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Why you shouldn't use the 'Three Houses' tool in social work

For those who might not be familiar, the Three Houses Tool is part of the Signs of Safety approach. It's an approach developed for frontline child protection social workers. The Signs of Safety approach originated in Australia nearly two decades ago, thanks to the efforts of social workers Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards. It emerged as an alternative to the increasingly bureaucratic and checkbox-driven social work that was becoming prevalent.

During my ASYE I completed a 5 day practice lead training in Signs of Safety. The approach has positively impacted my practice and I am grateful for the way it reframed so much of my thinking around child protection, so early on in my career.

I believe we can take ideas from different approaches and I like to be open about my experience so others can learn from it, but this isn't me berating or criticising the whole approach.

Whilst 'The Three Houses' tool can be a powerful instrument when used thoughtfully, it also has its pitfalls. My experience with this tool has led me to be cautious about its potential misapplication, especially when it becomes a standardized piece of dynamic work handed to children without much thought.

During one of my early encounters as a social worker, I vividly remember taking out the Three Houses Tool during a visit with a child. To be honest, I hadn't given it much thought. I was busy, and I simply grabbed a worksheet from a folder of tools we had in the office. As I presented it to the child, they looked at me and then at the paper with the Three Houses and sighed, "Oh, this again."

That moment hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized that I had failed to consider whether this tool was suitable for this specific child. I didn't explore their needs or consider alternative approaches. I was stuck in habitual behavior – picking a tool and getting the visit done. I'm sharing this to highlight the importance of reflection and flexibility in our work.

The Importance of Being Child-Led

As social workers, our work is all about the child's lived experience. It's about understanding, hearing their voice, and acknowledging their wishes and feelings. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. Instead, we need to be adaptable and child-led in our approach.

Children are unique individuals, and what works for one may not work for another. The Three Houses Tool, while well-intentioned, might not resonate with every child. Some may interpret it quite literally, leading to limited insights. Others might find it difficult to connect their dreams with the changes needed to ensure their safety.

So, What Can We Do?

My hope is that my story encourages you to think twice about the direct work you choose to do with a child. We must avoid falling into the trap of habitual behavior when we're busy or stressed. Direct work should be an opportunity to build trust and genuinely connect with the child.

Instead of defaulting to a specific tool, take the time to consider the child's unique needs and whether the tool is the right fit. Explore alternative approaches, be child-led, and be open to trying different activities and games. Many of these don't require a significant time investment but can yield immense benefits.

In conclusion, the Three Houses Tool, like any tool in social work, has its place when used thoughtfully. However, it should never become a checkbox exercise. Our priority should always be building meaningful connections, understanding the child's perspective, and ensuring their safety and well-being.

I encourage you to share your favourite direct work tools and get in touch with me for further discussions. Your insights and experiences are valuable, and together, we can continue to improve social work practice and connection with children and young people.


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