Vulnerable learners: Child-centred planning

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Child-centred planning can make all the difference for vulnerable young people. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers five principles to ensure this is done in a genuine, non-tick-box, fashion

When working with our more vulnerable learners, child-centred planning is crucial. There is a danger that this can become somewhat tokenistic and a box-ticking exercise. When this happens, child-centred planning loses its power and can sometimes do more harm than good. So I am sharing five principles to help you engage in genuine, child-centred planning that will make a difference to the children you are working with.

Know the child

All of our vulnerable children come with labels; like an evacuee with a name label, they have a list of special or additional needs that go with them wherever they go. These things matter but what matters more is the real child.
Look beyond the labels and try to understand the child as a person with wants and wishes and passions and interests. When we get to really know the child and understand their strengths, the things that make them special and the things that make them tick, then we will build the foundations of a strong relationship, and one where we can tailor our support and input to build on their strengths and address their challenges far better than we could ever do by looking at our registers of need.

It takes time to get to know a child, but this is never time wasted. Looking for and leaning into a child’s strengths is an investment of time worth making. It is also worth remembering that the stories that children tell about themselves are based on the stories that they hear adults tell about them – so let us take the chance to make it a good story, one based on what makes the child bold and brilliant rather than a litany of woe.

SUPPLEMENT: This article is one of a number of best practice pieces in our sister magazine SecEd's recent 16-page supplement The many faces of our vulnerable learners. Download this for free here.

Set goals based on the child’s motivations

You will likely have goals for your work with your vulnerable learners. It is worth taking a moment to consider where these goals come from and whose needs they are meeting.

When we create goals about a young person’s engagement, attendance or learning that are top-down, we risk not connecting with the needs that the child perceives.

If, instead, we take time to consider things from the point of view of the child and their family, our goals can be reframed to make them motivational for the child. We are often expecting children to work really hard to meet these goals, and if they are our goals and the child feels no ownership over them or does not connect with them, it should be no surprise if they are not motivated to put in the effort required to reach them.

If, on the other hand, the child “gets” the goals and can see a reason to work towards them, the whole process can become far easier. Perhaps you would like Simona’s maths scores to improve and in order to do that she needs to improve her English language and literacy skills.

Simona might not care too much about how she is doing in maths, but if she would like to be able to chat more fluently with her friends about Roblox and Ariana Grande’s latest songs then you can use her desires and drive to motivate her towards the outcome you are looking for with much less risk of disengagement.

Use the child’s words

Where possible, look to how a child describes, shows or communicates things and use this language as the basis of discussion. This can help the child to understand what is going on, as well as keeping things accessible to parents.
The other benefit is that we can sometimes get a little lost in acronyms and edu-speak and that can feel impenetrable to colleagues from health or social care who might form part of the team around the child.

When we use the language of the child as our primary means of communication then anyone who can understand the child in question, will be able to meaningfully engage in the process. I would argue that anyone who is not able to meaningfully engage with the child has a little more work to do here...

This can be hard, especially when working with children whose language we do not speak (either literally or metaphorically); but when we take time to develop truly inclusive communication, everyone benefits. If you are not sure how to get started, either the support staff who know the child best, or the child’s parents will be your best allies.

Make meetings accessible to the child

In addition to talking in the child’s language, consider what else is necessary to ensure that meetings about a child happen with them in the room – either physically or figuratively.

If it feels possible to adapt meetings so that a child can meaningfully engage, we should do that. If that is not always possible, we should consider who could act as the child’s advocate or voice during the meeting.

Sometimes something as simple as having the child’s photo and some reminders of the person behind the label positioned in the middle of the table can help to ensure that we are having real conversations about a real person with their motivations and best interests always kept in mind.

We are all on the child’s team

Finally, any time that it feels that there is a divide between the different people involved in caring for or working with a child, it can be helpful to remember that we are all on the same team – the child’s team.

Keeping a real focus on moving things forwards together in order to better meet the needs of the child can be helpful in times of conflict. And conflict will arise; often borne out of frustration. If we approach problems together regardless of hierarchy or sector and try to work as one with the child’s needs at the heart of all decisions and action, we will likely make better, faster, more effective decisions.

And ultimately the child will be the winner here – and when the child wins, we all do.


None of these ideas are rocket science, and you probably already know how to do each of these things well. Taking a little time to refocus your efforts and making sure that the child whose needs you are trying to meet is sitting right at the heart of your planning, discussions and interventions is likely to mean you will make better, more sustainable decisions that are relevant and motivating to the child and their family.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Read her previous articles via

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