Cultivating a Relational Universe

By Andy Carter & Gabriel Eichsteller

The relational universe of a child in care can be quite curious. There is no shortage of people appearing like a multitude of distant stars in a universe and disappearing long before they’ve even become visible. But there are also others, those who are close enough to develop a gravitational pull, who become central to the child’s relational universe. This is true for every person, yet what is different for children in care is the ways in which their relational universe is often thrown out of equilibrium by decisions outside their control: placement moves resulting in loss of friends, school changes as well as new carers, limitations to family contact, changing social workers, gaining new friends. The frequency with which many children in care experience such upheaval and its potentially negative consequences makes it imperative to put greater emphasis on developing and sustaining relationships. We argue that a social pedagogical perspective with children’s relational universe at the heart of care and educational practice can provide a useful and visually stimulating framework that considers all past, current and future relationships that surround a child in care. (The model is of course not limited to children in care and can equally be applied to working with families, elderly people or any other individuals, groups and communities.)

The importance of positive relationships for children in care and leaving care is becoming clear; however, the ‘how, who and when’ is often driven by real and perceived barriers, resources and professional roles. Many children in care have fragmented relationships in communities and once they leave care will often attempt to return to them, even if this exploration is painful when relationships are not as ideal as expected. To identify these relationships early on is crucial to nurturing them and establishing a supportive emotional and social network during their time in care and also for their move to in(ter)dependence. As the Care Inquiry (2013) noted:

‘Whilst the importance of relationships is often implicit in what we already do for and with children, what has been missing is the determination to view relationships – their extent, their quality, their supportive character and the likelihood of their lasting – as the cornerstone of planning and practice. We need a renewed focus on using resources and approaches that will nurture positive relationships for children who cannot live with their parents. This must drive practice in the future – moving away from the focus on process and on administrative requirements that have come to dominate practice in recent years.’

Our universe evolves from birth, where as a baby it consists of our parent(s) and expands as grandparents, relatives and family friends enter it. That universe continues to grow throughout our life as we develop relationships with more people, evolving in ways that are highly individual and unique. In practice, it is therefore important for the child to define their relational universe, supported in this by carers and others as the child explores who they feel is able to support them now or in the future. This is unlike other models, which do not always take the views and needs of the child into account as a central planet in the universe around them, especially if these are in conflict with the professionals’ views.

For children in care, their universe includes many professionals who have involvement at different times, often entering the close universe and latterly moving to a more distant position as their role changes. This doesn’t mean that this relationship which has been established disappears; it may be that the gravitational pull of this professional decreases, but they will still remain within the universe and perhaps move closer again as the needs of the child change. For example, a foster carer may move into the further reaches of the universe, but when the young person experiences a crisis after leaving care they may re-establish this relationship by having their former carer in their near universe for a period of time for support they can offer. Even if not in close proximity, the knowledge that this support is there may in itself be sufficient. It is therefore crucial that we professionally support such ‘planetary movement’ in children’s relational universe.

The relational universe also acts as a reminder that we mustn’t exclude those individuals we may not see as ‘ideal’ from a professional assessment, such as a grandparent who has used alcohol in the past. Once a young person has left care, these are often the people they turn to and, if engaged early on, they could play a vital long-term supportive role in the young person’s life. Recognising that they are part of the relational universe – whether or not we like this as professionals – can help us put a clear emphasis on the assets rather than the deficits of these people, which is key to this process.

Children in care are often cautious of relationships with adults or resentful as their previous experiences may have been very negative, so a primary task is for professionals to offer a safe environment where they can model positive, trusting relationships for the child and allow them to build trust in others. Over time, this can then extend to other relationships in the child’s universe, including those outside the looked-after environment. A social pedagogical approach is a key factor in the ‘why and how’. Nurturing children’s sense of empowerment plays a crucial part in this and can be achieved in a number of ways, including non-judgemental acceptance of children’s views and choices of who to develop relationships with, while offering safeguards, supporting children in differentiating which relationships are positive for their well-being and which ones aren’t and how they themselves can cultivate their relational universe.

With the metaphor of the relational universe we aim to highlight that human beings are intricately connected and interdependent. This is often undervalued in social care practice, where it is independence that remains the stated end goal in preparing looked after children for leaving care. Rather than suggesting that human beings are constantly dependent on others, interdependence conveys mutual support, reciprocity and a strong, reliable social network with a multitude of different connections. Within the relational universe, some of the connections may be temporary, some may have a strong and lasting impact, some might be considered positive and others problematic or even toxic. Irrespective of any attributes or judgments we as professionals might use to describe certain relationships, there can’t be any doubt that they are part of the child’s universe. Each of these people will bring some positive aspects to the life world of the child, which are potentially neglected by professionals and needed by the child in their universe to sustain their further interdependence.

