Engaging children as partners in practice to support their mental health and wellbeing

Content type
Event date

12 December 2018, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Chris Dolman, Lisa Johnson, Dom Kleinig




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This webinar was held on Tuesday 12 December 2018.

Enabling children to have a genuine voice in decisions affecting their lives is a challenge faced by practitioners across a broad range of sectors. Yet it is a practice that significantly contributes to child safety and to useful early intervention and prevention approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of children.

For practitioners, issues in adopting this practice can include: confidence in engaging children in developmentally appropriate ways; agency structural and workflow issues that inadvertently limit flexibility and creativity; the expectations of parents and carers on the type of intervention required; and finding ways of working collaboratively that minimise power imbalances between adults and children.

In this webinar, Chris, Lisa and Dom drew on their years of experience in working with children and families to discuss the practices that they have found useful in creating genuine partnerships to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and their families.

This webinar was for practitioners who work with children, as well as practitioners who work with adults and who want to enhance their skills around engaging children. Learning outcomes included:

  • An understanding of the key intentions and purposes of building genuine partnerships with children and families in service provision and the ethics that inform these endeavours;
  • An exploration of some ideas and practices to support practitioners to build genuine partnerships with children;
  • An introduction to some of the useful tools and processes that can be readily implemented by organisations to support practice. 

This webinar was the second in a series focusing on children's mental health. It was co-produced by CFCA and Emerging Minds. They are working together as part of the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, which is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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Audio transcript (edited)


Hello and welcome everybody. Good afternoon to today's webinar which is engaging children as partners in practice to support their mental health and wellbeing. That's quite a long and convoluted title, I know, but we're hoping very much that our three presenters today will be able to provide you with some clarity around how to work with children, and make them genuine partners in that work.

So my name is Dan Moss, and I'm the workforce development manager here at Emerging Minds, as part of the national workforce centre for children's mental health. And before we start today, I'd just like to acknowledge, on behalf of Emerging Minds and CFCA, to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands across Australia, upon which our webinar presenters have participated and located, for we wish to pay our respects to the elders, past, present and future, for the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Indigenous Australians.

So moving on to our webinar series, and this is the second in a series of six webinars on children's mental health, that will be facilitated in partnership between CFCA and Emerging Minds throughout 2018-19. We're really looking forward to the webinar in 2019 on 12 February, which is, "How to engage parents in conversations about the social and emotional wellbeing of the children". Again, a very long title, but we're really looking forward to being able to bring you that webinar. So hopefully you can join us for that.

So it is now my pleasure – so firstly some housekeeping details. One of the core functions of the CFCA and Emerging Minds in this case information exchange, is to share knowledge. So we would like to invite everyone to submit questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar. This webinar will be a little bit different in that our presenters will be taking questions from you throughout the presentation and also at the end. So we're looking forward to having what we say today, really influence and improved by the questions that you ask.

Please note that any unanswered questions may be published, along with your name, on the CFCA website, for a response from the presenters after the webinar. Please let us know if you don't want your question or first name to be published on our website. We'd also like to continue the conversation we begin here today, and Chris will talk a little bit about how he'd like to continue that conversation later in the presentation. But to facilitate this, we've set up a forum on the CFCA website, where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised, submit additional questions for our presenters and access related resources.

We will send you a link to the forum at the end of today's presentation. As you leave the webinar, a short survey will open in a new window. We would appreciate your feedback as a way of making us continue to improve what we present to you. Please remember that this webinar is being recorded, and the audio transcript and slides will be made available on the CFCA webinar and the CFCA YouTube channel soon.

So it's now my great pleasure and privilege to be able to introduce today's presenters, Firstly we have Lisa Johnson, who's a psychologist and school counsellor. So Lisa, you currently work as a psychologist in a number of different roles, both face-to-face work with children and their families, in teaching, and in supervision with other psychologists.


Yes, I do, and welcome everyone. So, yes, I think on paper it probably looks like I work across some very diverse contexts at the moment. I meet with young folk from about five to 18 to 20 years old, in a large school setting of 1300 students, and I work with them and their teachers and families, and most of the teaching I do is mostly at the moment in university settings, with people studying mental health. And the supervision work that I do is with colleagues who work at a place called STTARS, which is a service for people who are living with the ongoing effects of trauma and torture on the foundation of the refugee experience.

So whilst on paper they seem really diverse, to me they're incredibly linked. They go hand-in-hand, the work that I do and the experience of that work and the dilemmas, informs the teaching and the supervision and vice versa. So I'm not quite sure how I would do any of them on their own now, and that's what I'm up to these days.


Great. Thanks for that, Lisa. Next we have Dom Kleinig, who's a workforce consultant here at Emerging Minds. But Dom, you also have extensive experience working with children under three and their parents. And I'm just wondering, how's your practice developed in that space over the years?


