Building on the family context
Family comes first
Schools build on the developmental experience of the child within his/her family system. It is the parents who first set about promoting emotional wellbeing, building resilience, and establishing and protecting good mental health. Schools play a supporting role. Schools need to recognise that the familial level of belonging is primary. Belonging to the class or group or school comes second. Strong, positive relationships between school and home act as a bridge, supporting the child to manage the daily transition between these two support systems. The child will experience difficulty where there is tension between the two systems.
Moving between systems
Schools have an important role in helping children experience belonging to systems other than the family and helping them understand how to move between systems easily.
Throughout our lives, we face the challenge of moving between systems. Each system has a framework, has norms, taboos. Transitions – periods of negotiating and accommodating changes in systems – provoke stress and anxiety. Good experience of managing transitions in early life is a protective factor for good mental health. Commonly, the first major transition for a child is moving between home and school. When the relationship between home and school is secure, most children easily learn how to be flexible, to adapt, and to develop the skills that enable them to belong to more than one system. To facilitate the development of this lifetime skill in the child, teachers need to respect the child’s family and culture. The family system comes first: It is home. The child will be enabled to move between systems easily when home and school demonstrate respect for each other.
We are all quickly preoccupied with events or issues that lead us to feeling unsettled or insecure within our families. Dissonance/difficulty with child in school may be understood as a call from the family system. There is something unbalanced at home, and as a loyal member of the family, the child is pulled to support the system. At such times, it is important for school staff to support the child’s position even when it pulls against the norms of the school.
Consequences of exclusion from systems
A common characteristic of the families we support (those sometimes described as facing severe and multiple disadvantages) is that they have been excluded from many systems. This often goes back a generation or more. Many of the parents we support struggled as children. As children, they may have had experiences that shamed and isolated them, immobilising them within their family of origin, cutting them off from any support available within their schools. For some, communicating their need for support triggered the engagement of services that intervened incisively into their family system, cutting members in or out, raising issues of disloyalty, transgression, guilt.
It is common to find that Family Group parents had difficulties at or were themselves excluded from, school. The positive experience of moving between two systems remains foreign, unknown. With few qualifications, inadequate family support and under-developed relational skills, negotiating a way into the working world is often difficult. A common experience is of being the outsider: rejected. Withdrawing into isolation, loyalties become fixed: patterns set. Opportunities to experience difference reduce. Opportunities reduce for the supported transition from one group to another.
Loss, rejection and transgression combine with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness: ‘this is all I’ve known and I’m stuck with it’. From a place of isolation, change, which means the loosening of belonging ties, the opening to ‘other’, can seem impossible.
‘I’ll do it for my child’
Parents come to Family Group spurred by a desire that their children thrive in school. They come for their children. Their selfless desire to support their child takes precedence over their own entrenched patterns. This admirable parental aspiration trumps the anxieties of individuals who have felt stuck; it is a triumph of hope over experience. Parents make a huge commitment; they will come for ‘as long as it takes’. Some take time off work, unpaid, weekly, for months on end. These heroic folk are addressing the task of breaking negative transgenerational patterns. This is hard work and needs support. By joining Family Group they forge a support community and enable the experience of belonging for themselves and others.
The Family Group intervention creates communities, new belonging groups of disparate individuals joined by the desire to ensure their children experience success in school. Parents share skills and experiences, resourcing each other with support and challenge, in a group endeavour to make a difference for the most vulnerable group members, the children. This enables and maintains good mental health for isolated, marginalized adults, and provides strong, healthy models, relational skills, and support to children at risk of poor outcomes.
Written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works
Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy
Feelings arise, feelings inhabit us for a while, and feelings pass. That’s a natural process. Christmas seems to require us to be happy; it’s an additional pressure many of us feel at this time of year.
Christmas present resonates with Christmas past. There may be unwelcome feelings and memories. It’s the sticky complicated feelings that bung us up. Whatever feelings you have, try to separate them out and acknowledge them. Give yourself time and space to process. Tell someone if you can, or express yourself creatively. Once the stuck feeling is out of you, there’s space for other feelings to arise.
Christmas can seem to be about what you have. But children remember what you do
Christmas means so much more than presents. It is a chance to connect with your children and find comfort in relationships. With this in mind, consider starting a Christmas tradition that you can do each year. Talk to your children and find out what they would like to do. Perhaps you can all make a decoration for your home or Christmas tree together or all have breakfast in bed on Christmas morning. Whatever it is, it can be something you do each year. These may be small things but your children will remember them in years to come.
