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