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Keyworkers – Are You A Relational Navigator?

Keyworkers – are you a Relational Navigator?

Relational Navigator sounds like something you might find streaming, song, a band.

Though the term ‘keyworker’ has been used for a long time, writing about it is rare.

In this time of refinding and renaming a new academic paper enables us to look again at tasks and roles (1).

In brief, the idea of a relational navigator is consciously accompanying another person with whom we have a close relationship piloting through complex systems and transitional processes. It is a collaborative ‘walking alongside’.

The Relational Navigator is concerned with ‘relationality, recognition and walking alongside’.

Immediately you might be thinking this applies to many tasks and roles, keyworker, support assistants, mentors, parents.  However, ‘the emphasis of the ‘relational navigator’ on building ethical and meaningful relationships with young people marks this out from more instrumentally focused navigator roles’. Perhaps there is something new to be brought to these tasks and roles?

Write-ups about these tasks and roles have been mainly descriptive, or observations of an event, maybe including the internal and external events. The theory and practice is rarely addressed.

That is applies to many already existing tasks and roles is exactly the point, we do many things without reflection on the theory, yet it exists. Knowing the theory we may apply it to structures that can help support and shape our actions, orientate the way we think and what we do.

Deepening and broadening our understanding, being able to take up different perspectives on our own work and that of colleagues, of rethinking the child and ourselves ‘in relation’ is something this work requires us to do.

Continually rethinking our ‘personal’ is part of our ‘professional’.  ‘Self-reflexivity enables the navigators to focus on building relationships of trust, care and compassion, countering institutionalised forms of misrecognition’.

Children in care potentially face ‘significant structural, systemic and cultural inequalities’. Rather than Resilience, Recognition and Capacity too often children in care can be defined by imposed ‘deficiency, with support then offered as a means to ‘fix’ or ‘correct’ the individualised ‘problem’’. We can see that deficiency thinking seeks to ‘include those who are excluded into the dominant framework/state of being, rather than challenging existing inequalities within the mainstream system, or encouraging alternative ways of being’. Looking again and reframing we see ‘disadvantage being produced through multidimensional social injustices, including maldistribution, misrecognition and misrepresentation’.

‘A relational navigator approach aims to through ‘intentional effort’ to ‘(re)position the young person as an active participant, redistribute resources and opportunities, recognise and value the young person’s experiences, perspectives and contexts, and enable the young person to represent their interests and concerns.’

The ’relational navigator is fundamentally a pedagogical encounter, in which the navigator and young person learn together’.  It draws from health where an ‘enabler’ provides assistance to find one’s way around complex systems and overcome barriers to treatment. It draws from peer mentoring.

The authors write from a social pedagogic perspective and see ‘navigation as scanning the horizon and making sense of possibilities and futures, and the meshing of possibilities for action in the here and now on the basis of accompanying young people through interpersonal encounters that are initiated by practitioners and worked through on the basis of mutuality and solidarity.’ The central idea is of walking in parallel and guiding at a pace that is acceptable. In therapeutic communities there used to be talk of, metaphorically, ‘having the child on your hip.’ From Winnicott an associated concept of the holding relationship’. We can learn from Winnicott too that the child finds what in fact has been created for them by the parent and introduced at the right moment, the child reaches out an finds what they were hoping they would find.

‘The RN aims to ‘pilot’ through complex systems and transitional processes in collaboration with, and through ‘walking alongside’, the young person, with respect to their lived contexts and experiences’, ‘a sense of belonging is fostered through the recognition of a person’s value, not only in the individual skills and competencies that she develops, but also in her capacity to participate as a fully recognised member of the community to which she is part’.

‘The idea of navigator draws on the concepts of mutuality and guidance, rather than instruction or rigid programming with an implicit assumption of passive reception of information or competences.’

‘The relational navigator affords and values a slower, more patient and empathetic re-orientation to support, in contrast to a highly formalised, transactional approach’.

A relational navigator is concerned with ‘transforming the often low expectations of children in care,’ but also of developing a relationship of trust with the young people themselves.’ There is a ‘strong ethics of care and empathy’ which is ‘seen as key to the navigator’s role in offering patient and authentic listening to the young person’. ‘Caring for’ and ‘caring about’ the young person is prominent in this ethics of care. One RN is quoted, ‘Sometimes it’s just sitting and listening, even though it might seem quite irrelevant. But then I’ll realise that they actually just want to tell me what’s happening, and maybe they need me to normalise a certain experience, or reassure them that what they’re doing is ok’.

The RN is concerned with the ‘redistribution (of resources, networks and opportunities), recognition (of the experiences and identities of young people) and representation (of diverse perspectives across fields of practice, most importantly of the young people themselves). These may be directed towards developing new forms of knowledge, skill and understanding. They may be explicitly skills focused, and aimed at young people taking a new trajectory in education. ‘Gaining self-confidence and knowledge through social interactions that present challenges is what Vygotsky would call the ‘zone of proximal development’’. Or in a situation where children might feel they do not ‘fit very well’ the role is ‘to navigate the two worlds and support to find a meaningful and valued existence alongside other(s) with whom they might share little’.

Key dimensions of the relational navigator are:

  • accompanying or walking alongside young people in a non-hierarchical way
  • a mindset of ethical obligations of respect for, and recognition of, the young person, carried out with care and compassion, where each person is valued and valuable in the here and now and not viewed as their past or an accumulation of risk factors
  • supporting young people to navigate unfamiliar demands and expectations, developing new sensibilities of their capabilities and identities
  • creating purpose, pace and connection to create meaningful experience and a sense of belonging
  • listening with patience and empathy and a willingness to address issues raised
  • working between the borders of the individual, institutions and agencies with whom the young people interact


1.The relational navigator: a pedagogical reframing of widening educational participation for care-experienced young people Penny Jane Burke Claire Cameron Emily Fuller  Katie Hollingworth Publication date (Electronic): 25 November 2021 Journal: International Journal of Social Pedagogy

The relational navigator: a pedagogical reframing of widening educational participation for care-experienced young people – ScienceOpen

Extracts within quotation marks are from the article