Thank you Dan, and welcome everyone. I think – when I think about when I started as a beginning practitioner, there was often a question that would be asked of us, which was, "Who is the client?" And it was often given to us to help us to clarify a difficult situation and give us a focus, but I think as I've moved to work in my work with parents and infants, and thanks to a lot of people that I've learnt from during that time, I've come to really see the concerns of infants affect their parents, and the concerns of parents affect infants, and that we can sometimes lean too heavily on the clarity that a question like that asks us, and avoid making some really valuable contributions to infants and their parents. So, yes.


Thanks Dom. And lastly, Chris Dolman. Chris, you're the child and family partnership coordinator here at Emerging Minds, and you're looking very much at this concept of engaging children, but not only in practice, also in other ways. Would you like to say a little bit about that?


Yes, sure. Thanks Dan, and hi everyone. Yes, I've been speaking with other services in recent times, about their practices for engaging children in service design and evaluation, to inviting children into a partnership around service design and review and evaluation, and really hearing about some sparkling practices that services are embarking on with that. And actually for – if there are, sort of, practitioners listening to this webinar that are engaging in that as well, we'd love, here at Emerging Minds, to hear from you. We'd love to be contacted by you and begin a conversation with you about how that's – yes, how you are seeking to that. So yes, certainly that's been taking up, yes, my interest in recent times.


Yes, thanks Chris. Very interesting work indeed, and – yes, thank you for that. Now we're going to go on to learning outcomes for today, before we get started, and we've got three of those. And they are an understanding of the key intentions and purposes of building genuine partnerships with children and families in service provision, and the ethics that inform these endeavours; an exploration of some ideas and practices to support practitioners to build genuine partnerships with children, and that idea of genuine partnerships, we're going to traverse a little bit today. And an introduction to some of the useful tools and processes that can be readily implemented by organisations to support practice. I'm now going to hand over to Chris to begin the formal part of today's presentation.


Thanks very much, Dan. Yes, so I'd like to – I'd like us really to begin by taking a closer look at this concept of engaging children as partners in practice, and how that can provide a foundation for us to be responding to child mental health concerns. So firstly – but before we do that, let's just begin by thinking a bit about this task of engaging children in practice. I mean this commonly happens, doesn't it, in settings that are quite unfamiliar for children, you know, where they are required, it seems, to kind of speak with you know, adults they don't know about things they'd probably rather not talk about.

Children, you know, commonly know something's wrong, and may even think that they are somehow complicit in this problem.  It's kind of no wonder that children feel, you know, unnerved and unsettled, and become, you know, perhaps very busy in response to that, or become quite quiet and feel a silence and disempowered in that context, particularly you know, surrounded by adults, maybe three adults in the room with them, you know, that are keen – keen to help them. And of course, they may also be bringing with them a history of speaking with adults about problems as well, in all sorts of settings. So what is possible for engaging children as partners in practice, you know, in this sort of context, you know, in these circumstances?  In first looking at this concept of engagement, we'd just like to flag a few aspects here, that I'm only going to speak briefly to, for today's webinar.

You know, firstly that engagement is not like a phase or a one-off, or it just happens in the initial stages of work, but is really an ongoing endeavour to build and maintain that therapeutic relationship with the child. You know, that engagement means engaging with the whole child, engaging with the child as a person, not just the child in terms of the problem, but really engaging with the child in terms of what's in excess of the problem for the child; beyond the problem.

You know, what is it that we can be appreciating and understanding about the child in all of their aspects of life.  But it does include engaging with the child in relation to the problems that they are facing. You know, this is critical, we think, for you know, shaping the purposes of the work, for enabling collaboration with the child as well. And also, you know, that engagement with children is possible when a context is created by the practitioner and their agency, and parents for the child's meaningful, influential participation.

You know, so what we want to emphasise here is, you know, if engagement say is not happening or whatever, you know, let's focus on what the practitioner can do to create a context for that, to make engagement possible, rather than focusing perhaps on the child's shortcomings that are getting in the way. How can we be influential in this practice of engagement?

In terms of this concept of partnership, you know, what is it that needs to be in place? I mean none of this is an exhaustive list, we're really just inviting you to think about some of these things. But certainly collaborative partnerships with children are characterised by a number of things, including, you know, shared understandings between the practitioner, the child, those that care for the child, you know, in relation to the circumstances and concerns that surround the child and the family, and the purpose for the consultations as well.

You know, these conversations with children need to be resonant for the child. They need to be relevant to their everyday experience. They need to be linked somehow to the child's everyday experience. By partnership, we're also referring to conversations that draw on children's creativity, and imaginations and interests; and also, you know, that this notion of partnership is linked to an ethic of accountability to children's experience as well.

