Shift Recording in Residential Child Care

By Mark Hardy

Date Posted: June 14th, 2012

Mark Hardy is an experienced residential child care worker and has recently completed his social work studies at the University of Edinburgh. This article is a shortened version of an essay that won the Jo Campling Prize for the best ethics essay in the social welfare field. The essay was published in the journal ‘Ethics and Social Welfare’


Shift Recording in Residential Child Care.

This article is about the day-to-day recording that happens in residential child care settings. My interest in this topic comes from five years working in such settings in Scotland. During this time I have experienced changes to recording practice through the introduction of information and communication technologies(ICTs) and increased demands for recording, ostensibly driven by a need to evidence practice and improve accountability. This trend may be partly attributed to the growth of managerialism and regulation in social work (Humphrey 2003, Tsui and Cheung 2004).

Recording can be perceived by residential child care workers, like other social services professionals, as boring or taking time away from ‘real work’ with young people (Comben and Lishman 1995, Prince 1996). Despite the role it plays in supporting practice it has been taken-for-granted and under-theorised, with interest mainly being directed at bureaucratic concerns rather than theoretical ones (O’Rourke 2010, Tice 1998). Comben and Lishman’s (1995) Setting the Record Straight is one of the few pieces of guidance for residential workers on recording. This does not, however, critically analyse the theory or practice of recording. The near silence on recording in the literature seems to confirm its taken-for-granted status and suggests it is viewed as a technical task rather than one having important implications for social work service-users, professionals and organisations.Some of these implications have begun to be explored in social work’s ‘turn to language’ (Hall and White 2005) and its ‘electronic turn’ (Garrett 2005). There has not, however, been corresponding attention given to residential child care.

In order to analyse some of the ethical issues in recording I will draw firstly on the work of Foucault (1975/6). He regards the ‘power of writing’ as a key disciplinary technology. The effects of power may be experienced as oppressive by service-users where recording frames them as objects to be acted on by professionals. Secondly, I will draw on the feminist ethics of care. This represents an alternative to traditional utilitarian and deontological ethics. Such approaches are based on an ethics of justice which privileges the autonomous, independent and rational over the interpersonal, emotional and relational (Lloyd 2006). In contrast the ethics of care is concerned with relationships and responsibilities rather than impartiality, rights and rules (Sevenhuijsen 1998). Steckley and Smith (2011) apply a care ethics perspective to analyse the current context of residential childcare. They argue that recent trends in policy and practice reflect a predominant instrumental focus that fails to critically reflect on the meaning of care, treating it as a technical/rational endeavour rather than a practical/moral one, and therefore stripping it of its complexity.

The type of recording I consider in this essay is known as a shift report or detailed record. This is completed by staff at the end of each shift for each young person and apart from their activities and behaviour may include a variety of observations such as their mood, personal hygiene and presentation. In Scotland this recording is underpinned by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, Volume 2 of its Guidance (Scottish Office 1997) and the National Care Standards for Care Homes for Children and Young People (Scottish Government 2005). These documents specify a wide range of information that must be kept by residential establishments in relation to young people. The Data Protection Act 1998 covers information held on computer but its principles are also good practice for non-electronic information (Clark and McGhee 2008). It insists, for example, that data must be adequate, relevant, not excessive for purpose (principle 3) and accurate (principle 4). In addition, the Scottish Social Services Council’s (2009) Codes of Practice, state that social workers must maintain ‘clear and accurate records as required by procedures established for [their] work’ (code 6.2). Other codes include treating each person as an individual (code 1.1) and using responsibly the power that comes from their work (code 3.8). These are particularly pertinent in residential child care where young people are subject to much higher levels of supervision than other young people (Skinner 1992).