If you would like to find out how you can use the relational universe in your practice, we’d be delighted to hear from you. We can offer tailored team seminars and strategic consultancy and are always open for any other ideas. Just email us at


N.B.: We refer to ‘the child’ for simplicity and would view this as including young people and young adults as respectful descriptors.

Developing Risk Competence – join our SPPA webinar


SPPA Webinar: Developing Risk Competence 

Speakers: Sylvia Holthoff and Gabriel Eichsteller, ThemPra
Dates and times: 12.30-13.30 GMT, Thursday 4th May 2017
Who it’s for: The webinar is aimed at practitioners and managers working with children and young people in a variety of educational and care settings. (The webinar is open to all, however the webinar recording is accessible to members only)

Outline: Risks are often seen as dangers, conjuring up mental images of what can go wrong. Through this webinar, Sylvia and Gabriel outline the importance and benefits of taking risks, explaining how practitioners can support children and young people in developing greater risk competence. We will explore the place of risks within learning processes and why being exposed to risks can actually help children to LEARN how they can keep themselves safe. Join us in exploring how you can nurture the 4 key skills necessary to develop risk competence.

Additional resource:
Here’s an article on risk competence by Sylvia and Gabriel (pdf) that will be helpful for you to read before the webinar to give you a background about the topic.

Registration will be available soon. In the meantime you can join the SPPA mailing list to receive regular updates from SPPA.

Social Pedagogy Development Network – Tonbridge


Social Pedagogy Development Network (SPDN)
a free event at
West Kent College, Tonbridge,
6th & 7th April, 2017

Within the last few years, the relationship based approach of social pedagogy has been capturing the imagination and changing the practice of many professionals in social care, education, health and the creative arts.

With a longstanding tradition in many European countries and elsewhere in the world, social pedagogy has at its heart a task that is both simple and complex: to support people in developing their potential, aspirations and well-being.

The theme of the 15th SPDN event is focussed on nurturing well-being from a social pedagogical perspective.

Come and

  • participate in a unique collaborative learning opportunity
  • meet hundreds of inspired people and find out about their ambition and experiences
  • get involved in holistic thinking and reflection
  • connect new ideas on well-being to your own practice and personal life
  • learn from academics, professionals, practitioners and bring in your own expertise
  • join in with creative activities, workshops and consultations
  • enjoy a great atmosphere and refresh your enthusiasm for your work


For further information and to register your free place please visit


The Social Pedagogy Development Network offers free events, with catering provided. It is jointly organised by ThemPra Social Pedagogy, Jacaranda Development, The Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy at the UCL Institute of Education and the Social Pedagogy Professional Association. For further details please visit

