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
‘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 realise 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 & 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 encourage 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.
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