Residential Care as Professional Organized Context for Children’s Development of Participation

  Ida Schwartz, psychologist and Ph.D. student, Institute of Pedagogical Science and Development, University of Southern Denmark.



Central questions of the project

The project investigates how professionals in a residential home and across professional contexts cooperate in defining problems and organizing care in everyday life of children in care. The central point is how these professionals located in different institutions cooperate with each other and with children and their parents and how these different kinds of cooperation creates contexts for children’s development of participation. The project follows nine children’s stay in one specific residential home.


The project is analyzing the professional praxis in a residential home related to professional’s cooperation with parents and children and with other professionals across contexts of arrangements of children’s care. Focus is on how these contexts of care are objectifying children and parents as objects for professional treatment and/or as subjects with resources to participate and abilities to contribute to individual or collective possibilities of life. Related to this the project raise the question of which problems are connected to professional understandings and actions, which try to facilitate children’s development of social participation in a societal mediated and inter-institutional connected residential care?  


The project follows three perspectives. Taking care of children in residential homes (RH) is a historical developed professional praxis. The ways professionals organize praxis is connected to certain theories of children’s needs (Woodhead 1997), which in themselves are part of cultural constructions of childhood (James, Allison &, Alan Prout 1997). These professional understandings and practical actions constitute conditions to which children in care respond and relate in their developing of subjectivity. Professionals across “childhood units” (school, daycares, social workers, care-takers in RH) contribute in cooperation with parents to build a developmental context for children in RH. The ways professionals and parents cooperate and handle conflicts across contexts construct life circumstances for children (Højholt 2001), and the first perspective in the project is how this cooperation - which in it selves is mediated - across contexts contributes to the construction of certain understandings of children and professional arrangements of care.

Furthermore I am searching for children’s and parent’s perspectives on the care the children receive. I follow the children in their everyday life in the RH and in other contexts of development. I am looking for how they respond to professional arrangements, how they build communities together with other children and professionals, and how certain conditions make up differentiated possibilities of children’s action. What are the possibilities for self governmental action in institutional communities and what are the possibilities of influence in daily life and in their life situation as a whole? The second perspective is on children’s and parents possibilities of participation in daily life in a RH and in decisions about the life conditions of the children across contexts.

Professionals, parents and children cooperate in creating a cultural environment in the institution (connected to and mediated by other societal contexts), which in different ways is objectifying both children and professionals as subjects. The third perspective in the project is how this objectified subjectivity emerges in different ways, and how both professionals, parents and children, produce meaning and possibilities of action in the children’s complicated and troublesome lives.

Theoretical background

Participation is a central concept in this project and it is argued that subjects learn and develop subjectivity as a functional respond to certain conditions across contexts of life (Dreier 1999, Lave 1991). In Critical Psychology (fx Nissen 1998 & 2001; Højholt 1993 & 1996; Dreier 1993) subjects are supposed to develop individual possibilities by taking part in different kinds of communities and contribute at the same time to the development of these collective conditions. Participation takes place from certain located positions, where subjects are positioned and also positioning themselves, contexts which themselves are parts of broader societal contexts (Dreier 1993). From these locations subjects are developing different personal standpoints and perspectives in lives. Participation in relation to certain conditions contributes to or restricts personal development and in the same time (as a possibility) gives access to common resources in society.

            Children in RH are positioned as “others” in several ways. First they are cultural defined as different from adult, and as not yet developed human beings who are vulnerable (Christensen & James 2000). Children in RH are further more categorized in many different ways, separated in special social arrangements and positioned as clients, who are thought of as being in need for treatment (Järvinen & Mik-Meyer 2003). These children have in different ways experienced to be separated from or marginalized in societal contexts in their childhood, and have at the same time lost access to certain contexts and the possibilities to develop certain culturally defined competences (Højholt 1993, 2003; Schwartz 2001). Their possibilities have often been reduced by peripheral or excluded positions.

At the same time the Danish legislation and The Convention of Children’s Rights emphasize that any child should be given a place in community from which it can participate and be heard in its own right. The project addresses these contra dictionary discourses and praxis´ of arranging childhood in and around RH.

            Context of action or the environmental conditions for children’s participation is a central focus. Conditions both make up certain constraints and enable action. Cooperative practise is developing contexts of action which children respond to and relate their possibilities to. The project tries to catch this simultaneously differentiated construction of subjects and environment (Cole 2003).   


My project is based on a professional praxis in a certain RH and I follow the stay of nine children here and in related institutions of their daily life. This particular RH is chosen because of its proclaimed principles of cooperation with parents and children (se Schwartz & Madsen 2003). In this RH both parent’s and children’s perspectives on the professional support they receive are given strongly weight. In a kind of a joint venture I cooperate with the professionals in order to investigate the knowledge they have gained through their work over more than a decade. The project seeks to develop methods to develop knowledge together with professionals, parents and children and from the standpoint of praxis (Højholt 1993; Nissen 1998, 2001; Mørck 1995, 2003).

In my project as a whole the methods of investigation are created in close connection to the three perspectives in the project mentioned earlier. According to the first perspective I follow the work of the professionals across institutional context (day-care, school, children’s home, social work etc.) especially in interdisciplinary conferences. Through one year I observe the professional handling of the children as “cases”. I analyze journals intern and across institutions, dairy notes in the RH, reports from conferences and I am specially looking for professional constructions of “the child as a client”. I interview key-persons about their considerations about care.

            According to the second perspective I focus on children and parents. I interview parents one time in the beginning of the stay and second time a year after. I interview the children twice, the first time about their daily life across contexts (interest, engagements, network, values, and opinions about daily life) and the second time about the background of the stay in the institution, experience about being listened to, being engaged in decision-making, opinion about the care they are receiving and their perspectives on the future. I follow each child one whole day in different contexts. In this perspective I investigate and recognize children’s and parent’s personal perspectives on their daily life dependent on professional support in order to analyze how they develop meaning and create life-possibilities embedded in professional arrangements (Gulløv 1999).

            In the third perspective I follow the daily life in RH by participatory observation (Gulløv & Højlund 2003). I stay once a week over a year in afternoon and evening and observe the professional’s cooperation, how children are creating child communities and how children and professionals are organizing a daily life together. After the first year I follow the children over another year at more rare intervals.

            Collecting data in these multiple perspectives give some possibilities (I hope) to analyze the complexity of the objectifying context(s) and their contributions to the development of children’s subjectivity in a RH.

May 2004.



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