Our recent paper (Stabler, Wilkins and Carro, 2019) uses a novel method (Q-method) to explore what children and young people ‘in need’, ‘in care’ and ‘leaving care’ think about their social workers and personal advisors – and what the worker does when they spend time together.

We spoke with twenty-two children and young people (aged between ten and twenty-two) who have a social worker or personal advisor. We wanted to know what they thought about their worker and what their worker does when they spend time together. We already have a good idea from previous studies about what social work skills are important to children and young people. In our study, we wanted to know to what extent children and young people can identify these skills in practice and how they might evaluate them.

To make sure we could get the views of young children and well as older children and young adults, we used Q-method. This involves asking participants to look at a series of statements and arrange them in a pattern depending on how they feel about each one. We developed these statements based on the skills of Motivational Social Work – collaboration, autonomy, empathy, purposefulness, clarity about concerns and child/young person focus.

Using Q-method allowed us to explore how children and young people experienced their social worker’s use of these skills. We also interviewed the children and young people about their experiences, and which of the skills were most important to them.

From analysing the twenty-two ‘Q-sorts’ in our study, we were able to identify four ‘types’ of social worker, which we labelled as followed:

  • “My social worker cares about me, but is a bit of a mystery”
  • “My social worker keeps me in the loop but asks me the same things over and over”
  • “My social worker gets things done”
  • “My social worker listens to my views, but I am not sure what they want to achieve”

In the interviews that followed, some of the children and young people who shared a particular ‘type’ of worker nevertheless felt differently about whether this was a good fit for them. For example, for workers who ‘kept the child / young person in the loop’, one young person said:

“I liked that they went over stuff” (John, aged 18).

On the other hand, another young person said:

“He tells me what he’s worried about, but then he worries a lot. He seems like that in general….he’s always worried about something” (Sarah, aged 19).

We thought this showed how important it is not just to ask young people what matters to them, but to involve them in discussions about what’s working well and less well in practice. It also showed us that there is no ‘ideal’ social worker. What works for one child or young person might not work for someone else. For some children, having a social worker who is clear and talks about the same issues in every session is helpful; for others it can feel like the worker is too focused on what is going wrong. For some young people, just having a worker who answers the phone can be a sign of things getting better. We figured that a good starting point is simply to ask children and young people what they understand about their social worker’s role, and what they want from their worker.

We also thought that by using Q-method, we demonstrated one possible way of involving children and young people in complex evaluations of social work practice. All of the children and young people who took part said it was fun to sort through the statements and we were able to use the same method with our youngest participant (aged 10) as with our oldest (aged 22). In future, we’d like to use the same method again but start by asking children and young people to help us design the statements, as well as taking part as participants. 

Lorna Stabler, Research Associate, CASCADE: Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre stablerl@cardiff.ac.uk @lorna_stabler

David Wilkins, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University wilkinsd3@cardiff.ac.uk @david82wilkins


Stabler, L., Wilkins, D. and Carro, H. 2019. What do children think about their social worker? AQ‐method study of children’s services. Child & Family Social Work. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cfs.12665