Reconceptualizing protective factors in response to risk with vulnerable children

Gavin Heron, Claire Lightowler

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The quality and robustness of childcare professionals’ thinking about protective factors is crucial to interventions with vulnerable children. Yet, protective factors in childcare are under-conceptualized in policy and practice and have been overshadowed by the concept of risk. This study uses discourse analysis to examine how childcare professionals discuss protective factors in response to risk and in a way that demonstrates critical thinking. Findings Data was collected from 30 consultation meetings, which involve a total of 109 professionals. The consultation meetings focus on the assessment of a child who presents a serious risk of harm to others and who are themselves at risk. The findings suggest that professionals do discuss protective factors in response to risk, however, it occurs on a ratio of approximately one to nine, which suggests a level of separation in the way these terms are conceptualized in practice. Application It is suggested that a professional construct of “protective factors versus risk,” which is applied with critical thinking, will offer a more robust way of conceptualizing the support provided to vulnerable children. While professionals have to analyze risk in terms of what is wrong, it is equally crucial to include protective factors in a strategy for it to work. A starting point is for professionals to re-construct protective factors and risk and apply it with critical thinking to core elements of social work practice, such as assessments, multi-disciplinary meetings and the verbal communications with service users.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205–220
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number2
Early online date3 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2023


  • risk
  • critical thinking
  • children
  • protective factors
  • child safety
  • vulnerable children
  • child protection


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