Just in terms of practice, I guess we have in mind, you know, practices that have some sort of therapeutic intent; conversations that have some sort of therapeutic intent. Of course, engaging children as partners, as I've already mentioned actually, in my introduction, can extend beyond that into other areas of service design and evaluation, but that's beyond what we're talking about today.

I mean why is it important to begin to engage children as partners in practice? Why is this important in supporting children's mental health? I mean there are many reasons we could kind of offer for this, many different frames which we could look through, you know, from a children's rights perspective, in terms of children's safety, from an early intervention lens, or you know, who is it that benefits from it? But really, I guess the main reason is because children tell us that this is important and we want to highlight this.

You know, that children do have clear ideas about their participation in conversations with practitioners.  You know, if they have said – and some of the documents that record children's preferences are noted in our resources section for this webinar. But children have said, among other things, that they want opportunities to effectively participate in conversations and decisions that affect them. They want to not only have a voice, but to have their views heard and acknowledged and considered and respected.

They like it when adults and professionals know when it's the right time to talk about challenging topics, and the right amount of time to talk, as well. Children like adults to be interested in what they're into, what they need, how they respond when things happen. They appreciate adults' interest in these areas of their life as well. You know, they prefer to meet with professionals that take the time and effort to check the children's understanding, the child's perspectives of what's going on; asking about and acknowledging their experience, how it is for them, as well.

And they also have said, children have said they like adults to recognise that they are capable, that they have ideas they'd like to explore, you know, to work things out for themselves. So these are some reasons how come, you know, it's important, I guess. So what does it take to engage children as partners in practice to support their mental health and wellbeing?  We're going to talk about what we've called, or what we think of, as five shifts in perspective and practice, you know, because to take children's sentiments seriously, you know, these are kind of contrary to persistent messages in our society, actually, about children. You know, about children, children's place, children's voices.

You know, I think this is something we can all reflect on really. How children are positioned and portrayed in our society, in families, in our services, in our practice even. So I guess, yeah, we'd like to be inviting you to be considering these five overlapping shifts, in order to effectively engage children as partners in practice. Of course, you know, describing these shifts, you know, we recognise that for many practitioners, many people, these shifts are already underway or well underway, you know, are already evident in their practice. And so we'd love to hear from you about these endeavours and discoveries.

I know you're hearing a lot from me so far, so I'm just going to introduce each one of these shifts and then Dom and Lisa will be speaking a bit about how – what these generate for their practice. The first one is really a shift from passive to active. What we mean by this is, you know, shift is about a movement away from kind of societal ideas around seeing children as only, you know, innocent and vulnerable and passive, towards regarding children as active in shaping their own lives. That they do possess an array of skills and know how they've already drawn on, that these skills and know how reflect their creativity and imagination as well, and that these don't exist in a vacuum, but these are often being formed in their communities, within their cultures as well, through their relationships with the people who surround them as well, and that your children are active in making meaning of their experiences as well, shaped by an assortment of, you know, values and ethics and hopes that guide them.

So in terms of this first shift, Dom, I was wondering – yeah, would you be able to, yeah, some of those – how this kind of plays itself out in your work with infants and children, you know, under three, or so.


Thank you Chris. Yes, and I think in thinking about children under three as active participants, one of the major shifts that I think is really important in this, is to see them as beings that have thoughts, feelings and needs and desires all of their own. As we try to make sense of infants' behaviour, holding this clearly in mind, it can start to build a much richer picture of the infant. And I think in those early years, one of the standout elements that we can kind of attend to, is to understand that children's – even crying has meaning, and kind of is – points to underlying states within themselves.

And I think this is a tricky point, probably to think about for parents as well, because when we hear about children crying, it can – often we make sense of that in really fixed kind of ways, but to actually hold that in – with some level of doubt, that we can consider the meaning of a child that cries without blaming – necessarily blaming ourselves or being triggered by that, or feeling that we need to be controlled by that. And I think those responses can unintentionally diminish the agency of an infant. So yes, just thinking about that as an infant as being responsive to his context and that crying is a real marker of that. I think that would be my main point in that.


So what's standing out to me is yes, but that last – where you encapsulated that in children, infants, being kind of responsive to their context, in terms of being active, yes, in their life as well. Yes.


And I – whilst I'm working with older young people than infants, that word "action" really grabs my attention, in thinking about what this shift invites in the work I'm doing with young people as well.  And I'm always interested in thinking about what are the actions that I need to be taking? What do I need to be looking, sometimes actually searching for, to really create a space to start to support young people to regard themselves as being able to take action in their life.

And I came across a set of words that I learnt from 
Maggie Carey, who works at Narrative Practices Adelaide, that have really stuck with me, and it's something I strive to hold onto in my work. And it's this notion of agency, as being sort of a term that can be used to describe this sense of taking action in one's own life, but agency as being about skills and knowledge in action. And I just find that so helpful, holding onto those three – those three words, "skills and knowledge in action". And it really supports me to really enquire into the skills that young people have and the knowledge that they have.

