‘I want my child to be happy and successful at school’. That’s probably the main reason why parents join Family Group. And that’s a genuine, heartfelt wish for lasting change. But real life is messy. And for many of the families who come… well, there’s a lot of stuff in the way. Sometimes that wish for change can feel a long way from coming true.
So I want to think about five ways in which Family Group is relevant in the messiness of real life. How is it that people engage in Family Group when their immediate ‘front line’ needs could so easily take priority?
1.The crucial people are in the room together
If you want a child to be happy and successful in school, you need key folk engaged in achieving this together. The voices of the child, the parent and the school need to be heard. In Family Group the key folk are all there in the room and their work together is supported by the independent mental health specialist, the therapist SFW provides. And all these folk know why they’re there. The meeting is purposeful, honest, familiar. The structured model helps maintain that essential feeling of safety.
2. We do not set the speed
The second way in which Family Group is relevant to front line need is the pace we travel.
Change happens slowly. Change needs time. We go at the pace of the client. We can accommodate blips. There isn’t a Family Group client manual – there’s no programme to be completed. Family Group is more like a new route you adjust to, or maybe a diet that you gradually realize really suits you. We recognise that when it comes to relationships people learn experientially: you need to feel trusted, valued, held in order to develop those capacities within yourself.
3. Co-production generates rich resources
What keeps Family Group relevant to immediate needs? Practical problems in daily life need practical solutions. The range of skills and experience in the room is such a bonus. You get lots of relevant advice and ideas from other folk in your area, with children at your school. As relationships develop, friendships grow. Help is offered. Problems are shared. The model is truly co-productive. We’re all in it to help: the good outcomes are achieved by group effort. That heartfelt wish for your child easily morphs into your engagement in helping the other children in the group.
4. It comes to me
My fourth point re relevance of Family Group to front line need? Family Group is local, accessible, familiar. It’s in school. And pretty much everyone goes to school. If you’ve got a primary aged child, you’re going to be there most days. School is one of the easier places to ask for help: you know they’re there to serve your child too. Family Group is another one of the things school offers. You might notice a mention in the newsletter, a flier in the lobby, or your child’s teacher might chat to you about it. It might be another parent who first mentions Family Group to you. You’ll have seen the therapist in the playground: other parents have a laugh with her, and she seems friendly.
5. We get to the root of the issue - together
We invite the messiness into the room, weekly. Every Family Group has a ‘What’s hot? What’s been tricky or difficult? section. ‘Have a think with your adult, and see if you can find something from this last week that you’d like to change. Maybe it was in school? Maybe at home? Maybe it happened just this morning, on the way in.
Current difficulties are encouraged into the room each week. Sifting through, we select the most pertinent difficulty for each child and think together to turn the problem into a target. Then we practice implementing that target during the session, as we work through our programme of games and activities. Where the problem re-occurs we harness the group to reflect on the challenge and help find a way forward. It’s bit by bit. It’s learning by experience. We might have to work at the same area for some time. But eventually we get to the nub – what it is that really needs to be understood – and the driving energy behind the behaviour is redundant.
An excerpt from the Executive Summary of an independent research project into the effectiveness of Family Group earlier this year provides me with my conclusion;
The strength of the Family Group model, from the evidence provided by these 23 families, is rooted in the ‘physical’ co-productive nature of the intervention. The therapist, the school based partner, the other families, in a safe environment, in school ‘the child’s daily world’, all contribute to effect positive change for parent and child.
The practical outcomes include improvement in the behaviour of the child and academic performance; improvement in family relationships and between school and parent. The emotional outcomes for parent and child include improved confidence; a sense of achievement after hard work; improved self-esteem and happiness; the new experiences of reflective thinking and emotional containment.
The School and Family Works is a change forum. We're after LASTING change and we recognise that, to enable significant shifts, we have to start where people are and be prepared for a long journey. The key characteristic of all our work is that it enhances the reflective capacity of all those involved. It is through this reflective capacity that change takes place.
So what are the five ways that we enable lasting change for schools and families?
1. We start where people are, and work at their pace
Our Family Groups offer parents and young people the chance to be supported through a process of change, which they drive themselves, at a pace they can handle. People stay in Family Group for as long as they need to stay.
2. We enable people to feel safe
We may need to demonstrate trustworthiness, reliability, honesty, compassion, and respect for a considerable time before people are prepared to engage in a relationship with us. There is always a readiness for attachment when offered in sufficient safety.
