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Guidelines for working with street children

A few basic guidelines for working with children living on the street

1996 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Street children – Footsteps 28

Learning from different groups about how best to support vulnerable children

by Judith Ennew.

There are two basic rules for work with any children:

  • The main barrier to successful programmes is our own attitude.
  • The main resource in any project is the children themselves.

Adults tend to assume they know what is best for children. But street children who have been taking a good deal of responsibility for themselves often have very definite ideas about what is best for them. The problem is that few people listen to them or use their skills and abilities.

Gathering information

Before beginning plans for any project, information should be gathered.

  • Which groups of children are most at risk?
  • Which groups of children are receiving least help?
  • Which of these groups are you best able to help?
  • What further information is needed about these children before starting to plan a project?

Some people argue that there is no need for research – the important thing is to act immediately and rescue these children.

However, children deserve help that is appropriate to their own individual surroundings and situation. They deserve solutions that will be long-lasting, that will not end if funding fails.

Research should be based on observing street children and their activities and spending time with them. Most children are rightly wary of anyone with a survey or clipboard – what will they get out of answering a lot of questions? A simple toy such as a yo-yo is a good way of attracting attention. Just hanging around with children over a period of time, joining in their games or quietly talking with them, without a camera or notebook, is the best way to make contact.

Provide a service

Providing a simple service can be an important way of building up contacts with street children. SABANA (in the Philippines) noticed that children had to buy water by the glass. This meant that they drank less than they needed. So the project arranged for barrels of water daily. The children could drink and even wash their hands. Slowly they began to drift in and get to know the staff.

They discovered their first priority was a place to rest out of the sun and a flat space where they could play. Project workers cleared the area around their building and enclosed it with a fence of discarded bed springs. Attracted by footballs and simple games, the children began to flock in.

Project options

There is a very important point to follow as a guide:

The emphasis should not be on making children leave the streets or stop work, but on increasing the range of choices available to them and helping them make their own decisions.

However, the desire to rescue children quickly and get them off the streets is common, especially among donors.


Shelters are places where children can feel relaxed, safe and comfortable. They are places where children can talk to each other and to project workers, knowing they will be listened to and heard. They are not places where they should be talked at or preached to! A major decision is whether or not to provide night shelters. It is at night that children experience the greatest dangers and yet night shelter can only be provided for small numbers, and project workers have to provide care 24 hours a day.

There is usually no need to build special purpose buildings. Sometimes buildings can be ‘borrowed’ during night hours or there may be derelict buildings which can be repaired, rooms in health centres, churches, mosques or temples which can be used. Whatever is found, it should be in keeping with the way people in the surrounding community live. Simple accommodation sited where the street children live, is best.

Consider making small charges for providing food, rather than providing free handouts. In Redd Barna’s Sri Lanka project, food is charged at cost. Staff report that children are well aware of the cost of food and appreciate the need to buy in bulk to keep costs low. They advise staff to buy with care and also do some of the shopping themselves. They keep account of the cost, change and quality of the food. Everything can become a learning experience!


Street children rarely have correct information about illness or their own bodies. Simple healthcare is best provided on the streets, free of charge. Preventive healthcare is important but it needs to be fun and relevant. Encourage the use of drama and puppets by the children to put over health messages themselves. Help the children to understand their own bodies and take responsibility for their health. Children’s sexual experiences need to be discussed in a non-judgemental way. The fight against drug abuse will provide huge frustrations and may not be appropriate until a child is guaranteed future security.


Children are expected to be in schools, so education is usually an important part of projects for street children. Older children cannot be expected to fit into a formal school system using books and lessons designed for five year olds. More participatory methods of learning are needed, especially at the beginning. Education does not need a classroom or even a building – pavement schools are common in India. Teaching needs to be sited where the children are and timetables need to be really flexible. Drama, song, puppets, mime, drawing and modelling can all be used. Let children make their own books – starting with pictures cut out of magazines, explaining to each other why they have chosen them. Use the discussions to help the children understand why they live the lives they do. This is the first step towards changing their lives.

Build up links with Ministry of Education staff and local teachers. You will need to find ways to help children eventually reenter the formal system.


Many training schemes are not linked to the job market and do not provide employment placements or follow up.

Before introducing such training or using a government training programme ask these questions:

  • What skills are really needed on the local job market?
  • What courses are already available in the local area? Could your students attend these if they were helped to upgrade their reading and writing skills first?
  • What can be done to help students find employment?


In different parts of the world, projects have helped self-employed children improve their working conditions by:

  • providing a space where the work can take place, such as a car wash scheme or shoe shine shop where the children will not have to pay adults for such space.
  • providing secure places where tools and goods can be kept overnight
  • improving skills so that goods are better made
  • help and training with business skills and credit and loan schemes
  • providing savings schemes. (In Colombo, children sleep with their money in their mouths.)

Dealing with theft and damage

It hurts when children steal or damage property that was provided to help them. It is a frequent problem. First you need to assess the damage, and then think about why the damage occurred. Was it really the children themselves or was it outsiders, older youth or the public trying to destroy the project? If it was the children, try and find out why and then involve the children in the process of justice and repairing the damage. Such damage occurs in all projects. Deal with it, then pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

When bad things happen it is all too easy to feel the work is not worthwhile. But when you reach low points there are often reminders of success, usually from the children – a small gift, a friendly gesture from a kid who notices you are feeling low, a wave from a girl who left last year and is doing well in school. It is worth carrying on!

This article summarises some of the valuable information contained in the book, Street and Working Children written by Judith Ennew and published by Save the Children Fund. This book is highly recommended for anyone working with street children (reviewed on 'Reources page'.)

Questions to ask:

Of yourself…

  • What do you think childhood should be like?
  • What sort of work should children do and at what ages?
  • What is your image of street children?
  • Why are children employed rather than adults?

About the children you will work with…

  • What is childhood like for poor children in the area you hope to work in?
  • What is the local image of street children?
  • What facts do you have about the children you want to work with? What are these facts based on?

About the area where you will start a project…

  • What work do children do?
  • What numbers of street children and child workers are available for the area?
  • Are there examples of child participation in projects locally? What kind of participation is involved?

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