Managing family conflict at Christmas
Christmas often means spending time with family members we would perhaps rather not see. Sometimes we find ourselves locked into patterns of behaviour, with messy, unwanted but entirely predictable consequences. What to do? Reflect on your own patterns. What is it that you always do? Can you factor in a change? How can you act outside your pattern – without exposing yourself to hurt? A difference in you invites a difference in the other person, and new possibilities arise.
Make a little time for yourself
Most parents struggle to make time for themselves and this is particularly true at Christmas. Have a think about how you could find (or steal) some time for you. Self-care is essential. Even just 5 minutes a day will make a difference to how you feel. Perhaps take a bath, read a book or go for a short walk. Set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to do this each day. It helps your children. ‘I need ME time to give YOU time’. Make it your mantra.
When all else fails, remember to breathe
When we are feeling stressed and anxious, it activates our fight or flight response. This makes us breathe faster and shallower, which in turn increases our stress and anxiety. When you feel triggered, breathe OUT. Then, without inhaling, breathe out AGAIN. Without air inside, you’re not fighting or fleeing from anything! Those few seconds of calm space open a vital reflective gap.
Remembering to take a few deep breaths whenever things get on top of you can really help to calm you down. Combining this with a positive mantra such as “This too shall pass” or “It’s ok to not be ok” will also help to ease your tension.
We’re often asked what sort of changes are seen in children and their families who attend Family Group. One of the ways that Family Group is unique is that it’s not a short-term therapy model. Families can attend for as long as they need to, on average for about a year. In that time, significant and sustainable change can take place, not just for the children attending but also their parents/carers.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the children who benefitted from Family Group*
Aleksy is 8 years old. He attended Family Group with his mother Rosa for 10 months. Aleksy lives with his Mother, Father and two younger siblings. The family are originally from Poland.
Difficulties at home and school
Rosa described Alesky as “a difficult child” and reports that he is aggressive and disruptive at home. Rosa wanted to come to Family Group so that she could change the way she dealt with Aleksy’s behaviour and to improve their relationship. She was worried that he was turning against her.
Before attending Family Group, both Aleksy and Rosa said that their relationship was difficult and they often shouted at one another on a daily basis. Rosa felt that she had not paid Aleksy enough attention in recent years as she was so busy with his two younger siblings.
This sense of rejection manifested itself in aggressive behaviour not only towards his mother but also his younger siblings: “He would shout “You’re not my sister!” and would fight with the younger children. Rosa explained that she would try to calm him down and he would continue to shout at her and ignore her pleas to stop fighting.
At school, Aleksy had difficulty in concentrating in lessons; his teachers have described this as “being lost” as if he goes off into a daydream. His lack of attendance and poor engagement with lessons meant that he could not keep up with all that was expected of him at school. When asked why he could not always concentrate, Alesky said: “Well, I felt so tired, I just, well I’d get sleepy and want to lie on my bed, I couldn’t think”.
Rosa felt guilty a lot of the time before attending Family Group because she knew that Aleksy was not happy, but she did not know how to deal with him. When she heard about Family Group she wanted to attend to see if it would help Aleksy’s behaviour at home and at school.
Positive changes for both parent and child
Attending Family Group has been a positive experience for Rosa and Aleksy; they both enjoy coming to the sessions and Aleksy, in particular, does not want to give up this time with his Mother.
Coming to Family Group has, according to the school, “brought him out of his shell and dramatically improved his attendance”. His mother believes the weekly Family Group sessions have helped him to become less anxious and angry.
Rosa admitted that she was shy and slightly afraid about attending Family Group as English is not her first language, but as the therapist explained: “Family Group can provide a safe place where adults with EAFL are more vocal and that is great for them”. Aleksy’s progress has been noted by the therapist too, she explained that he has developed a new found confidence and is “more relaxed and smiles more often”.
Rosa and Aleksy have also taken Family Group strategies on board at home and both agree the targets are motivational for them and when they report back at Family Group, they are both proud when Aleksy does well. The time spent together is clearly providing benefits for both the parent and the child.
Rosa admits that before coming to Family Group, she used to shout a lot and feel frustrated at what she perceived to be an inability to talk to Aleksy. She now feels calmer, more in control and enjoys being with him. To emphasise the importance of Family Group, Rosa stated that “It’s changed us both at home and in school; I want to keep coming, it’s so good, I want to come each week”.