Social Pedagogy Professional Association launch

Press Release: Transformed lives celebrated at launch of SPPA


An enthusiastic audience heard about the value of social pedagogy as an approach at the Social Pedagogy Professional Association (SPPA) launch on Tuesday 21st February 2017 at the British Academy in London. Lemn Sissay MBE, British Poet and Chancellor of Manchester University was interviewed by Prof Becky Francis, Director of UCL Institute of Education about social disadvantage and his experiences in care.
Social pedagogy is a relationship-based approach to caring for children and families and is sometimes referred to as ‘education in the broadest sense’. It is based in an ethos that fosters equality and respect and values relationships, dialogue, joint activity and team work. The launch assessed the impact of social pedagogy in children’s services to date and discussed its future.
During the launch, guest speakers from St Christopher’s Fellowship, and the London Borough of Hackney’s Virtual School for Looked-After Children shared their experiences of the positive impact of a social pedagogic approach to looked-after children, and their hopes for how social pedagogy will be adopted by more organisations in the future.
Established by the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy at UCL Institute of Education, ThemPra and Jacaranda, SPPA is the professional home for social pedagogy in the UK. Since the 1990s, there has been interest in, research, delivery of training and development courses on social pedagogy in the UK. Now well over 2,000 people in the UK have had training in social pedagogy, in part through The Fostering Network’s Head, Heart, Hands Programme. Evaluations show that a social pedagogic framework for practice can transform care for young people. The legacy of this programme and the need to scale up social pedagogy in the UK led to the establishment of SPPA.
SPPA’s vision is to build a world in which social pedagogy contributes to each person realising their potential. Its aims include developing excellence in and raising the profile of social pedagogy in the UK, building an active professional community for social pedagogy, and supporting the development of qualifications in social pedagogy – the Crossfields Levels 3 and 5 (in England) diplomas in social pedagogy.
Founding membership will be launched in early 2017 and will be available for those who join by 31st December 2017. Speaking at the launch event, Prof Claire Cameron, Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy at the UCL Institute of Education said: “Today we are delighted to welcome Lemn Sissay and Becky Francis to join us in marking the start of the Social Pedagogy Professional Association. Having a professional association is new step in establishing this continental European approach to care and education built on humanitarian values of relationship and solidarity in the UK. We’ve heard such inspiring stories about the impact of social pedagogy on practice today. With SPPA up and running we can accelerate our learning and networking, that’s why we’re looking for anyone who shares our interest to join SPPA and make it a real professional home for social pedagogy in the UK.”
Lemn Sissay MBE, British Poet and Chancellor of Manchester University said: “We have to be the change that we want to see and SPPA offers the opportunity of that change that is closing the gap between child/user and the service provider. I feel lucky to be here. I feel like I am amongst like-minded people who will challenge the status quo as well as strengthen who it’s there for – who are these systems built for? We need our workers, social workers, our educationalists. We need them to be valued so that they can give true value, and social pedagogy values those who provide care to those who need it.”
Abby Ladbrooke, Director and Co-founder, Jacaranda said:  “Jacaranda is proud to be working with SPPA in developing qualifications in social pedagogy. The Crossfields Institute Level 3 Diploma in Social Pedagogy provides a chance for practitioners and carers to continue their professional development. This Ofqual registered qualification develops new knowledge, tools and ways of thinking and doing that build on and enhance good practice. The Diploma and the charter and standards held by the Social Pedagogy Professional Association, are all part of efforts to nurture a quality-assured coherence to relational work. This has the potential to transform our caring professions“
Gabriel Eichsteller, Director, ThemPra said:  “Social pedagogy emphasises that relationships are central to all care and education. We’re not just talking about relationships between the professional and the people they support, but also about wider relationships in society, how we can facilitate social inclusion. Building authentic relationships that lead to a person feeling supported, able to trust and recognising their unique potential isn’t simply a natural skill though. It’s a finely honed art that benefits from greater theoretical understanding, ethical and analytical insights. This is what a qualification in social pedagogy can provide.
Nicola Boyce, Social Pedagogue Trainer, St Christopher’s Fellowship said:  “Social pedagogy is fundamentally about recognising the creative potential in every individual and the transformative power of relationships for human growth.  The impact has been felt by our young people, who tell us they feel we understand them better, listen to them and trust them more and have more ‘real’ relationships with them.  Our staff have described how social pedagogy has improved relationships within teams and with other professionals, as well as with young people; they feel more confident, trusted and empowered to be truly creative and authentic in their practice.  For the whole organisation social pedagogy has enabled huge cultural change, making our values central to all the work we do and placing a new emphasis on shared reflection, learning and dialogue.  The launch of the SPPA is a hugely welcome step forward in developing social pedagogy more widely across the UK, so that even more people can benefit from the transformative potential of this approach to practice.”
Anyone interested to find out more about SPPA and SPPA membership should email and join the SPPA mailing list. One year founding membership costs £70, and concessions for fulltime students and non-wage earners are available at £25. Group discounts available.
Anyone interested to find out more about the social pedagogy qualifications should email Gulsh Khatun at

Recognising Potential – the Social Pedagogy Diamond

‘A child has a hundred possibilities:
A child has a hundred languages,
A hundred hands,
A hundred thoughts.
S/he has a hundred ways of thinking,
A hundred ways of playing,
A hundred ways of talking.’

(Loris Malaguzzi, Italian pedagogue and founder of Reggio Emilia)


The Diamond Model is one of the most powerful concepts in social pedagogy and highlights that each person has a wealth of resources to offer which professionals can draw upon in order to empower people to create meaningful change in their lives. The model is a constant reminder that, as practitioners, we can only facilitate change in another person if we focus on uncovering and nurturing their potential, and support them in bringing out their inner diamonds.

ThemPra’s Social Pedagogy Diamond course outlines the overarching aims and aspirations of social pedagogy and illustrates the role of social pedagogical practitioners to help children, young people or other individuals across the age range to discover their innate potential and resources. As an introductory 3-day course aiming to raise awareness and create further interest in social pedagogy, the course will enable you to experientially engage with core social pedagogical concepts and to explore the relevance of social pedagogy for your practice. Following the Diamond Model, we will explore how you can enhance children’s/adults’ well-being and happiness, create holistic learning opportunities and further strengthen their relationships in ways that empower the people you support in your practice.