So this might be knowledge that they have about the problems that they're facing, what they're up against, what a concern looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like, when it operates. But it may also be knowledge they have about things they like, things they don't like, things they – how they would prefer things to be, and skills. Sometimes these skills might seem very disconnected to the problem, but they're often – they're almost always useful; they're the beginning the point.

But what I really appreciate about this word "action", is that I've – I'm learning that if I only enquire into what young people or their families or their teachers know, and if I'm only enquiring into what their skills are, but I'm also on a close lookout for actions that they're taking, you know, times when they've put these skills into action, or times when this knowledge has been put into action, I can sometimes unintentionally leave young people as thinking of themselves as being active in their life, at a kind of thinking, academic level, but not necessarily feeling that.

And I think what I really love about this kind of – this particular shift, is it really is inviting a young – for me, what I take about it, is a sense of feeling active. It's an embodied kind of a feeling active, and so those three – being on the hunt for those three, "skills, knowledge in action", has been supporting me. It's something I'm striving to do.


And yes, thanks for that Lisa. What – what you and Dom have both spoken about is this idea of agency, quite strongly, around having conversations with children, which invites them into a sense of agency. But one of the things I'm interested in from both of you, really, is how when you're working with a child and their parents, how do you connect a parent with this sense of agency in their child's life, without necessarily stigmatising or shaming the child? Dom, is that something you'd like answer first?


Yes, thanks Dan. Look, and I think that in – critically in my work, that's something that has been addressed within – first of all it starts with a stance that you actually acknowledge that, that the child has agency yourself, and I guess in the way that you act with that child in – even in things like greeting both the parent and the child when they come to visit you, or when you go to see them; that they are someone who is worthy of your attention and your focus as well, but they – and that they can respond to that.

The other part of that, I guess, is just to lift up the way that a child might be doing that with a parent. And I think for children, this is something that I would always be looking at, is where – what – for an infant, where are they looking?  What are they interested in? How are they making a sense of what might be – of the discussion that is going on between me and the parent, and taking moments out to say what is this like for the child and thinking about that, and thinking about putting their mind into the room as explicitly as possible.


Thanks Dom, and thanks Lisa for those reflections around practice in relation to this.  The other shift we'd like to be speaking to, is a shift from naïve to knowledgeable. So this shift is about, you know, like a movement away from, again, popular societal ideas about seeing children as kind of like naïve and inarticulate about what's problematic in their life; a movement away from that and towards actually respecting them as knowledgeable about problems and solutions.

Now this really reflects a perspective that children do possess, you know, a lot of knowledge about the circumstances they're facing, the problems that they're facing, you know, and that they can define it and describe these. You know, they have the language and the meanings and the understanding to define and describe these, and kind of deserve to be able to do so, really.

This shift also required that, I guess, practitioners take care to sort of privilege the language and the meaning making of the child, you know, positioning them as experts or as consultants about the problems that they're facing as well.  So Lisa, would you be able to begin to speak about how this kind of is present in your practice, in your – the different contexts in which you work?


Yes, and I – I'm actually left thinking quite a bit about a few of the things that Dom just said, actually, in terms of – that's the wonderful thing about these conversations and listening to each other's experiences, what it starts in your own thinking, and – and I'm sort of captured by that term that you used, "holding up".  I think you used the word "holding up", you know, infants knowledge or their sort of responses to what's happening the room or what they prefer or don't prefer.

And that's really ringing a bell for me, when I think about some of the challenges that I've faced in supporting, particularly some communities of young people and families, who I've learnt, are up against particular injustices I think, particular vulnerabilities I think, in sort of a less opportunity to have their knowledge held up. And what I have been reflecting on quite a bit and interested in lately, is some things that I learnt particularly from my work, recent work, at Novita, which is a service that provides support to children and young people with multiple disabilities, as well as my work at STTARS, which we mentioned earlier, was just learning from some of these young folk and families, that not only are there dominant ideas about what children do and don't know, generally speaking, or where their place is, as Chris said, in relation to resolving or having something to say about the difficulties in their life, but that there are some communities of young people and their families, who I think are particularly vulnerable to being misunderstood as naïve, or misunderstand as not possessing knowledge, and that some of these ideas really set up the wrong impression, and they kind of seem to be based on, you know, dominant ideas of what people of knowledge do, you know, what people of knowledge are able to do, how they communicate, what language people use.

And these ideas seem to really set up the wrong impression, I think, that – an unjust impression, that being articulate with words, particularly for example, English words, is somehow a symbol of having knowledge, and I think this creates a real injustice for people who communicate in languages other than English, and also people who communicate without the spoken word.