3. We provide space for individuals to discover and explore other ways of being
Change is difficult, but if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got! Playfulness and stimulation encourages exploration and experimentation. We’re gently loosening fixed patterns, helping everyone become more malleable and adaptable.
4. We facilitate the sharing of experiences, ideas and solutions between families and professionals.
Everyone learns in Family Group. All voices are valued. We each use our experience and skills in the service of everyone in the group. There are moments of great insight, which ripple out into the school and the community.
5. We have a relational approach, and respect, trust, equality and commitment are hallmarks all those who have worked with us will validate.
Change happens within relationships. We’re conscious of how the relationship offers a framework for growth. We want people to feel truly received. Our approach seeks to offer an increased trust in validity of ones own experience, the development of hope, and space to re-connect, assimilate, and reconsolidate.
We are pleased to report that an independent evaluation of Family Group concluded that 8 out of 10 families evidence significant positive change from attending Family Group.
If you would like to find out more about Family Group please contact me either by email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07540 806 248.
Actually, connection more than matters. Connection is essential to our happiness and our survival.
Let’s start this the other way up. What’s it like when you have no connection? How does it make you feel? You probably don’t want to go there – but use these few cues to just move gently into that territory for a moment.
For how long does your own company serve as company?
What’s the longest time you’ve been alone?
Just touch a moment with your mind when things were bad and you didn’t know they could change.
Take a moment to walk into a new job/school/pub where no one seems to register your arrival…..
If you’ve engaged with these prompts, there will have been changes in your breathing, your posture, your facial muscles. You will feel weakened.
We’re not designed to be alone
We are herd animals. We live in groups. Over millions of years, we have relied on others for our survival. Our safety comes through our capacity to connect. Maintaining connection is a lifelong task and without connections to others, we fare poorly. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
We’re most vulnerable in infancy
Without support, the newborn infant would not survive. Have you noticed how babies are great at letting you know they’re there and drawing you in? Babies are wired to connect. Attachment behaviours are about safety in relationships. The aim of attachment behaviour is proximity or contact, with the associated affect of feeling secure and safe. All through our lives, we’ll go to great lengths to achieve these benefits: look at all the pop songs about the cost and consequences of securing that crucial relationship.
It’s this same survival need that drives insecure attachment. After all, baby is in no position to make a judgment on whether their parent has the experiences and capacities required to parent them well. Baby has to connect with what’s available and seek to dance the family dance. There may be cost and consequences here too: we all adapt to what’s required, complicating and distorting our connection capacity in order to ensure we survive. This can have significant consequences when we arrive in school.
Life is unpredictable
Even successful attachment is not a guarantee of personal security. What happens if your attachment figure dies? Without that crucial personal connection, who or what holds you then? Evolution has provided a wider security net in the tribe and the mechanism best described as ‘belonging’.
Although the predominant cultural myth is of independence, the truth is that we are interdependent. We connect within groups. And we’re strongly aware of the threat of exclusion. Again, on a day to day level, just notice what you’re wearing and reflect for a moment what membership is guaranteed by your get up. Who do you connect with? Who is it you are relying on? In return for our security, we have a loyalty to our ‘belonging group’, whether that be a clique at work, a nation, a gang, an ethnic group. We crave being ‘in’, and feel rewarded when we’re central to the group.
How easily I connect in an individual relationship or in a group is determined by my experience. The development of the brain is use dependent (Perry B et al 1995) and, due to rapid cellular growth in infancy, early experience hardwires the brain. My 'normal' starts very early on, rooted in my early experience. Whatever my experience, my capacity for connection is not stuck. Human beings are designed to connect, and experiences throughout my life will change my brain. (Doidge 2008).
Barriers to connection
There’s one more element of connection I want to touch on. How well are you connected up internally? How much of your own stuff gets in the way? How much of your life are you able to be present in the present? How cleanly do you move from sensation to recognition, to action? Many of the impediments, the barriers to connect to others, are of our own making. They are habitual, unnoticed, assumed to be part of ourselves. I see my own on a daily basis and am reminded that this is where the work is!
So, embrace connection. Experiment. Nurture it. Extend it. Enjoy it. You’re designed for it. Think back to the last person who made you smile –and note the movement in your facial muscles. Was the smile rekindled? For all of us, whoever and wherever we are, in whatever circumstances, connection is vital.
Doidge N. 2008 The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London. Penguin
Holt-Lunstad J, TB, Layton JB. 2010. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine 7 (7)
Perry B et al. 1995 Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and ‘use dependent’ development of the brain: How states become traits Infant Mental Health Journal, December 2015