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The aim of this essay is to examine child-centered social work with respect to its concepts, theories, and the skills and values requisite for effective child social work in practice. The following paragraphs will give insights on; the definition of child-centered social work, attachment theory, skills and values required for child-centered social work and finally, a brief conclusion.
Generally, Social work in its entirety fosters human development. There are many definitions of social work, and it is safe to assume that most of them are proof of the developmental nature of social work. “Child-centred social work” as its name implies is the field of social work which deals with issues relating to children, and the ways in which we can improve their lives. In order to be adequately positioned to help children meet their developmental outcomes, we first need to be able to understand who they are (Hutton 2000). Similarly, Race and O’Keefe described the child-centred practice as a part of social work which is aimed at ensuring the healthy development of children by placing the child at the centre of any process which impacts on them (Race ; O’Keefe, 2017). This means that the safety, needs, desires, and emotions of the child should always be given priority.
The concept of childhood itself is a social construction, this implies that the ideas and expectations of ascribed to childhood varies in different societies. This is well aligned with the assertion of D’Cruz (2009) that the “child” is a socially constructed identity. The United Nations child right declaration describes a child as an individual aged 18 or younger (Unicef, 2018), this seems to suggest that childhood is the period from birth to age 18. However, regardless of the fact that most nations accept 18 years as the legal age of maturity, some nations do not. For example, the age of maturity is 14 in Uzbekistan, 16 in Scotland, twenty in Japan, and 21 in countries like Lesotho and Argentina (D’ Cruz, 2009). This suggests that the period of childhood and the interpretations ascribed to childhood is a reflection of societal preferences. This was corroborated by Jenks (1996) in his assertion that the child and the formation of the identity of the child is, for the most part, a result of nature and nurture, with more emphasis being placed on the formative influence of the ecology surrounding the child. There are different societal views of childhood. For example, some views depict childhood as a period of vulnerability and innocence which is usually characterised by needs (Sayer, 2008), while some other views perceive children as threats to the society (Jenks 1996). This differing view on childhood further strengthens the need for child-centred social work because child-centred social work is a platform that advocates and protects the rights of children in the society.
Child-centered social work is aimed at ensuring the safety of children (Race and O’Keefe, 2017) this is done by upholding the rights of children. In fact, the right of the child is very crucial in informing and directing the child-centred social work practice. The right of the child has been ratified by most countries with the exemption of the United States of America and Somalia. The right of the child was signed in 1989 by world leaders, and it comprises of 54 articles and two optional protocols (UNICEF, 2018). Some of the core principles derived from the United Nations convention of the right of the child, which has also been ratified by Australia are as follows; children shouldn’t be discriminated against regardless of their attributes or status, people and agencies responsible for the care of children must be devoted to promoting their best interests, due regards should be given to the opinion of children when making decisions that might potentially affect them, children should be allowed to choose their lifestyle, and children should be protected from violence and abuse (Unicef, 2018). This suggests that children should be seen and heard as individuals, and that like other adults, they should be treated with due respect and accorded their rights without any inhibition.
In order to further examine the concept of child-centred practice in social work, it is important to explore child development. Mussen et al. (1990) defined child development as follows:
Child development is both a basic and an applied science. It is the study of how and why children develop perception, thought processes, emotional reactions, and patterns of social behaviour. It also provides knowledge that is important for advising parents, forming educational programmes for children, making legal policies affecting children, and devising treatments for problem behaviour. (p. 2)
This suggests that child development is fundamental to child-centred social work practice as it informs our understanding of children and the complexities of their development. In their analysis of child development, Jeffery and Jones argued that children do not develop at the same rate because of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, this suggests that the development of a child is influenced by the agents of nature (genetics), and nurture (environment) (Jeffery & Jones, 2005). For example, Children of a similar age group might have different traits due to different geographical location, cultural norms and values, experiences, and societal influences. Musen et al. opined that the reasons for child development are; to help create a general understanding of children and how they grow, to help understand differences in the behaviour and cognition of children, and to help us comprehend how agents of nature and nurture can impact on child development (Musen et al, 1990. P.5). overall, practitioners in child-centred social work require an in-depth knowledge of child development.