The Diamond course is facilitated over 3 consecutive days using a variety of learning methods to make social pedagogy become real – through experiential learning activities, group discussions, theoretical inputs, reflection and action planning on how you can help other people shine. If you’re interested in the course, please download our brochure, which includes the registration form for our next Social Pedagogy Diamond course in Glasgow on 21-23 March. Alternatively, you can stay informed by joining our emailing list, liking us on our Facebook page or getting in touch with any questions via email.



The Diamond Model explained:

ThemPra’s Diamond Model (Eichsteller & Holthoff, 2012) symbolizes one of the most fundamental underpinning principles of social pedagogy: there is a diamond within all of us. As human beings we are all precious and have a rich variety of knowledge, skills and abilities. Not all diamonds are polished and sparkly, but all have the potential to be. Similarly, every person has the potential to shine out – and social pedagogy is about supporting them in this. Therefore, social pedagogy has four core aims that are closely linked: well-being and happiness, holistic learning, relationship, and empowerment.


Well-being and happiness:

The overarching aim of all social pedagogic practice is to provide well-being and happiness, not on a short-term needs-focused basis, but sustainably, through a rights-based approach. While the terms ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ are sometimes seen as one and the same, in our understanding they are notionally different: happiness describes a present state whereas well-being describes a long-lasting sense of physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. In combination we can get a holistic view of a person’s well-being and happiness. Importantly, well-being and happiness are very individual and subjective: what causes happiness is highly individual. As a result social pedagogical practice is very context-specific and highly responsive to the individual rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.


Holistic learning:

‘Learning is the pleasant anticipation of one’s self’, according to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. In this sense, holistic learning mirrors the aim of well-being and happiness – it must be seen as contributing to, or enhancing, our well-being. Learning is more than what happens at school, it is a holistic process of realizing our own potential for learning and growth, which can take place in every situation that offers a learning opportunity. Holistic learning is a life-long process involving ‘head, heart, and hands’ (Pestalozzi). Social pedagogy is about creating learning opportunities, so that people get a sense of their own potential and how they have developed. As we are all unique, so is our potential for learning and our way of learning and development.



Central to achieving these two aims is the pedagogic relationship. Through the supportive relationship with the social pedagogue a person can experience that someone cares for and about them, that they can trust somebody. This is about giving them the social skills to be able to build strong positive relationships with others. Therefore the pedagogic relationship must be a personal relationship between human beings – social pedagogues make use of their personality and have to be authentic in the relationship, which is not the same as sharing private matters. So the pedagogic relationship is professional and personal at the same time, thus requiring from the social pedagogue to be constantly reflective.



Alongside the relationship, empowerment is crucial in order to ensure that an individual experiences a sense of control over their life, feels involved in decisions affecting them, and is able to make sense of their own universe. Empowerment also means that the individual is able to take on ownership and responsibility for their own learning and their own well-being and happiness, as well as their relationship with the community. Social pedagogy is therefore about supporting people’s empowerment, their independence as well as interdependence.


Positive Experiences:

In order to realize these core aims, social pedagogy has to be about providing positive experiences. The power of experiencing something positive – something that makes someone happy, something they have achieved, a new skill they have learned, the caring support from someone else – has a double impact: it raises the individuals self-confidence and feeling of self-worth, so it reinforces their sense of well-being, of learning, of being able to form a strong relationship, or of feeling empowered; and by strengthening their positives the person also improves their weak sides so that negative notions about their self fade away.



Due to its inter-disciplinary roots, social pedagogy offers a conceptual framework that can help guide holistic practice. As an academic discipline, social pedagogy uses related research, theories and concepts from other sciences to ensure a holistic perspective. This means that in realizing those core aims there is a lot of inspiration to be taken from what research and concepts tell us about related areas. All four aims point at the fact that social pedagogy is about process. Well-being and happiness, holistic learning, relationship, empowerment – none of these are a product that, once achieved, can be forgotten. This is why it is important to perceive them as fundamental human rights that we all constantly need to work on if we want to ensure that nobody’s rights are violated or neglected.

This perspective of social pedagogy means that it is dynamic, creative, and process-orientated rather than mechanical, procedural, and automated. It demands from social pedagogues to be a whole person, not just a pair of hands. It is therefore not surprising that many professionals in the UK and elsewhere have taken a keen interest in social pedagogy and have found it possible to relate both at a personal and professional level to its ethical orientation and ambition to provide children and young people with the best possible life experiences.