And I think particularly here of injustices that were made very aware to me from families in connection to my work at Novita, where many young folk were able to communicate in a range of diverse ways, but not using the spoken word. They may have been using communication devices or communication with their bodies, but many of these were really not recognisable to the neurotypical community, you know, and so conventions around how to engage respectfully and directly with young people and their families, facing these neurodiverse ways of communicating, so less familiar to people outside of these communities.

And what I learnt was that this really can result in particular communities of people being less consulted, perhaps being less understood or even regarded as not being capable of possessing valuable knowledge. So perhaps being really held in this naïve – a misunderstanding of being naïve, and I certainly have reflected on ways that I have unintentionally contributed to that in my work as well, and am really keen to strive towards thinking very carefully about the actions that I can take in my work to listen more closely and to look more broadly, so that I'm creating that context to elevate and really value the knowledge that is communicated by people and families across languages, across cultures, across modes of communication.


Thank you very much, Lisa. Yes, such interesting, I think, ideas around this kind of a broader understanding of knowledge, has me thinking about for me to take me to, sort of, really explore that; what I might end up kind of paying more attention to, actually, in my work with children as well. What I might end up noticing, paying more attention to, be curious about, I guess. So thank you for that, yes.

We'd like to continue by introducing another shift around from – going back – this shift from – this shift is about a movement away really, from ideas of seeing children as kind of passive recipients of services, where adults administer magical interventions, so to speak, you know, mysterious interventions, towards positioning children actually as collaborators in the task of finding, you know, tailored ways of responding to the problems at hand. So from seeing children as passive recipients of service, to actually being active collaborators.

Because, yes, children – it is possible for children to join with adults in kind of the cogeneration of knowledge, that can be applied, not only to their circumstances, but are potentially helpful to others as well, so not just passive recipients, but actually collaborators and indeed contributors to others, their family members, practitioners, but also people that perhaps they may never meet, who are facing similar circumstances as well. Yes. Dom is this a shift that's somehow, you know, informed the way you've worked with infants and young children?


Yes. Look, and when I think about this, this shift is really fundamental. I think in order to have children as contributors to the work and collaborators in what we're doing, is this really essential thing which is a constant work in slowing down to the pace of children or the stage of their development, in which things make sense to them. And I think there's a really critical phrase for me which always sits in my mind, which is actually a program, but I'm not referring to the program. It's the idea of watching, waiting and wondering. And probably goes to a number of the other points that I've made, but when we watch and look for responses from children, we're choosing to see them, and that's an experience of giving them that we're listening, that we want – that what they have to contribute to a situation is important, and it's also necessary in order to do the work well. When we wait for children to contribute, then it shows that what they've got to contribute is valued.

The other part – I think there's a – someone's given an interesting question through the webinar chat, and it's really around when children maybe more passive in engaging, and might want to sit back. And I think there's a really – it's a wonderful question, because this idea that these things exist as overall thoughts and don't exist in a moment to moment kind of way, it would be false. And I think when we're working with children who might not want to engage, I think it's really important to acknowledge that and to work with that, as something – when people want to sit back, or when children want to sit back, that there's something we acknowledge their agency in doing that.

And I think when it comes to infants, the idea of where they're looking and what they're interested in, and what's important for them in that moment, is something that we really have to attend to. And I don't know whether you have thoughts on that one, Lisa.


Yes, I was just really interested when you were talking about – I just had an image in my head of some of the young people I've worked with, who've perhaps sat at the edge of a conversation. I'm particularly thinking of work in sort of really acute crisis contexts, where perhaps young folk are really on the spot in meeting with someone like me, that there's not been – it's not been possible to take sort of steps to prepare them for these conversations. And what I feel a bit clearer about, from what you were saying, is that this idea – for me, this idea of from recipient to contributor, is different somehow, or not the same as thinking of young people as needing to be gregarious somehow, or needed to be really extraverted in their engagement, if you like.

It's a much – to me it's a much more – it speaks much more to the position and the interest and the effort that we take to bring forward their agency, their knowledge, their skills in action, and find a way to bring this forward, not just so the young person experiences themselves as being knowledgeable, but that they get a sense of the purpose of that; that this is somehow not a task that can be – just I'm becoming more and more convinced that this is not a task that can be achieved in isolation, that this shift to contributor is less about engagement style, if you like, what it looks like, not about the way a young person performs in the conversation.

But it's about the opportunities that are created for them to get a sense that whatever their contribution is in the conversation or in their lives, that this is somehow meaningful and purposeful beyond themselves. And so I've become really interested in finding ways to create an audience of them, and sometimes – I'm always interested in the very many creative ways that practitioners do this, ways of collecting what they've learnt from young folk, so that they're able to then pass that down, or somehow symbolically represent that in the organisational space, the structures that organisations can set up that from the get go imply this is place where the young people that we consult with have something to say that has ripple effects, that this will be held up and treated in a way that we know will make a difference to another. So there's something about the reciprocity in the response that we provide and what we make possible, I think.


