Building links between a child’s school and home is an excellent way to approach their behaviour and emotional literacy, says Virginia Robinson

Back in 2001 when we were reviewing areas of behavioural need across Sunderland, there were two questions we asked ourselves:

  • how do you connect the professional background of the school with the home?
  • how do you introduce a consistent approach to behaviour management across a whole school, and mirror this within the home?

We ended up choosing the Family Links School and Nurturing Programme to help us meet these challenges. This reflected our desire to:

  • change the relationship between schools and families so as to create a more parent-centred ethos
  • work with teachers, parents and children
  • emphasise positives and avoid preaching.

The programme, which works with children aged between five and 13, is now the most widely used parenting programme in Sunderland schools.

Building bridges

The Nurturing Programme is intended to build bridges between children and adults at home and at school. Providing teachers with a range of techniques they can use, it teaches children how to manage their feelings and handle disputes without resorting to aggression. Our experience is that that the programme not only develops relationships and improves children’s behaviour, but also increases academic achievement and literacy skills.

Key constructs

The Nurturing Programme, which was developed by the American psychologist Dr Stephen J Bavolek, is built around four constructs designed to address the destructive attitudes typical of children who receive neglectful or abusive parenting:

Appropriate expectations
If we want children to gain confidence, then we need to match our expectations of their abilities and behaviour to their stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development. If we expect too much or too little, then children can become angry, frustrated, rebellious, perfectionist or despairing.

Empathy
It is almost impossible to be abusive towards another person if you are empathetic: a child who is treated with empathy and respect will grow up to treat others the same way.

Positive discipline
Positive discipline and positive behaviour are promoted through a focus on praise, rewards, granting responsibility, choices and consequences. This is based on the assumption that:

  • all behaviour has a reason
  • we get more of what we attend to
  • discipline needs to be firm, fair and consistent
  • trying to control a child through shouting, belittling and ridicule can be as damaging as physical punishment.

Self-awareness and self-esteem
By being sensitive to our own needs and taking responsibility for them, we can be more nurturing towards others. Awareness is also needed to understand how our own childhood experiences have influenced our relationships with children.

The activities in the programme encourage the development of these constructive attitudes in adults and children. The programme, which uses both cognitive (thinking-based) and affective (feelings-based) activities, runs for 10 weeks in-school and is repeated every term. A 10-week parenting programme runs concurrently.

Family Links UK

An Oxford-based charity that aims to help everyone get the best out of school and family life by promoting emotional wellbeing, relationship skills and positive behaviour through the Nurturing Programme. The organisation trains professionals, supports area teams and works in partnership with many different organisations.

In 2005, Dr Virginia MacNeill undertook a report of the Nurturing Programme and found that it had made a positive difference to the social, emotional and behavioural development of some children, and that the techniques it used enabled a consistent approach throughout the school.

Professor Charles Desforges in his study ‘The Impact of Parental Involvement’ commented that ‘the programme receives strong endorsement from head teachers who have used it. These heads feel that the programme has, as part of a general strategy of school improvement, played a significant part in improving the schools’ ethos and it has enhanced the emotional stability of all concerned’.

www.familylinks.org.uk

Implementing the programme

Sunderland City Council initially invited Family Links to establish the Nurturing Programme in Sure Start areas. Over time, the service has evolved to become a universal offer for all parents. While parents who are experiencing difficulties in managing their children’s behaviour may be invited on to the programme, there is no referral process.

The Nurturing Programme sits alongside other complementary parenting initiatives offered through the local authority that include:

  • family literacy and numeracy courses
  • a family learning through football programme.

The children’s programme is a curriculum-based course run by teachers in the classroom. The sessions provide tools for children to deal with their feelings and take charge of their behaviour.
The parenting programme improves parents’ confidence and skills, enabling them to maintain effective positive discipline while understanding their own children’s emotional needs.

