Children and Young People’s Participation

See me, hear me: Including children in practice

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I think they make up things for you, like they make decisions for you most of the time…Sometimes we were being listened to but most of the time they talk over you - it’s kind of like you’re not in the room with them - in fact you are in the room. 

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the child and the NSW Care and Protection Act both assert the right for children and young people to participate in decisions affecting their lives based on their age and development capacity. This includes giving children adequate information in a manner, language and format he or she can understand. Adequate information includes: 

  • an opportunity to respond to a decision made under this Act concerning the child or young person
  • information about any relevant complaint mechanisms,
  • the opportunity to express his or her views freely according to his or her abilities and the provision of any assistance a child or young person may need to express those views,
  • information as to how his or her views will be recorded and taken into account,
  • information about the outcome of any decision concerning the child or young person and a full explanation of the reasons for the decision,

Decisions that are likely to have a significant impact on the life of a child or young person include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • plans for emergency or ongoing care, including placement,
  • the development of care plans concerning the child or young person,
  • Children’s Court applications concerning the child or young person,
  • reviews of care plans concerning the child or young person,
  • provision of counselling or treatment services,
  • contact with family or others connected with the child or young person.

Degrees of participation

There are different types or degrees of participation. Sociologist Robert Hart (1992) developed the idea of a ladder of participation. The last three rungs are considered “non-participation” and include adult led activities whereby children and young people have no real input and understanding about the process and outcome of their participation. 

What gets in the way of participation?

Research shows that participation in decision-making about their lives can help children and young people feel connected and committed to the decisions taken and increase their self-esteem and sense of mastery and control (Woolfson, Heffernan, Paul and Brown 2010; Vis, Starndbu, Holtan and Thomas 2011, Munro 2001). 

Children, young people and practitioners strongly agree that children’s participation is important, but there is growing consensus that children’s  participation is not happening enough. Some of the barriers children talk about include:

  • not knowing where to go for help or who to talk to
  • not realising how big the issue they are facing really is 
  • feelings of shame or embarrassment 
  • not feeling confident that adults can actually help
  • fear of consequences and possibly making things worse if they raise their concerns
  • bad experiences in the past
  • fear of betraying loved ones
  • a sense of personal responsibility for abuse or neglect experienced
  • feeling adults are not accessible, are too busy or do not have enough time to help them.

 Barriers for practitioners include:

  • recording requirements leading to time restraints 
  • lack of contact between practitioners and children 
  • other adults acting as gatekeepers to children and young people
  • misperceptions about the capacity of children to participate
  • fear of causing further trauma
  • over-identification with parents 
  • Being overly optimistic about a child or young person’s situation and not enquiring more deeply into children’s experiences 
  • Becoming physically and emotionally detached from children and young people as a way of coping with emotional experiences related to the work.

What can Practitioners do to facilitate participation?

We have a unique and privileged opportunity to work with children and young people to overcome barriers to participation and support their meaningful participation. To do this, our practice with children and young people needs to be authentic, meaningful and lead to real outcomes.

Authentic Engagement

The principles and methods of authentic engagement include:

1. Challenge assumptions

There are some ongoing myths about children and young people, and practice challenges which can impede their meaningful participation. For example; “The child is too young to participate”. Studies have shown that children as young as six can provide valuable information in the investigation of child abuse and neglect, which can then lead to the development of more appropriate interventions (Snoeren et al, 2013). 

 Involving the child/young person will cause further trauma”. Studies have shown that talking to children and young people about their abuse and/or neglect experiences can help them contextualise their experiences and reduce shame and internalising behaviours. 

2. Build partnerships with children and young people

It is important to build partnerships with children by developing shared goals, being clear about what they can expect from you and clarifying the processes for which they are are an important part. They have the right to participate and the right to choose not to participate. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose not to participate that this is an informed decision.

Building partnerships with important people in the child or young person’s life is also essential. When you first meet children and young people, remember we are strangers to them. Children and young people are more likely to develop trust in you and see you as a safe person if they see you developing relationships with their family/carers. 

Consider spending time with children and young people that is not task-oriented, support their creativity and find out what they like and dislike. This is important to building a relationship, showing them that you care and recognise their individuality. 

3. Use Appropriate Methods and Settings

Consider selecting a setting that the child or young person is familiar with, has privacy and is comfortable for them. They may prefer to have another trusted adult present or they may prefer to talk to you alone. If you have met the child or young person before, perhaps meet them at a location that they have previously chosen. While meeting children at school may be convenient for you, it can be confronting for children and young people and expose them to unwanted questions from their peers. Giving children and young people opportunities to make decisions in simple matters may help them trust that you will also include them in making big decisions about their lives.