As noted above, Foucault regards recording as a disciplinary technology. Such technologies involve mechanisms of hierarchical surveillance, normalising judgment and the examination. Hierarchical surveillance operates as a ‘nonreciprocal monitoring gaze’ (Parton 1999). Shift recording is based upon the observations of staff and therefore requires an act of surveillance. What occurs outside the gaze of staff members will not be included in shift reports.Normalising judgment involves the evaluation of conduct in relation to standards (ibid.). Staff members exercise judgement in what they record, firstly in evaluating what they see and then deciding whether it is relevant to record or not. This judgement is necessarily based upon norms such as ‘relevancy’, ‘age-appropriate behaviour’ and ‘challenging behaviour’. Such norms may have different foundations. For example, what is regarded as ‘age-appropriate behaviour’ may be based upon theories of human development, culture and/or personal experience. ‘Relevancy’ will also be informed by such factors and will more obviously reflect occupational norms related to professional culture and the requirements of legislation and policy. Once staff members decide that something is relevant to record they will then exercise judgment in deciding how to describe their observations, in translating their observations into writing.

The examination is the combination of hierarchical surveillance and normalising judgment(Foucault 1975). In residential child care examination is continuous, producing knowledge which is then inscribed in shift reports. For example, John, a fifteen year old, may be observed by staff ‘toy-fighting’ with fourteen year old Daniel. This is fairly commonplace in a residential unit and generally discouraged by staff. This observation constitutes hierarchical surveillance. Toy-fighting may be prohibited by the unit rules (norms) for a variety of reasons, such as the risk that it may escalate into actual fighting or be used as a means of intimidation. These rules are themselves based upon norms of what constitutes age- or socially-appropriate behaviour. Toy-fighting being against the rules may mean it is regarded as ‘challenging behaviour’. Seeing this toy-fighting, staff will judge whether it is relevant to record based upon these norms. Further normalising judgments will be made in deciding whether or not to describe it as particularly rough or lasting for a short or long time.

These processes have both disciplinary and regulatory effects. Discipline ‘produces knowledge by constituting individuals as objects of scientific discourse’ (Parton 1999, p.112). In our example, John, by being observed and recorded toy-fighting, may then have any discourses applying to toy-fighting applied to him, such as the role that toy-fighting might have in establishing a hierarchy amongst residents or norms about appropriate touch. Regulation functions by influencing people’s behaviour, both the young persons’ and the residential workers’, as it influences their understandings and interpretations of reality.John’s sense of self-identity will be influenced by having his toy-fighting recorded as challenging behaviour. What he feels to be an appropriate way of interacting with his peers may be conceptualised as aggressive or physically inappropriate and by extension he may come to identify himself with these descriptions. The way this behaviour is recorded may then be oppressive where it has the effect of silencing his perspective. The power of recording therefore requires to be exercised responsibly as it has implications for young people’s identity. This example may seem trivial compared to other labels young people in care may have placed on them, such as ‘offender’ or ‘sexually aggressive’. Similar processes are involved in these descriptions but the example demonstrates they also exist within apparently mundane labels that may be adopted with little reflection and subsequently be taken-for-granted.

Related to these disciplinary processes, recordingeithermakes visible or subjugates different knowledges. For example, legislation and policy tend to adopt a positivist approach to recording in which the objective is privileged over the subjective (Epstein 1999). From a feminist perspective, the adoption of scientific objectivity requires positioning oneself at an Archimedean point, ‘an abstracted conceptual space away from the local and particular’ (Smith 1988, p.75). Because mechanisms of accountability make visible only that which fits with categories and concepts defined by this objectivity, experiences that are a necessary part of the work of the organisation are left invisible, excluded and repressed. What is repressed is ‘knowledge which is diffuse, interpretive, emotionally embedded, makes connection – in favour of that which is discrete, quantifiable, positivist’ (Froggett 1996, p.125).

