Finding our way

One of the joys of delivering Sandstories training is that I am able to draw on many different creative sources to illustrate the stories of real children, so that they can encourage us to strengthen our child-centred practice.

In telling their stories, these children cease being simply “cases” and instead can speak of their lived experience, even though their lives have been cut short.

Using a large labyrinth, rolled out on the floor, has been one of the storytelling techniques I have used to help us listen to the distant voices of children and young people. They remind us of our deep desire to be child-centred in our work with the children we know.

At first glance, a labyrinth looks a little like a maze – you know, the kind of thing that you find in a children’s puzzle book. But a labyrinth is different.

A maze is designed to make us lose our way, whereas a labyrinth helps us to find our way.

It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth, the path will always lead to the centre.

The labyrinth comes in different designs, is about 4,000 years old, and is found all over the world. 

Ideally, the labyrinth will be large enough for people to physically walk on, either outdoors, or perhaps on the floor of a holy building or in some other communal space. The Sandstories labyrinth isn’t quite as big as this – or else I would never be able to find a venue large enough to accommodate the training! But it is certainly big enough to bring children’s stories to life. 

Some people use a labyrinth to explore their life journey, others their spiritual journey, and others may simply want to reflect on a particular time in their life or a decision they are trying to make.

Those who walk a labyrinth are encouraged to pause and reflect as they travel towards the centre, listening to the deep-rooted questions that are arising for them. 

As I use the Sandstories labyrinth, I share stories of real children to help us pause and reflect – I often bring the children’s photographs onto the labyrinth too. This creates a very special and intimate space for everyone present to really listen to the child’s description of their life.

This rare opportunity to draw alongside children and young people whom we have never met, allows us to grow in our insight and wisdom. We can then offer this to the children who cross our path, with refreshed child-centred practice. 

Importantly, reflective practice works both ways. Whilst we reflect on the lives of vulnerable children and examine how we can best respond to them, we also need space to reflect on ourselves. What do we need to keep going and how we can hold onto resilience in the face of adversity?

It almost feels like a luxury to be able to step away from the usual commotion of the working day to be able to pause and reflect on why we have chosen to do the job we do. What is it about the lives of vulnerable children and young people that makes its mark on us? Why do we keep going when we so often feel exhausted and wonder whether we are making any difference at all?

There are many sources of advice and guidance on how to care for our mental health, our physical health and our emotional wellbeing. Within my training, I have shared the Sandstories labyrinth to support our professional and personal reflection, to help build and maintain our resilience.

“Unless you can create an inner sanctuary, a special chamber within, where you can be with yourself, slow things down, and direct your thoughts towards what nourishes you in body, mind, and spirit, you will be starving for meaning and purpose in your life. The labyrinth can help you create this inner chamber; it can provide a touchstone to return to when you need to remember who you are and where and with whom you stand.”

The Scared Path Companion, Lauren Artress, 2006

If you would like to learn more about labyrinths, this website might interest you:

This labyrinth can be found at the Quaker Woodbrook Centre.

This is the Sandstories labyrinth.

Animal-assisted therapy

Some of the most beautiful stories I have encountered as I deliver Sandstories around the UK, have been those about the relationship between animals and vulnerable children and adults.

I could probably write a book with the many descriptions that have been given to me of animals who recognise the feelings and emotions of vulnerable people and then draw close to them with concern and comfort.

Here is an example from a social worker who placed a distressed young boy with a foster carer who had a dog.

The dog was a Great Dane cross and was therefore very large. The foster carer went into her living room and found the young boy sobbing. He wasn’t crying, he was sobbing. And the big dog was leaning against him.

The foster carer was naturally very concerned and bent down to the young boy and asked him why he was so upset.

The child answered:

“I’m not upset. It’s just that your dog is squeezing all the sadness out of me.”

And this is what animals so often do.

Over time, I have become so convinced about the value of animal-assisted therapy, that I recommended to the headteacher of the SEMH high school (where I am a governor), that the school should have its own therapy dog. 

Long story short: I am now the owner of the school’s therapy dog! 

He’s called Baikka (which means ‘be calm, don’t stress’). Baikka is registered with Pets As Therapy and is an integral part of the school community. And he has proved to be the most wonderful companion for me, too!

And just because I can, here’s a photo of Baikka on his first day in school, then delivering his Covid safety message to the school’s learners.

Moral injury

The delivery of Sandstories training for more than a decade has coincided with many years of so-called austerity and reductions in resources for vulnerable children. This has meant that local authorities and other agencies have been very noticeably “raising the threshold” for the provision of services, in order to ration diminishing resources – all while demand increases.

What I have frequently observed are the moral dilemmas and subsequent “moral injury” caused to practitioners and decision-makers, who feel they are too often expected to compromise their professional and personal ethics in order to comply with process and procedures. These processes are directed by political and financial drivers, rather than the needs of children. 

It’s not uncommon for practitioners to weep when they describe to me the expectations on them to compromise their professional integrity and personal values. The stories shared by participants in my training sessions, of children and young people who are turned away from support services because they don’t meet the “threshold”, are too numerous to count. These children’s stories often keep practitioners awake at night.

I have an emerging hypothesis that the moral injury caused by the expectation of compliance with “thresholds” and resource-centred (rather than child-centred) practice is a major contributor to burnout, mental ill-health, and stress-related illness among frontline practitioners and first-line managers.

Whilst it has long been recognised that high caseloads become overwhelming for practitioners, I sense that moral injury is an additional, powerful and invisible layer to this story.

Interestingly, references to moral injury have become more frequent in recent commentary about the NHS response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The appalling dilemmas faced by some health practitioners who have to decide who can be given a bed or intensive care treatment, or even oxygen, have been recognised as increasingly unbearable for all of those involved.

There is also a body of literature focusing on the moral injury experienced by military combatants in situations of conflict. This is compelling material and I recognise shared themes between the experiences of battlefield/military leadership and those on the frontline of child protection and their strategic decision-makers.

If a person is directed to act in a manner that conflicts with their sense of right and wrong; if they find themselves compelled to act in the face of wrongdoing but do nothing; if they acted with the best of intentions but find their actions led to the worst of outcomes, it is very likely that the individual’s sense of themselves will be adversely affected.

Why? Because the principles that gave point and purpose, and meaning and direction, to their life, have been denied or violated in such a manner and to such a degree that the person is alienated from themselves and estranged from the world.

War and Moral Injury: A Reader, ed. by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Prior,
2018, p 191-2

It’s my greatest hope that Sandstories creates a meaningful and respectful space in which to recognise and respond to the practical and ethical dilemmas faced by a multi-agency workforce which is working so hard, in the face of great adversity, to reach out to vulnerable children and young people.