How Social Workers Might Use the ”Three Houses Tool”

The Three Houses Tool was created by Kiwi social workers Nicki Weld and Maggie Greening, in 2008. The aim of the tool, or method, was to create a safe space for a child to talk about life at home, mainly when child abuse is involved or suspected.

The process is designed to encourage a child to answer the three questions which are comparable to the Signs of Safety framework.

  1. What are you worried about?
  2. What's working well?
  3. How might things look if they were at their best?

With the use of the Three Houses tool, the person (most often a therapist or social worker) working with the child instructs the child to produce or draw a visual or written representation of the answers to these questions. A blank template with three buildings depicts the House of Worries, the House of Good Things, and the House of Dreams.

There is no specific order that the houses should be filled in, and the project can be used as an aide to a conversation, or as a project in its own right. When discussing the drawings/writings with the child, and when reporting on what the child drew or said, the therapist or caseworker should use the child's own words and drawings, and not paraphrase.

Once completed, the practitioner will ask for the child's consent to show others the houses. In some cases, they may put the Houses in the child's case file, and despite the severe limitations and questionable evidentiary value of the drawings/writings, the Houses can sometimes be used as evidence in legal proceedings.

As, in many cases, the child will be working alone with the caseworker, it's essential to understand what the child may have be prompted or asked.

Prompting in the House of Good Things

The House of Good Things is designed to answer the question "What's working well?" in the child's life.

Children are asked what currently makes them happy, or about things that are going well in their lives. They can then choose to write or draw the answers to the questions in the outline of the house.

However, as you may expect with any prompting situation, a child may be asked further specific questions which can sometimes lead the child to draw or write more based on the interviewer’s questions. For example, a child may be asked "Who are the people in your family that you like spending time with? What's good about spending time with them?" or "What is good about the friends you have?"

It's important to understand that the child may also be asked about the process of seeing the caseworker, with questions such as "What do you think is good about having me come to meet with you?"

Prompting in the House of Worries

In the House of Worries, children are asked to draw or write down the things that are causing them concern, or that the children don't like about their lives.

The prompts will follow a similar pattern to the House of Good Things. Children are supposed to be asked open-ended questions that explain the idea of worry, or ask what is causing them concern in their lives.

The tool also highlights that a therapist/practitioner may ask if, during the conversation, something comes up, whether or not they can put something in the House of Worries.

A caseworker may also ask for elaboration by enquiring, "Could you describe this picture a little more for me?" or "Could you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that?"

Prompts for the House of Hopes and Dreams

The House of Hopes and Dreams is where the child puts their hopes for the future and all the things that they might be able to do, particularly if all the worries were gone.

These open-ended questions range from "What would you like to happen in your life?" to "What would be different in your life if all the worries were gone?"

Once the Houses are Built

Once completed, the Three Houses model will often be used as a starting point for a conversation with the parents or family. In this way, it can be a valuable tool for facilitating open dialog.

However, you may find that the Three Houses tool is added to your child's case file, and in some cases, may even be presented to a judge or grievance hearing officer.

It is essential to remember that this is not a child's analysis or assessment of their situation, and the Three Houses tool has not been approved as forensic evidence in any way.

It is merely an assistance measure for the therapist or counselor to build a rapport with a child and should not be presented as incontrovertible fact.