The summary here refers to the benefits Rosa has seen from attending Family Group:
1) Improved parent/child relationship
Rosa explained that the most important issue for her was the significant improvement in her relationship with her son. She felt that he was always fighting for her attention but now they have one to one time each week, he has changed. Rosa stated that “He was improving slowly, but now it’s fast and on our way home from the first Family Group he suddenly said, “Mummy, I love you”, he hadn’t said that before”. The shouting has stopped and Rosa realises that she does not need to shout to ensure that he listens to her.
2) New routines at home
Rosa knew that some things at home had to change so that she could make more time to be with the children and share some activities with them. She explained that the family was getting into the habit of coming home from school and the children would be straight on to a computer or tablet. After talking this through at Family Group, she took the advice of another parent and instigated a ‘weekend only’ policy for using the tablet/computers. At first, this was hard for them all and she described the first night as “hard and really sad for me” because “Aleksy shouted, “I want it, I want it”. I stayed strong and that evening he tried asking and asking for 2 or 3 hours”. Rosa was proud to explain that Aleksy cooperated and she produced some new pens, papers and drawing tools and he drew her a picture. She had decided not to simply withdraw the tablet, but to ensure he had an alternative activity; the ‘weekend only’ policy is now in force and all of the children have other activities on offer during the week.
3) Learning to new strategies to support change
Rosa freely admits that she could not deal with Aleksy before Family Group and always responded by shouting at him; however, she has learned from the other parents and the therapist to employ strategies to calm situations rather than adding further tension. Rosa accepted that she had to change too and so at home she will sit with the children and talk when they are upset. She has agreed individual time with all of her children now and says that home is a much calmer place.
The summary here refers to the changes that have taken place for Aleksy since attending Family Group:
1) Improved attendance at school
Aleksy’s Mother, the therapist and the school all noted that the swiftest change for Aleksy was his attitude to attendance which went from a poor 70% up to nearly 100%.
2) Improved Behaviour
In the past, Aleksy would become aggressive and shout, usually at his Mother, when he could not get her attention. The targets for behaviour have been particularly successful for him. Alesky also explained that he has a new routine to check his bag and ensure he has what he needs; he admitted that this made him feel more secure and meant that he scored well in his targets.
Aleksy has clearly responded positively and relatively fast to the Target Card intervention. He demonstrates a competitive attitude which means he strives to achieve well each week and this seems to have improved his general abilities to concentrate and focus on tasks. His Mother is very determined that he keeps improving and that she keeps herself more fully involved in his life.
3) Positive about school
Aleksy now enjoys coming to school and in particular, attending Family Group. His mother reports that when he comes home, he will talk about the Family Group activities with his sister and tell her what they did or made; recently she has asked to attend school and Family Group too! In the past, his disengagement with school meant that he would rarely answer any questions from his parents, but recently his Mother witnessed a pleasing change. She explains, “A month ago they started learning about the Romans; well he came home and told me everything about the Romans. And then he asked, “Do you know about the Romans?” And I said, “no, I know about my own history in Poland but tell me about the Romans”, and he really did, he loved it”
Aleksy says that now he likes school because he likes coming to Family Group; he feels comfortable at school and “I like playing music, my recorder – we learn B and A; and I really like art. I’m getting better at it – we do lots of that in Family Group”. Aleksy is emphasising his enjoyment of the practical activities in Family Group, but is able to reflect on how he is progressing in the classroom too.
4) Improved confidence
The school and therapist both agreed that Aleksy is more confident since attending Family Group and that his bond with his mother appears stronger. Rosa is happy that Aleksy is able to say that he loves her and to tell her more about his day to day life.
Benefits to the school
Rosa has recently volunteered to help in school and has just received her DBS check through so is able to come in and take an even more active role in the school community. The theme of developing a school community is one that Family Group facilitates with all families that participate: a seemingly small change but one that can make a big difference to the school. The school notes that Family Group “makes a big difference in terms of creating a stable, cohesive school community”.
Sustainable, long-term change
Family Group has made a real difference to the lives of Rosa and Aleksy. Improved home life for the family, better attendance and behaviour at school for Aleksy and a closer working partnership with the school means that everyone benefits from Family Group.
*Due to confidentiality, all names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the families.
Use the calendar or list of months to view entries made on those dates.