And what is it you're hoping for, for children in making that clear, that reciprocal relationship clear?


Say that five times really quickly. I'm hoping that young people and their families and their community experience a couple of things. One, a sense of being linked to others, a sense of connectedness, a sense that their achievements, their knowledge, their being on this planet, is not an isolated experience. So that what they have to say, what they have to contribute, is linked to someone else and that this – in this link, there will be a ripple. It will have – it will strike a chord for someone else. It might inspire a new thought in someone else.  It just might make sense to someone else.

And so I think there's an ethic in there. There's an ethic, but there's also a deeply practical intention, which is something about addressing – standing against the isolating impacts of problems. I think how often families that I meet with have come to feel incredibly isolated, incredibly at the wrong end of knowing what to do, somehow disconnected from other folk who seem to know better than perhaps they. And so bringing forward this kind of reciprocity, this really rich idea of being a contributor, I think can do something to that. Yes.


Thanks Lisa, that's a really great answer. And we're getting some great questions coming in through the chat box, and we really invite you to keep those questions coming. One of the questions, particularly around – or a couple of the questions, Dom, have been around contextual kind of examinations of this practice of moving children from recipients to contributors, maybe in instances where children are going through really acutely tough times. They might be in care, they might be going through some other maltreatment as a response to traumatic incidences. So in your work, how do you keep those kind of issues in mind?


Yes, thanks Dan. I think the context is really important in all of that. And also I think the developmental lens, which I've talked a little bit about. When you're thinking about infants, and thinking about the specific question, I think you mentioned crisis care, the sense that – where an infant may not be in the care of its parents, and what you – how you actually engage with a child that might not have – and I guess what we need to understand about that is that an infant in that context is really separated from a primary source of making sense and 
having – creating safety in their world, and so that's a 
really – it could be a really vulnerable time for that infant.

And I think that some of those things that we've mentioned already, but just understanding that – what the sensory world of the infant looks and feels like, and is it – to have someone strange to be caring for that infant, could be – who talks more deeply or more high pitched, or touches them, moves them in a different way, more quickly or more slowly, that all of those things have an impact on a child sense of safety. And I think if you're in that context, be attuned to that.  I'm not sure if there's anything more than that, that I can actually say, yes.


Thank you, Dom and Lisa. We'd like to look at this other idea around a further shift from categories to context. So I guess this reflects like a movement away from – you know, from solely assessing the extent of children's congruence with mental health, you know, diagnostic categories, you know, or other categories, I guess, that are used to group children and kind of put divisions between groups of children. So movement from solely assessing that congruence, as important and as helpful as that may be, but also, you know, moving towards, seeking to understand the child's views and experience and evaluations of the – of the broader context that surround them, you know, the particular circumstances that they're going through; the relationships that surround them as well, you know, to understand these and how children also evaluate these.

So yes, again, Lisa, would that be something you could speak to as well, in terms of your work with children, in relation to this idea of movement that doesn't just include the categorical kind of understandings of children's lives.


It feels like a really relevant and quite challenging, actually, shift for me to be stepping into in 2018. I hope I'm not alone; I suspect I'm not, in noticing some shifts around the language that is available in sort of, you know, contemporary Australia, to describe the particularly difficult circumstances or experiences we might be having. And I guess what I've noticed in particular, over the last probably ten years, but even more so over the last six or seven, is that it's not uncommon at all for me, particularly in a school setting, for the beginning point of me meeting a young person, to start with the young person describing their problem or what they're up against, their concern, as something like anxiety, something like depression, bipolar disorder.

And the children I have in mind, when I'm saying this, I'm thinking six and seven year olds, are not, in my experience, unfamiliar with some of these words, and that's something that's different now to what I would have found or did find in the beginning points of conversations, you'd have, sort of, 15 years ago, even ten years ago. And, I guess, I think that young people are coming across these words, and often finding them quite helpful in some ways, that – that these terms have become available to them, that were perhaps were once relegated to medicine, have sort of slipped into everyday vernacular, is what I'm learning in the playground.

And that often, you know, particularly the younger, older people, may have done some research and may be finding these words really helpful, because it reflects some kind of sense of resonance or, oh, I've found what it is, what I'm up against.  And so it makes sense to me why these terms are being – are given to me when I meet with young people, in their effort to have me understand what they're up against. But the challenge for me is that these terms seem to always only offer, at best, a half story, particularly at a beginning point, because what seems to be less visible to the young person, and certainly to myself, if I don't look beyond that sort of categorical description of the concern, is the context. It's the circumstances of what they're up against.

