There is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of working in partnership with parents – especially where children with special needs are concerned. But reaching parents of the most vulnerable children can prove difficult. Jill McMinn and Gill Britten describe a project in Wrexham which has won the hearts and minds of the parents involved.

Over the last few years, parents have seemed more reluctant to get involved in their children’s speech and language programmes. They have needed a lot more encouragement to attend meetings in school and rarely come to help in class. More and more frequently, we were receiving distressing telephone calls and letters, many raising issues of managing children’s behaviour at home. In September 2003 we decided to try a different way of working with our parents and started our SPEC (Supporting Parents of Exceptional Children) group.

From talking with the parents we found they all felt isolated, confused and exhausted. They were fearful of the future and were showing signs of chronic stress and depression. It was no wonder that they felt unable to work collaboratively.

We felt strongly that SPEC had to be parent led; we needed to listen carefully to what the parents had to say, take on board their worries and concerns and respond to them immediately.

The support group would:

  • help to meet the parents’ social and emotional needs
  • help them understand how and why they should help their children
  • develop their knowledge and understanding of a range of behaviour management strategies
  • develop their knowledge and understanding of child development, language and play
  • through joint parent /child sessions show them how to work with their children at home
  • offer a qualification in speaking and listening.

Two different types of session were planned; one for the parents to tackle personal worries and difficulties (parent sessions) and one for parents and children to work together on behaviour, language and literacy (joint sessions).

Parents’ sessions We chose a venue outside school for the 14 two-hourly sessions between September and December. These were facilitated by Gill and Kate, who both have experience of working with adult groups. A typical session began with a staggered start as the parents arrived: some parents had to pick up their nursery-age children and others were reliant on public transport. Everyone started the session with tea and cake – an important icebreaker. The first part of the session was the parents’ time to ‘download’. During this time individual problems with housing, benefits, annual reviews and other social and welfare issues were also addressed. After a break, discussion centred on positive ways for parents to care for themselves at home during the coming week. Ideas mainly came from the parents themselves and popular choices of relaxation would typically include burning aromatherapy candles, bubble baths, listening to music, taking a drive or going for a walk; handing over their children to other family members for short periods and becoming assertive enough to ensure that they were able to have some time for themselves each day.

In talking about the previous week, parents would often focus on the negative aspects of their children’s behaviour. In the beginning this was often very upsetting, both for the speaker and for the rest of the group who were listening, and some parents were unable to remain in the room. The necessity of having group co-leaders became most apparent at times like this. One group leader would continue the session and the other would support the distressed parent until they were able to rejoin the group. Initially, we also had to work very hard to encourage parents to mention even the smallest positive achievement.

It was at this time that parents were encouraged to look at the problems that were raised and work together to offer helpful coping strategies. Every issue that was raised by parents was taken seriously and logged, and the information was later used to plan the joint sessions. The kinds of issues that were causing most concern were often superficially trivial – brushing hair, cleaning teeth, getting dressed or undressed, getting into the school taxi, eating, staying in bed at bedtime – but they were causing major trauma in the home settings. Parents had often endured more than an hour of kicking and screaming from their child before the school taxi arrived, and they were often left to face the day physically and emotionally exhausted, very concerned about their child and dreading home time.

Individual problems with housing, benefits, annual reviews and other social and welfare issues were addressed. After a break, discussion centred on positive ways for parents to care for themselves at home during the coming week.

We used a range of creative activities to allow parents to express their feelings, for example they made sand pictures, bead bracelets and a group collage. They enjoyed having the freedom to express themselves and found that having the opportunity to share experiences with people in similar situations was most helpful. As time went on, they were increasingly able to help each other. This mutual support, together with the advice from Kate, helped them all to feel more confident. They made it clear that they wanted the sessions to continue.

So, in January, when the joint sessions started, SPEC moved into Acton Park Infant School and each session was divided into two parts; the first hour was a continuation of the parents’ sessions, and then the staff and children came across to join the parents’ group for the joint session.

Joint sessions
At one o’clock the children and staff joined the parents. In the event of absent parents, each child concerned would be invited to choose an adult to work with from those present. Previously, in class, the children were always carefully prepared in case they had to make this choice. Some children found it very difficult to cope when their parent could not attend and we had to work very hard to help them to remain calm and cheerful.