4. Use Facilitative Communication Strategies

Childhood and adolescence are periods of rapid cognitive and physical development and the capacities of children and young people to participate are constantly evolving. It is important to communicate with children in a developmentally appropriate manner. Table 1 below includes some tips for communicating in an age appropriate manner.

Table 1: Age appropriate communication

Birth to 12 months

12 to 36 months

3 to 6 years

6 to 12 years

12-20 years

Speak softly

Do not interrupt. Let children complete their thoughts

Keep sentences / questions brief due to short attention span

Ask children about their likes and dislikes

Show respect by listening and explaining clearly

Avoid over-stimulation

Speak at the child’s eye level

Use simple, direct language

Give the child plenty of time to speak for him/ herself

Speak as an adult

Comfort by holding and rocking

Use parallel play or toys-follow their lead when playing with them

Wherever possible make your conversations fun 

Speak in simple and clear sentences

Be honest about what is happening and what to expect

Use exaggerated facial expression, wide open eyes

Only ask one question at a time

Allow the child to act out or express their thoughts and feelings

Encourage children to express their feelings and thoughts 

Be sensitive and responsive 

Make the most of the time when facing each other -talk, sing or gently tickle the infant 

Only give one direction at a time

Reinforce learning immediately

Ask open ended questions

Gently ask questions and seek explanation about behaviour

Pay attention to an infant’s style of expressing emotions

Expect children will not understand the concept of time nor the word “why”

Use body outlines to explain injury or illness 

Use third-person prompts-“ I know a boy /girl …”

Seek to understand the young person’s perspective before trying to be understood


Create opportunities for children to engage in pretend play either alone with friends or family (bathing, sleeping, eating)

Be honest 

Create opportunities for young people to write about their experiences


Create opportunities for children to connect spoken words to pictures

Look for emotional expression and ask questions about their feelings

Give your full attention- avoid taking phone calls or checking emails 


Encourage children to draw their stories or write letters 

Respond with empathy- tell them that you understand their feelings

Don’t ask why- ask what happened


Let children talk to themselves- listen 

Let children label their different emotions

If they get angry- stop, let them settle down and talk later


Use words of praise and encouragement

Use words of praise and encouragement

Show your acceptance no matter what the young person has done


Show them how you feel- nod, laugh, 


Use words of praise and encouragement 

Table 1: Age appropriate communication 

(adapted from nursing care checklist  

5. Trustworthy documentation

Meaningfully interpreting and documenting children and young people’s views is essential to the participation process. Check in with children and young people about whether your understanding of what they have said is correct. Rectify any misunderstandings. Give them a copy of documents that detail any important decisions including their case plan and care plans. Talk to them about what is in these plans to make sure they understand. 

6. Demonstrating outcomes and consequences

Tokenistic engagement is when children’s views are not considered in decision making or follow up is not provided to the child or young person. The process and outcomes of engaging children and young people need to be valued equally. Children and young people need to see that their input has led to real world change to recognise the value and power their voice can have.

Reflective Practice

Through the course of our work with children and young people we see and hear things that can be highly distressing and sometimes we can become overwhelmed by the hostility, aggression, sights and smells of what we experience when conducting home visits (Ferguson, 2016). This can distract us from engaging meaningfully with children and young people and lead to them becoming ‘invisible’ (Ferguson, 2016). It is important to acknowledge the gravity of the work you do, the impact it can have on your own sense of safety, world view and the strategies you use to cope. 

Reflective practice can assist you to maintain an awareness of the emotional impacts the job may be having on you as well as monitor for any coping strategies you may have developed that are making it harder for you to empathise or engage with children and young people. 

Implications for practice

To engage with children and young people meaningfully and support them to have a voice in decision making processes consider the following tips:

  • Help children and young people to identify familiar items that can ease their discomfort when changing placements or entering care such as stuffed animals, items from people who love them, photographs and safety blankets.
  • Consider children and young people’s need to feel safe as well as be safe by informing them of what you are doing to keep them safe, keeping them in the loop and providing feedback.
  • Use active listening to tune into what children and young people are saying as well as noticing their non-verbal communication.
  • Support variety and flexibility in communication methods based on individual abilities and preferences. For example; drawing, painting, music, writing a song, photography, writing, exploratory and imaginary play as well as conventional conversation. If a child or young person has an interest in photography you might like to provide a disposable camera and suggest that they use it to take photographs of all the things that interest them or they enjoy. Print out the photographs and assign ‘hashtags’ together as captions for a unique insight into their world and identifying and supporting their skill.
  • Use reflective language and clarify meaning during conversations to help children and young people take the lead.
  • When speaking to multiple children, allow time and plan a structure for the conversation. Consider a group activity such as a mind map, for example to explore safety, and ensure that every voice is heard.
  • Wherever possible travel to where children and young people are, as they are more likely to feel safe in familiar environments where they have some control.
  • Always address children and young people when they are in the room, talk to them on their own and sight their bedrooms.
  • With infants, pick them up with parents permission, make eye contact and communicate through noises and fun activities.
  • Communicate while on the move- consider driving them home from school or taking them to sport or an appointment. A lack of direct eye contact can make children more comfortable to talk
  • Be fun- during home visits, do life story work activities together, crafts, play a game or complete a puzzle together. By feeling more at ease, children are more likely to talk to you about the tough stuff
  • Be fair in your expectations of what they will share with you and respect their need for privacy. Be authentic and share some information about yourself, so that they feel more comfortable sharing information about themselves with you.
  • Invite children and young people to any meetings in which decisions about their lives are being made- such as case plan or care plan meetings. 
  • If they do not attend these meetings, ask if there is anything you can do to make it easier for them to attend next time. Provide feedback about who attended the meeting, what was discussed and get their say on any decisions that were proposed at the meeting. Find different ways for them to participate. For example they could write down their wishes and you could share these at the meetings. 
  • Ask them what they want and be clear about the things you can or cannot provide. 
  • If time or locational barriers are restricting your contact with them, talk to them about alternative communication methods they may be comfortable with in between face to face contact- such as a weekly text message or phone call to check in with each other.

To learn more about Children’s Participation and Authentic Engagement follow the links below:


Principles of Authentic Engagement. Pauline Harris, Research to Practice Seminar: See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, Sydney, 21 July 2016. 

Practice Tips and Advice from Children and Young People

The Advocate for Children and Young People; Andrew Johnson, Research to Practice Seminar: See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, Sydney, 21 July 2016.

Challenges and Opportunities for Children’s Rights Within Care and Protection Settings. James McDougall, Research to Practice Seminar: See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, Sydney, 21 July 2016.

Talking to kids about safety: Learning from the Children’s Safety Study. Tim Moore and Morag McArthur, Research to Practice Seminar: See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, Sydney, 21 July 2016. 

Presentation for FaCS. Josh Shipp, Research to Practice Seminar: See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, 21 July 2016.


Taking us seriously: children and young people talk about safety and institutional responses to their safety concerns The Institute of Child Protection Studies (2015)

CRC25: The Australian Child Rights Progress Report (2016)

CREATE Foundation Report Card (2013)

Kids Central Toolkit developed by ICPS


Bessell, S (2011). Promoting Children’s Protection and Participation. Centre for Children and Young People Background Briefing Series, no.6. Lismore: Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University.

Ferguson, H (2016). How children become invisible in child protection work: Findings from research into day-to-day social work practice. British Journal of Social Work, 0, 1-17.

Graham, A & Fitzgerald, R (2011). Supporting children’s social and emotional well-being: Does ‘having a say’ matter? Children & Society, 25(6), 227-457

Graham-Bermann, S.A., Kulkarni, M.R., Kanukollu, S (2011). Is disclosure therapeutic for children following exposure to traumatic violence? Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26(5), 1056–1076

Harris, P., & Manatakis, H. (2013). Young children's voices about their local communities. Australasian Journal Of Early Childhood, 38(3), 68-76. 

Harris, P (2016). Being seen and heard: Authentic engagement with children’s voices. Research to Practice Seminar, See Me, Hear Me: Including children in practice. Sydney.

McDowall, J. J. (2013). Experiencing out-of-home care in Australia: The views of children and young people (CREATE Report Card 2013). Sydney: CREATE Foundation.

Moore, T & McArthur, M (2016) Talking to kids about safety: Learning from the Children’s Safety Study. Research to Practice Seminar, See Me, Hear Me: Including children in practice. Sydney.

Moore, T., McArthur, M., Noble-Carr, D., & Harcourt, D (2015). Taking us seriously: children and young people talk about safety and institutional responses to their safety concerns Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.

Sawyer, M.G, Carbone, J.A., Searle, A. K & Robinson, P.J (2007). The mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents in home-based foster care. Medical Journal of Australia, 186(4),181-184.

Shipp, J (2016). Presentation for FaCS. Research to Practice Seminar, See Me, Hear Me: Including children in practice. Sydney.

Snoeren, F., Hoefnagels, C., Lamers-Winkelman, F., Baeten, P., Evers, S (2013). Design of a quasi-experiment on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of using the child-interview during investigation following a report of child abuse and/or neglect. Bio Med Central Public Health, 13, 1164.