And when I'm interested in some of these other shifts that we've talked about, in bringing forward what young people know about the context of their lives, what actions they're taking in response to a problem, the kinds of circumstances that have given rise to the difficult feelings that they might be up against, I have to – I find myself needing to work much more – in a much more determined way to be respectful of these categorical understandings, that on one hand can be quite helpful, but also bring forward what else there is to know, which is going to be absolutely critical in being able to understand and then address the impact of the problem or concern, and also critical to elevating what it is a family knows about the young person or what it is the young person themselves knows, because the terms, the words that they will come up with, the descriptions that they come up with, that sit outside of medicine, in my experience, will always be richer and more specific and more particular to their context. And I find it almost impossible to do this work without getting that from young people, families and their communities, yes.


Thanks Lisa. Such a vital part, I think, of engaging children in practice, this sort of interest in the broader context and circumstances that surround them, that are perhaps complicit in the problems they're facing as well as what it is that can enable them to respond to these problems.

Okay, so we'd also like to be inviting folks to be thinking a bit about a shift in relation to accountability really.  You know, so – you know, whilst there are, you know, hierarchical top down accountabilities that practitioners have to their agency or to funding bodies or certainly, you know, to salient evidence based literature, you know, all of this remains important.  This shift is really also calling for a practice approach that is accountable and answerable to the child, as well as their parents and other concerned adults, of course.

You know, in other words accountable to those that are most affected by the problem, that are seeking conversations, that are seeking support in relation to responding to these problems. And we can be thinking about this as a kind of bottom up accountability as well. Again, Dom, could you speak to something about this in terms of your work with infants?


Yes, absolutely, Chris; thank you. I think the striking thing for me, in working with infants, is the rapid growth and development that they go through, you know, from one month to the next, they can be developing all new capacities that they never had. Anyone who has seen an infant through the first few years of life, knows how quickly this can come. And I think that really speaks to the need for timeliness in engaging with families who have infants, where there might be some kind of context that we can support them with.

And so I think one of the key messages from Emerging Minds around this, is the need to intervene early in life – early in the life of the problem that we may be seeing them in, whether that's a drug and alcohol service, a DV service or whatever your context. And also to be engaging with children early in the engagement that the family has with the service.  I think that – I don't what it's like for the rest of the panel, but as I get older, it seems easier to just think that one month or months has passed and it doesn't really matter, but when you're thinking about children, it's a huge chunk of time and life that happens.


Thank you once again, to Lisa, Dom and Chris. And thank you for everyone for attending today. So please follow the link on your screen to our website to continue this conversation.  And as Chris has mentioned, you know, really this – we just feel like this is the beginning of a conversation for us at Emerging Minds, and we'd feel very privileged to be able to continue this conversation around these crucial shifts and other important thoughts about working with children and their families. So we really appreciate your time today. Thank you for all the wonderful questions, and we'll see you next time for our Emerging Minds and CFCA webinar on 12 February. Thank you. 



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The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline

1. Engaging children as partners in practice to support their mental health and wellbeing

Daniel Moss, Lisa Johnson, Dom Kleinig and Chris Dolman

CFCA / Emerging Minds Webinar 12 December 2018

2. Engaging children as partners in practice to support their mental health and wellbeing

3. Disclaimer

Emerging Minds and CFCA wishes to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands across Australia upon which our webinar presenters and participants are located.

We wish to pay respect to the Elders past, present and future for the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Indigenous Australia.

4. Webinar Series

This is the second webinar in the Emerging Minds series: Focus on infant and child mental health.

Future webinars:

  • How do we engage parents in conversations about the social and emotional wellbeing of their children?
  • Supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children through a community approach.
  • Curious Practice with children and parents affected by violence and disadvantage.

5. Presenters

Lisa Johnson 
Psychologist & School Counsellor

Dom Kleinig 
Social Worker & Parent-Infant Therapist & Senior Child Mental Health Workforce Consultant

Chris Dolman 
Social Worker and Child & Family Partnerships Coordinator

Dan Moss 
Workforce Development Manager

6. Learning Outcomes

An understanding of the key intentions and purposes of building genuine partnerships with children and families in service provision and the ethics that inform these endeavours.

An exploration of some ideas and practices to support practitioners to build genuine partnerships with children.

An introduction to some of useful tools and processes that can be readily implemented by organisations to support practice.

7. Engaging children as partners in practice - Engagement

  • Ongoing endeavor
  • Engaging with the whole child
  • Engaging with the problem
  • Influential and meaningful participation

8. Engaging children as partners in practice - Partnership

  • Shared understandings and purposes
  • Resonant and relevant
  • Creativity and interests
  • Accountable

9. Engaging children as partners in practice - Practice

  • Therapeutic intent
  • Extend into service design and evaluation

10. Engaging children as partners in practice – Why is this important in supporting child mental health?

Because children tell us!