‘The balls’ make up a multi-sensory activity to show the children what the parents feel about the child’s behaviour. A number of named Perspex tubes are set in a frame. A yellow ball represents a good day, a green ball represents a child trying really hard but not quite succeeding and a blue ball represents a bad day.

Each parent and child discusses behaviour that has occurred at home during the previous week. The child fills their own Perspex tube with seven appropriately coloured balls – one for each day of the preceding week. Following open group discussion an amended home behaviour target is negotiated for the forthcoming week. Should a child’s parent not be present, the child’s class behaviour is reviewed.

Weekly session plan

  • welcome song
  • icebreaker game (led by Jill McMinn)
  • oral language game/activity (led by Norma Roddis)
  • creative/literacy activity (led by Gill Britten)
  • session review (led by Kate Wyke)
  • ‘The balls’ – weekly review (led by Gill Britten) – see box below
  • Toby diary – Toby is the family learning monkey and each week is taken home by a child as a way of encouraging children and their parents to engage in literacy activities such as writing a diary page or talking about what had happened while Toby was with them during the week
  • closing song
  • reflection.

Looking back at the original aims of SPEC, we believe that the project has gone some way to meet the parents’ own social and emotional needs and we have received far fewer distressed phone calls and letters. Due to our inexperience we had, however, seriously underestimated the amount of time parents needed to explore and revisit these issues. As a result, we covered far less work around child development and language and play than we had planned. We have made a good start at sharing a range of effective behaviour management strategies but recognise SPEC is not a ‘quick fix’ and this work needs to continue.

‘When I see how to do it it’s much easier to do it at home’
‘I never knew he could dress himself until I watched the PE session’

In September the parents were at first reluctant to join in open discussions, and again in January they were all worried about joining in the activities in the joint session, but by the end of the pilot project parents were participating well and were beginning to offer really good practical suggestions, eg the use of green balls in the weekly review to denote ‘trying hard’. They particularly liked being shown ways of working with the children with regard to behaviour management and activities to develop life skills, language and literacy.

Attendance was good throughout the whole year and all the parents wanted to continue. They were all thrilled to achieve the Open College Network speaking and listening entry level 1 qualification, and two parents undertook further courses as a direct result of attending SPEC.

We believe the success of SPEC is due to two factors: being parent led and using the two types of sessions. With support, parents help each other which increases their self-confidence and lessens their feelings of isolation and stress. They can celebrate together the progress the children make, and seeing staff working with the children encourages them to have a go themselves. The potential for the children to resort to manipulative behaviour is greatly reduced because we are all using a consistent approach. Working together as equals in a supportive atmosphere has created a partnership that really works.

‘It’s been great, I feel as if I have a life now, if only on a Wednesday!’

Update September 2005 SPEC is still running in its original format for the parents of Acton Infant Language Resource and continues to be valued and successful. This year we have experimented with holiday sessions including all existing SPEC parents and inviting parents from the junior and senior Language Resources, along with parents who have children in mainstream who are being supported by our speech and language impairment outreach service.

Some existing parents have regularly attended along with a cross-section of new parents and these holiday sessions have proved partially successful.

  • All the parents and children have enjoyed meeting up in the holidays. The new parents have particularly valued meeting others in the same situation as themselves.
  • All the parents have valued the continuity of contact and support, especially through the long summer break.
  • All the parents and children have enjoyed the social aspect of these meetings and the trips out.

There have been some difficulties.

  • These sessions require a significant commitment on the part of the professionals who are officially on holiday at these times.
  • It is challenging to effectively differentiate the language, literacy and art activities across a wide age range (four to five years).
  • The older children do not like working in a big group with the younger children, but we do not have the accommodation or resources for two groups.
  • It is not possible to have our behaviour management component (‘the balls’) in the same way, as sessions are too infrequent.
  • We continue to have no direct budget for SPEC and rely on support from Acton Park Infant School, Yale College Wrexham, the Citizens Advice Bureau, charitable donations and fund raising.
  • We continue to believe that SPEC is a model of working effectively with parents which could be rolled out across other special educational settings. It takes lots of energy, commitment and determination to start such a group, but the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.

The SPEC team: Gill Britten, family learning coordinator, Yale College, Wrexham; Gemma Edwards, nursery nurse, Acton Infant Language Resource, Wrexham; Jill McMinn, advisory teacher, Acton Infant Language Resource; Norma Roddis, speech and language therapist, Acton Infant Language Resource; Kate Wyke, parent partnership coordinator, Citizens Advice Bureau, Wrexham.

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