This may pose problems in residential child care where the building of relationships and the activity of caring entails emotional involvement (Cameron and Maginn 2008). The result may be that where a young person, for example, has passed a school exam a residential worker may record only that detail but not that they were proud of the young person. The same could be applied to situations of physical restraint; a worker can record what physically happened but not that they experienced fear or sadness. According to Chambon (1999, p.74) the absence of emotional expression ‘is neither neutral or [sic] transparent… It distances the reader from actual experiences’. This may lead to what Smith (1988) refers to as a ‘bifurcated consciousness’. A residential worker willengage in recording and the thinking associated with it in an abstracted manner which alienates them from their concrete lived experience and places barriers in the way of meaningfully engaging with young people.

This split corresponds to the distinction betweentechnical/rational approaches speaking with a justice voice and practical/moral approaches speaking with a care voice. Using the example of toy-fighting, simply recording what are felt to be objective details may correspond with an approach that is interested in monitoring how often this behaviour occurs and how it should be risk assessed and managed. This may exclude consideration of practical/moral elements such as reflection over whether suchbehaviour should be discouraged or regarded as developmentally healthy. Concentrating on objectivity in this example presents an incomplete picture as it fails to conceptualise John’s behaviour in the context of his relations with others (Sevenhuijsen 1998).This creates a fundamental dilemma in recording as it is important both practically and ethically that records concern themselves with accurately reflecting reality (Askeland and Payne 1999, Beckett 2007). The requirement for objectivity may actually serve to obfuscate any such reality through the subjugation of certain knowledges.Does Daniel experience it as friendly or intimidating? The technical/rational approach may have an oppressive effect as it fails to take into account aspects of the behaviour which may challenge its assumed riskiness, such as the possibility it may be John and Daniel’s means of expressing affection for each other, leading to staff members disallowing an activity which may actually have positive benefits for the young people. Many writers recommend distinguishing between fact and opinion or objective and subjective elements (e.g. Ames 1999,Comben and Lishman 1995) in order to resolve these difficulties. However, these suggestions maintain a false dichotomy between the objective and subjective that fails to recognise their interrelatedness.

Objectivist approaches fail to take into account the manner in which recording operationalises certain discourses about children, which influence the way workers construct young people’s identities in their shift recording (Dahlberg et al 1999).For example, risk discourses identify young people mainly in terms of risk, as either ‘a risk’ or ‘at risk’, with the subsequent failure to recognise elements of their identity that may challenge these conceptualisations (Stanford 2010). Recording that operationalises alternative discourses, such as rights or needs, would likely represent young people differently from that of risk (Steckley and Smith 2011). In summary, Foucauldian and feminist analyses suggest that technical/rational approaches to recording may fail to recognise the full individuality of young people in care and therefore be experienced as oppressive. Secondly, they problematise taking an objectivist approach to accuracy.In addition, the role of the record in risk management may lead to recording that is ‘defensive’ or ‘defensible’ (Ames 1999). One consequence of this may be over-recording that could infringe upon young people’s right to privacy (c.f. Edwards and Rodrigues 2008).

Residential workers are also subject to discipline, as records may be used to control and evaluate them(Comben and Lishman 1995). They are ‘supervisors, perpetually supervised’ (Foucault 1975).Managerialism has led to increased managerial scrutiny of front-line staff (Tsui and Cheung 2004), demanding the development of a conceptual framework for describing practice and documentation for recording in order to make social work more ‘visible’ to scrutiny (Munro 2004). O’Rourke (2010, p.162) describes the role of the record in accountability as ‘concerned with producing an account that adequately documents… that both the individual practitioner and the organisation have properly discharged their duties and responsibilities’. This may lead to a predominant emphasis on the documentation produced and compliance with regulations, rather than the quality of direct practice (e.g. Munro 2004).

According to Garfinkel (1967) organisational records tend to conform to an ‘approved reality’, a characteristic he describes as ‘structurally normal’. In shift recording this could possibly occur, for example, in the recording of critical incidents if there is a concentration on demonstrating how a young person’s behaviour breached unit rules and how practice met approved standards and procedures rather than a more critical account of the inevitable messiness and ambiguity of everyday practice (Smith 2009). This could contribute to the demands of accountability ‘crowding out’ the recording of information which may facilitate a greater understanding of a young person.


