Engaging disaffected parents

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When a pupil is on the edge of being excluded from school, a good relationship with parents can make all the difference. In this article, Dr Trisha Waters outlines how the Story Links approach improved the school experience for one boy and his mother.

Summary

  • Parental involvement is particularly crucial during primary school.
  • By focusing on improving a child’s reading, parents can be more receptive.
  • Through creative storymaking, new relationships can be developed between parent, child and school.

Eight-year old Owen was frequently excluded from school because of challenging behaviour that included running out of class, violent outbursts and, in particular, physically attacking other children. He was an articulate boy but his literacy was very poor with his reading at just level 1. He was described as the most troubled pupil in the school.

He had been taken into care for two years when he was four years old but was now back living with his mother. His behaviour and history indicated a child with attachment anxiety.

Owen’s mother had a very poor relationship with the school. The headteacher reported that she usually came ‘gunning’ for him at least once a day but would not turn up for parent evenings or other scheduled school meetings.

In this article, we will look at how a parent-partnership intervention engaged Owen’s mother in his learning and turned around her attitude to the school, and will demonstrate the rationale and evidence base for this intervention.

The importance of parental involvement

Research by Desforges and Abouchaar (2003) shows that the quality of the child-parent relationship affects not just the child’s general wellbeing but their actual educational achievement in school. In fact, right up to the age of 11 years, parents continue to have more influence on their child’s academic achievement than anything that the school does – including the curriculum, peer group and environment quality of teaching (see Figure 1).

This piece of research, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, has resulted in a huge shift towards more focus on parent partnership in schools.

However, parents of pupils at risk of exclusion are often the hardest group to engage in school partnership. This may be due to a range of factors, including defensiveness engendered by having to continually come up to the school to hear about their child’s poor behaviour, by the triggering of uncomfortable memories of their own schooling or by the fact that they are themselves under stress and struggling to cope with day-to-day matters. All of these factors applied to Owen’s mother.

So how do we go about engaging such parents in school?

A solution-focused approach

The Story Links programme has been established in a number of local authorities in England and is currently being rolled out by Educational Psychology Services in Hampshire and Durham.

It uses a solution-focused approach by inviting parents to come into school to support their child’s reading, rather than asking them to come in to discuss behaviour difficulties. Parents of pupils at risk of exclusion may be disengaged and even aggressive towards the school but generally they always want their children to learn to read.

Owen’s mother certainly appeared relieved to hear that she was being asked to support his reading rather than discuss his poor behaviour again. However, she was still rather non-committal until she was shown a short story Owen had written in a therapeutic storywriting group.

This story was about a character who was calling for his Mum who did not come, despite being called ‘17 times’. Owen’s mother suddenly became engaged and said, ‘I think this story is about him. I think it’s because I don’t give him any time. I give all my attention to his younger brother.’

She then agreed to come to the sessions in order to give some time to her older son.

Owen’s mother was clearly able to read the meaning of metaphor in the story, even though she had quite poor literacy skills herself. This is a particularly adult facility that only comes with the development of abstract thinking at adolescence. As the sessions progressed, this ability was encouraged and it helped her to feel more empowered as the adult in relation to her son.

Effect of parental involvement on pupil achievement Effect of school on pupil achievement
Age 7  29%  5%
Age 11 27% 21%
Age 16 14% 51%

 

Creating stories together

The 10-week intervention aims to foster positive attachment between pupil and parent through the mutually enjoyable activity of creative storymaking. It involves pupil, parent and a trained educational professional meeting once a week for 30 minutes.

In creating the stories, the parent is encouraged to attune to their child’s emotional world through the imagery. For instance, when Owen’s mother was asked what he had been like at home one week and she replied ‘fiery’, that week’s story had started with a dragon who couldn’t control his firebox.

Once the story starter has been established, the story is then co-created by the group. This process is playful and generally enjoyed by both parent and child. It is then typed up by the facilitator and used as the pupil’s reading text, both at home with the parent and in school with a teaching assistant.

Promoting positive attachment through reading

Owen’s mother admitted she had never listened to him read at home. She was encouraged not to just hear Owen read the story but to do it in a way that promotes positive attachment, i.e. by encouraging physical proximity, giving him her undivided attention and doing so in a way that is mutually enjoyable.

Outcomes and evidence base

Owen’s mother managed to attend 8 out of the 10 sessions. Her son was not excluded once during this term and the headteacher reported that her attitude to the school had improved dramatically. She had even offered to come along to help at the Christmas fair.

The outcomes illustrated by this case study are supported by the findings of a two-year research project conducted at the University of Chichester.

Conclusion

By maintaining a belief that parents, whatever their parenting history, will always want the best for their child and engaging them in a way that is non-threatening, it is possible to work with even the most disaffected parents.

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