11. What does it take to engage children as partners in practice to support their mental health?

An invitation to explore Five Shifts in perspective and practice.

12. Five Shifts in perspective and practice – 1. From passive to active

From seeing children as innocent, vulnerable and passive,

Towards regarding children as active in shaping their own lives.

13. Five Shifts in perspective and practice – 2. From naïve to knowledgeable

From seeing children as naïve and inarticulate about problems,

Towards knowledgeable and possessing a language of problems and solutions.

14. Five Shifts in perspective and practice – 3. From recipients to contributors

From seeing children as passive recipients of services,

Towards regarding children as collaborators and contributors.

15. Five Shifts in perspective and practice – 4. From categories to contexts

From solely assessing congruence with categories,

Towards seeking to understand the child’s views, experiences and evaluations of the broader contexts that surround them.

16. Five Shifts in perspective and practice – 5. From top down to bottom up

From predominantly hierarchical accountabilities,

Towards practice approaches that are accountable to the child, as well as parents and other concerned adults.

17. Five Shifts in perspective and practice

  1. From passive to active
  2. From naïve to knowledgeable
  3. From recipients to contributors
  4. From categories to contexts
  5. From top-down to bottom-up

18. How can organisations ensure staff are supported?

  • Recruitment
  • Induction
  • Competencies
  • Supervision
  • Client case reviews
  • Client evaluations

19. Q & A Session

20. Thank You

21. Continue the conversation

Do you have any further questions?

Please submit questions or comments on the online forum following today’s webinar.

Related resources

Related resources

  • Introducing the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health: A focus for all health and welfare practitioners 
    This CFCA short article introduces the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, which aims to build workforce capacity to better support children at risk of mental health conditions.
  • Emerging Minds online training resources 
    The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health offers innovative online courses specifically designed to support practice. The courses are innovative, interactive, engaging, free and contain invaluable practical demonstrations to help you put learning into practice.
  • ‘Give children a bigger voice, more of the time’: Findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Families project 
    This research report published by AIFS highlights the importance of incorporating child-inclusive practices in the family law system.
  • Protection through participation: Involving children in child safe organisations 
    This CFCA paper considers the nature and benefits of meaningful youth participation in practice and looks at tools and strategies that can help adults and agencies draw on children’s expertise.
  • Kids have big thoughts too. Life Transitions: what children say about change 
    This report details findings from consultations by the ACT Children and Young People Commissioner with children about life transitions, the changes children see as significant and what adults can do to support and empower them during times of change.
  • Diagnosis in child mental health: Exploring the benefits, risks and alternatives 
    This paper, co-produced by CFCA and Emerging Minds, is designed to encourage practitioners in the child and family welfare sector to examine their own understanding of diagnostic systems, and to critically reflect on the role that diagnosis plays in their work with children and families.
  • Johnson, L. (2010). A child’s voice: Narrative family therapy. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, (4), 3-14.  
    This article recounts an approach to working with a seven-year-old girl in response to a problem that had muted her voice. The narrative practices employed included absent but implicit questions, therapeutic documents, re-authoring conversations, definitional ceremony, and the use of an 'Anticipated Petitioner' to support a 'consulting your consultants' interview.


Chris Dolman, Senior Practice Development Officer, Emerging Minds

Chris is a social worker who has been working for the past 15 years with individuals, couples and families facing a broad range of concerns in their lives and relationships. Chris currently works with Emerging Minds and the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, and is also a narrative therapist with Country Health SA providing consultations via video link to people living in rural and remote South Australia.

Previously, Chris has worked as a counsellor, supervisor and manager in a family and relationships counselling service with Uniting Communities, with a particular focus around responding to family violence and the effects of childhood sexual abuse. He holds a Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work and is a member of the Dulwich Centre Teaching Faculty.

Lisa is a psychologist and trained teacher using narrative practices in therapy and teaching contexts across community, private practice and education settings. Lisa's interest in narrative ideas began in the late 90s working with young people who found themselves navigating juvenile justice and foster care systems. Lisa has continued to work with children, young people and families responding to a wide range of problems and dilemmas. Currently, Lisa works from within a school community in Adelaide, alongside supervision and teaching locally and internationally.

Dom is a Senior Child Mental Health Workforce Consultant at Emerging Minds and a parent-infant therapist in a family and child health service. Dom has a diverse practice background that has focused on strengthening early parent-child relationships and parenting in the context of perinatal mental health concerns and compounding adversities in the family systems. Dom is passionate about therapeutic dyadic and group work that supports healthy relationships between caregivers and infant children as a key transmission point of intergenerational vulnerabilities as well as strengths to the developing mind. Dom has a major interest in reflective conversations that support, challenge and develop clinicians working with children and young families.

Dom’s current work with the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is focused on facilitating conversations and supporting organisational changes that expand and deepen the capacity to respond to the needs of children, no matter the context.