For Foucault,power is inscribed in practices rather than vested in or exercised by one group over another (Foucault 1975/6). Power operates on both young people and residential workers to produce knowledge about young people and residential child care practice. This knowledge also has subsequent power effects on those involved. Although power is not held by anyone, people and groups are however positioned differently within the ‘play of forces’ (Bordon 1993). As workers have ‘definitional privilege’, that is the power to define reality in recording (Taylor and White 2000), and agencies and managers set the principles on which this takes place, shift reports will necessarily be professional representations shaped by professional interests. Young people may find it difficult to put forward alternative representations or influence the content of reports (Askeland and Payne 1999, Tice 1998). The disparity between official records and children’s perceptions of their own realities has been documented (e.g. Martin 1998), reflecting the lack of young people’s participation in the recording of their daily lives and the subjugation of their knowledge.

In summary then, despite its potential to support practice, shift recording may be oppressive in so far as it perpetrates a certain kind of conceptual violence(see Derrida 1968) on the young people who are the subjects of recording through failing to recognise their individuality and by foregrounding certain knowledges and subjugating others. This violence partly comes from what Sevenhuijsen (1998) calls a ‘logic of identity’ that attempts to reduce things to a unity, an essence. This logic is based on an objectivity that can only be achieved by dividing reason and emotion (as discussed above) and classifying particulars in relation to a universal norm, the ‘norm of sameness’ (p.46).This violence cannot be erased simply by inverting the hierarchical opposition between objectivity and subjectivity or changing the principles or style of recording (Ramazanoğlu 1993). A demonstration of this can be seen in James Joyce’s Ulysses where, according toKiberd (2000, p.xlvii), the juxtaposition of different styles shows ‘how much is left unsaid by any: in rendering an aspect of the world, it misses out on many others’. According to Derrida this violence is present in any attempt to represent the world as knowledge of the world must be mediated by language (Howells 1999). This applies not only to writing but also to what Derrida refers to as archi-écriture, that is ‘the system of language itself’ (ibid, p.129).As noted by Allan (2011), there is an inherent dilemma in any relation with theOther as to attend to the Other necessarily involves representing him/her to oneself and therefore erasing their individuality. According to Bauman (1993, p.91), the ‘aporia of moral proximity’ can result in care and responsibility degenerating into power and oppression. The approach taken to recording therefore inevitably involves an ethical choice and the presentation of recording as simply a technical task fails to critically engage with the ethical issues it poses, obscuring the inherent value judgments being made. Where residential workers or managers take recording for granted this might be considered a failure to use responsibly the power that comes from their work.

Foucault recognised this in his own conception of power. For him power is both repressive and productive as it is always coextensive with knowledge (Foucault 1976). Recording has the potential to improve the quality of care that young people receive. This is one reason why it is emphasised in legislation and policy. Foucault does not however offer any way of determining how the power to record is to be used in an acceptable way. Dahlberg et al (1999) suggest one possible option, ‘pedagogical documentation’, which may help to address power imbalances between organisations, professionals and young people. This recording does not claim an objective view of the world but concerns itself with gaining an understanding of what is going on through a self-reflexive process involving dialogue, reflection and the discussion of records with other parties, such as young people, in order to introduce multiple perspectives. This seeks to make work visible and expose the ‘meaning-making’ inherent in records (c.f. Steckley and Smith 2011). Applied to shift recording, it has the potential to promote the participation of young people in the co-construction of their identities and stories as represented in shift reports. This could act as a defence against oppressive practice by giving young people a voice. The ethics of care also provides residential child care with an alternative voice that may help make visible knowledge subjugated by approaches based on an ethics of justice. To conclude, greater attention needs to be given to the ethical aspects of shift recording in residential child care in order to challenge practice that oppresses young people by failing to recognise their individuality and silencing their voices.


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