Our leaders facilitate rather than teach. The course is not prescriptive – it allows parents to make up their minds about their feelings and actions; to promote their own mental health and self-esteem. Many parents start the course wanting to ‘just sort out their kids’. But as the programme progresses, they realise that they have to change their own behaviour and only then will children change theirs.

While many of the outcomes are not measurable in the short term, indications are that the programme is having a significant effect on the children, parents and school staff who participate. The programme is intended to be long term and sustainable.

The aim is to train people who will go on to train to become parent leaders themselves, thereby building capacity within local communities. The training is accredited by the Open College Network and 220 parent group leaders have already completed the course.

Implementing in schools

For the programme to be effective, we work with a school to ensure the appropriate conditions are in place (see box, right). We recommend that staff are consulted about the initiative before it is introduced, to ensure that they support it in principle.

A two-day training is offered to all staff, including administrators and premises staff, which generally takes place during Inset days. We recommend that schools consider inviting governors and outreach workers to the training to extend understanding of the programme throughout the community. Separate training is offered to midday supervisors tailored to their specific needs.

The programme needs a weekly timetabled slot in each class for a consistent whole-school approach to become established. Most schools use the PSHE session as the programme supports the curriculum guidelines for PSHE and citizenship. However, care needs to be taken if the school already has an existing PSHE scheme.

The Nurturing Programme has its own structure and logical progression for the ten weeks and should not be dipped into as an add-on. After the programme is well established, normally after about a year, explicit PSHE topics can be introduced.

The programme is aligned with the literacy and learning requirements of the National Curriculum. The weekly sessions with children are usually based around circle time, although many schools incorporate aspects of the programme into other elements of the school day.

After training, each school is asked to nominate two link teachers to help sustain the initiative by liaising with Family Links North East as well as supporting their colleagues and inducting new members of staff.

Making a difference

Carefully developed evaluation procedures allow for ongoing feedback and qualitative data on the programme. Evaluation forms are completed daily by participants, while schools complete pre- and post-training questionnaires. End of term and one-year-on questionnaires, which are completed by schools, help assess how the training is being implemented in schools and the difference the programme is making. Parents also keep a family log to help report how family life is changing during the course of the programme.

School staff have reported that in-school training impacts on the culture of schools and that running the programme concurrently in school and as a parenting course provides a consistency of message that supports programme outcomes. It also helps develop a consistency of approach when children move through the school, from one teacher to another.

Feedback from parents is extremely positive. Many claim that the programme has been a life-changing experience for them.

The headteacher of one local primary school reported that training had provided all school staff with new tools to help them adopt a consistent approach when managing children’s behaviour. She said that the programme’s principles were being used by teachers beyond the specific weekly sessions and that teaching assistants were also finding the programme particularly helpful.

More than 50% of the authority’s primary and nursery settings have completed the programme and Ofsted has been complimentarily about the programme’s effectiveness. In addition, qualitative data has shown:

  • 100% of participants felt the training had increased their confidence
  • 100% felt it had given them an insight into thinking from a child’s point of view
  • 85% felt that they would change the way they dealt with their own children
  • 100% of teachers felt it had given them more strategies to manage behaviour.

Parents and teachers overwhelmingly report that their confidence has grown and that they are able to use more positive approaches to managing behaviour. As a result, the programme is now written into Sunderland’s extended schools, CAMHS and parentingstrategies.

Investing in the future
Our conviction is that, by building emotional literacy in children, we will over time see:

  • fewer mental health problems
  • a reduced need for counselling
  • a reduced risk of offending
  • the removal of barriers to learning.

The right conditions

Things to consider before introducing an emotional literacy family programme:

  • How well does the programme match the existing ethos of the school?
  • Is the headteacher genuinely committed to the principles of the programme?
  • Can staff take on another initiative? What are their stress levels like?
  • How responsive are parents to school initiatives?
  • If you are already using a structured PSHE and SEAL course, how will the new programme complement them?
  • Are you looking for a quick fix to sort out difficult behaviour or are school staff committed to enhancing the emotional health of all adults and children in school?
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