Child development is in stages, and each stage lasts for a period of time. Although progression can be haphazard in some cases, and the speed of progression may vary, the basic principle of child development is that children generally go through the developmental stages in the same order (Musen et al. 1990; Coatsworth 1998; Morrison & Anders 1999; Merchant & Jones 2000; Meggit & Sunderland 2000). In explaining the stages of child development, Jean Piaget in his Cognitive theory of child development outlined four stages that explain the process of child intellectual development. They are listed on the table below:
S/N Developmental Stage Age (yrs)
1. Sensory-motor 0 – 2
2. Preoperational 2 – 6
3. Concrete operational 7 – 11
4. Formal operational 12 – Adulthood

In the sensory-motor stage, the child has a limited knowledge of the world and is only capable of simple motor responses, after which the child moves into the preoperational stage. In this stage, the child starts developing language skills but cannot comprehend concrete logic or manipulate information. In the concrete operational stage, the child develops a higher mental capacity but cannot reason abstractly. Finally, the formal operational stage is the stage wherein the child develops higher reasoning and is capable of abstract thinking and systematic planning (Piaget 1958 cited in McLeod, 2018).
Theories form an important part of child-centred social work practice. Langer and Lietz opine that theories are structures with which we ascribe meaning to situations and occurrences (Langer & Lietz, 2014). Therefore, child development theories help us understand the child, and this understanding of the child will help us in understanding how humans grow and learn. According to Cherry (2017), Some of the theories of child development are; “Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, Behavioural theories, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, attachment theory, Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory, and Bio ecological systems theory” (p. 1). For the purpose of this essay, attachment theory is explained in the next paragraph.
Daniel, Wassel, and Gilligan (2011) suggest that attachment theory is aimed at creating a medium to better understand child development. Generally, the attachment theory is premised on the idea that when children have a constructive relationship with adults, it fosters their wholesome development. This means that children require positive relationships with adults in order to have a healthy development. Daniel, Wassel, and Gilligan opine that attachment is crucial to a child’s healthy development and that there is a natural tendency for children to manifest signs of attachment in their behaviour because this makes them feel safe (Daniel, Wassel, & Gilligan, 2011).
Attachment theory emphasises that a child can have important relationships (attachments) with other people rather than one central figure or individual and that children play an active role in their own interactions, furthermore, attachments help us understand children and how they feel. This implies that a child can have a positive attachment with people other than those directly in charge of care for the child.
Another theory that informs the child-centred social work practice is the social-ecological theory propounded by Bronfenbrenner in 1979. In this theory, he lays emphasis on how environmental systems can impact on an individual’s development. The ecological framework helps in understanding how the child’s immediate environment like the family, school, and friends can impact on development (Gray, Migley & Webb, 2012). Therefore, in order to understand the child, it is imperative that we understand the ecological factors that encompass the child.
Certain principles, values, and skills inform child-centred social work practice. Winkworth and McArthur outlined 10 principles that inform child-centred social work practice. They are summarised as follows; children should be provided with adequate services that will enhance their overall development, children and their families should have access to quick intervention and support services, comprehensive child development should be prioritised when planning intervention or making decisions that will potentially impact on children, children should be given an avenue to express their desires and emotions with the assistance of adults whom they trust, variables such as language, experience, gender, culture, and level of development, etc. should be considered when working with children, children should be encouraged and provided with avenues to participate in decision making, children should be educated and adequately informed about intervention services and how to report their grievances when necessary, children should be immediately informed about any decision ruling or procedure that might impact on them, practitioners and other individuals involved with children should share information, skills, and knowledge in order to foster healthy development, protection of children, and generally improve child centred social work, furthermore, in order to ensure protection and development of children, systems which positively impact on children, for example, attachments, family, friends, school, etc. should be reinforced and adequately provided with information which will foster their protection of children (Winkworth and McArthur, 2006. p. 8).
In addition, Helm suggested some values which should inform child-centred social work practice, they include; prioritising and protecting the well-being of children, ensuring the safety, happiness and healthy development of children, allowing children to contribute to decisions that might potentially affect them, and giving adequate regard to parents and other individuals responsible for the care of children (Helm, 2010). These values are well aligned with the child rights convention, and these inform child-centred social work. They are aimed at protecting the rights of children and, are, therefore, the very essence of effective child-centred practice.
Some of the skills which enhance effective child-centred practice include; the ability to understand and share the feelings of children, being trustworthy, developing a positive relationship with children (attachment), having integrity and being responsible (Race & O’Keefe, 2017). These are some of the skills that will ensure effective practice.
In conclusion, child-centred social work is a field of practice which places the child at the top of its priorities and is informed by ethics, skills, values, and theories that help to foster the healthy development of the child. The literature on childhood suggests that the concept of childhood is dynamic and that its dynamic nature has a ripple effect on child-centred practice. This means that for child-centered practice to be efficient there is a need to constantly review child-centred practice in line with the societal construction of childhood (Helm, 2010). Furthermore, an understanding of the developmental process and the ecological systems around the child impacts positively on the effectiveness of child-centred social work practice.

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