Working with families helps me break down barriers to learning

Teacher and therapist Sue Richards-Gray has long been fascinated by what stops some children from learning. In this extract from an interview she explains why working with the whole family can have the biggest impact. This is from the Guardian…

I’ve worked a lot with Child and Adolsecent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) over the years in schools and realised some families don’t like the idea of it because they think it labels them or their child as “mad”. They don’t turn up to CAMHS appointments which can be miles away. At Elm Court we decided to set up a one stop shop where parents could come into the school for therapy once a month and meet and talk. They could refer themselves or teachers could advise them to come if their children had emotional or social blocks to learning – it was a real success.

Now I work as a therapist with Schools and Family Works. What we do in schools is close to family therapy based on the Marlborough model of multi-family therapy groups which were originally set up to help families with anorexia and schizophrenia – but in an educational setting.

We work with families a group to help children who have blocks to learning. This might be children who are very withdrawn or particularly disruptive. I go into several different schools and work with a member of the senior management team, as well as parents and children from an average of eight families, so it’s quite a big group. All the family is welcome but very often it’s the mother and the child. We meet once a week for two hours in school. It’s structured and it’s safe.

We work on school-related tasks and activities and talk about children’s learning styles and how things are going and experiences of bringing up children. There can be cycles of deprivation in families that stop children succeeding through the generations. We also talk about what’s been difficult that week – families often haven’t spoken about these kinds of things before. What we are providing is the reflective space that is needed to process complex emotional difficulties. That space is rarely available to families living in areas of high deprivation or to families whose children have additional needs.

As a therapist I listen and observe: is there a power imbalance? Is the child screaming at the parent or vice versa? We base our work on big targets such as we would like to see ‘Jenny’ functioning in class, or going to bed and getting up on time for school or being able to talk to friends and not hit them. We play structured games. Parents start to be a resource for their children and for each other. I see the therapy as a bridge for families and schools. Teachers don’t have time to spend with families in this way to find the space to breath, to grow. Usually parents are called into school when something extra terrible happens. But to get in there before, when families aren’t coping, is very important.

I think families are crucial for learning. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached through my chequered career. A child needs a whole package and a school needs awareness of the whole child – that includes their families they don’t come on their own. If there’s damage with the family’s relationships that has an effect on the child and it goes in circles.

I feel most comfortable with my new role because I know that this is really making a difference and that education doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I think there’s a danger that we separate education too much from real life and that really concerns me. If I’d known all this when I was teaching full time it would have helped me immeasurably.

More (including Sue’s family group game teaching resource) at:  Working with families helps me break down barriers to learning

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