our goal is not to make things more challenging for you as a family but to try and help.

LISA: We could sort you out.

VICTORIA: OK. Thank you for letting me come and see you today and for talking with me. I appreciate everything that you said, OK?


VICTORIA: Thank you.

End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
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Victoria seems to show empathy, skill and sensitivity in handling this challenging interview. Even though it was simulated, Victoria commented that it was realistic (except that she had to conduct the interview in a much shorter period than usual).

Part 3 Victoria’s reflections on the experience

Now listen to the audio below, in which Victoria reflects on what she was trying to achieve, on her performance in the interview, including the decisions she made about risk during the interview, and about how she might have wanted to work with the family in future were this a real family. Victoria refers to one of the theories that have influenced her practice: systemic family therapy, and in her preparation notes, Victoria mentions the concept of family scripts which is a concept used in the family therapy approach. These are underlying messages and expectations affecting how a child or adult thinks about themselves. Although Victoria does not mention an approach called solution-focused theory, she seems to use some of its techniques – for example, in the scaling questions, which provide a powerful insight into the self-perceived seriousness or intensity on an imaginary numerical scale of 1–10, of individual family members’ feelings about specific issues raised in the interview.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
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Transcript: Audio 2

My name is Victoria Cavolina and I am a social worker, I work within Children's Services, specialising in child protection. In today's simulation I had no script and I had not met the actors in advance of us filming today. They did not know what I was going to ask, and I did not know how they were going to respond, so we had to explore the information in as much of a natural and normal way that a social worker did when meeting a family. So, in terms of planning for the simulation today, I guess I was thinking about some of the initial risks that presented themselves within the case study. So, from my experience I was looking at a teenage girl who was possibly at risk of child sexual exploitation with an older boyfriend, and so I wanted to explore his role within her life and what that might look like. I was also thinking about the capacity of the parents and their insight into why professionals might be concerned. So thinking more broadly around boundaries and their relationship with their daughter, which might be leading to some of the challenging behaviour that the school were noticing. In terms of my reading of mother, Lisa, her body language suggested that she was quite scared, and so I was wondering why she was scared. My general sense was that she was concerned about what might be shared, and that became more apparent as Ellie began to talk about her mother's drinking, but also about the violence within the family home. I was aware that the step-father, Greg, was becoming increasingly aggressive, his body language was quite dominating - pointing fingers, moving around quite a lot, exerting authority within that context and trying to stop information being shared. So as that happened I was aware that mum was becoming quieter, more concerned and was trying to control the situation as best she could. In terms of the tussle with the bag, I wanted to, as much as possible, keep the situation calm. I was aware that simply by directing orders at Greg, the likelihood would be that he would respond aggressively, and I did not think that that would help the relationship with him, but also would l take our conversation down a particular route, probably stopping us from being able to talk and explore some of the concerns. And so my response was to try and calm the situation down, to shift the conversation away from looking at a phone and broaden the conversation out, so that it was less directed at one person. In terms of my rapport with Ellie, I wanted to demonstrate that I recognised that her behaviour was not simply happening in isolation, but was also a result of what was happening within her family, which was why I tried to explain some of my thinking, so that she knew where I was coming from. As far as possible I tried to ask open questions to give her space to tell me information, and so this was about building an initial rapport and relationship in which should would be heard for her own sake, not simply, kind of, told off. So I did not ask Ellie the full name or details of her boyfriend. My main reasoning for doing that was that it changes the tone of the conversation, rather than exploring their relationship, their dynamic, it then becomes a conversation which is seeking information and so becomes very much about detail. What I wanted to hear was the nature of their relationship, to better assess the risk. In regards to the ending of the visit, a number of risks had presented themselves, and would need further exploration and some tying up. It takes a huge amount of courage for a family to share any kind of information that is private, particularly with someone that they have never met before, and so I wanted to show them that I respected that. But what they had shared was of concern and would require further assessment. So today was about summarising what they had shared with me, acknowledging that, and making sure that I had got that information correct, and was not just assuming things and leaving enough space to begin to develop a conversation outside of that initial visit. In regards to professional judgement, that is something that social workers actively engage in all the time. So, right from the beginning I strongly feel that relationships are really important with children and young people, but also with their parents and their families, because that is the only mechanism by which you can really achieve change. I was aware that given the dynamics between Ellie, her mum and her step-dad that she was not going to tell me a lot of information with them in the room, and that it would be more helpful to contain some of that conversation for a future visit, without them there... seeking information. There are times when you cannot wait until another future visit, and you need to seek information in that moment, because you need to take immediate steps to safeguard children. So you would find a way to do that, explaining to families why you need that information, and what your concerns are, to help them understand your attitude and your approach. In terms of theory, I have been particularly influenced by thinking around systemic family therapy and the importance of watching the different relationships between a family. So from my perspective, my assessment was taking place whilst the family were talking, so not simply in what they said, but in also how they behaved and how they communicated with one another. And so when I was silent, it was not simply a case of not necessarily knowing what to say, or not knowing what to do, but it was an active choice to be quiet and to watch how they interacted. I would also think about the importance of exploring their own motivation to change, because that helps us to think about capacity of parents, and to think about how we might address the concerns that were presenting themselves. And it would also determine the level of intervention we might need, because if parents are highly motivated to change, you might think about a less intensive intervention, and a more therapeutic kind of support. Whereas, if there is a real resistance to change, sometimes that might need a more serious or escalated intervention from Children's Services. The fact that Lisa and Greg had engaged with the school to talk about Ellie's behaviour, the fact that they shared information with me, are all signs that they would want to change how they work as a family. I think I would be concerned about the domestic violence, and the on-going impact of that dynamic within the family home and within the parental relationship, because that will affect how they respond to anything else, and so that would be a big obstacle. So engaging Greg in a helpful way, to help him address his behaviour, would need to be thought about, and I would also be thinking about the emotional impact on all family members. My general sense and impression would be that there is a long way to go, and that Ellie has evidently seen and heard a variety of things happening with her and her family, and that that is causing her to react in particular ways. So helping her to recognise her own emotional journey would have been an important part of where we would go next. In regards to tips for other social workers or training social workers, from my perspective I think it is important to know that you are never going to get everything perfect, and usually there is a chance to try again and to recognise that families are people too. So you can apologise, you can explain where you are coming from as a means of building a relationship, and it's important to speak in such a way that you leave space for them to respond to you in a way that is open, because I think that is probably the best basis for a relationship. In terms of being involved in today's simulation, it's a bit of a nerve-racking thing having your practice put on display, but it's helpful to reflect on that, and that will definitely be help in my own practice, just thinking about how I do things on a more regular basis. In terms of outcomes from the simulation today, I was pleased that we got to a point where the family had talked not just about what was happening, but about how they were feeling. That felt like a real moment of buy-in from them, and a really clear moment that they might cooperate with me in the future. So that was a good way to both end, but also in the future as a good place to start from, so that felt like a success.
End transcript: Audio 2
Audio 2
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