How productive are these meetings, really? When a pupil, persistently dusruptive let’s say, has notched up enough behaviour points on SIMS for ‘parents in’ to be the next step? How often do we then see a sustained or even short lived improvement in general attitude and behaviour? Rarely, I’d suggest – if only the problem of disaffection was so easily fixed.
‘Mrs Ward, I’m afraid we have no choice but to permanently exclude Ryan. Since we last met, he’s been fixed term excluded twice, we’ve had him before the governors and yet still we see no change in attitude and behaviour. I can no longer ignore the serious impact this is having on the learning of others. I’m really sorry but we’ve reached the end of the road.’
‘I know you’re done everything you can. He never listens to me either. We’re grateful for everything you’ve done as a school.’
That’s the gist of many such conversations. Most parents accept the Headteacher’s decision without question and in truth most Heads would rather not have to permanently exclude – those meetings with parents, and there are often many, everyone desperately wants them to make a difference.
But all too often they don’t. And sometimes they’re stressful and acrimonious. I think one of the reasons for this is that they have a tendency to shame. We may hope that by making a pupil feel ashamed we will provoke a positive response, but the research tells us otherwise. Nathanson’s Compass of Shame summarises our four most common reactions to the affect very clearly – all of them essentially anti-social.
Parents feel shame too, of course, when their children behave badly in school. They too occupy positions on this compass, blaming themselves, each other, perhaps withdrawing from or attacking school. None of this is helpful.
So meetings must never be shaming. But what could they be? I’m writing this from my hotel room after day one of the 13th Annual Conference of Solution Focused Practice in Swansea. It’s a glorious sunny day, I’m in the land of song so the conference opened with a beautiful 40 minute recital from Ffion Haf Jones, and it’s just concluded with some inspiration from Finland in the form of Ben Furman.
There aren’t many educators at the conference – we’re an assortment of mental health and social care practitioners mainly. But the worlds of solution focused practice and education need to properly meet, I’m now even more convinced.
As Ben spoke about his international s-f work with clients (sometimes observed by several hundred people – there’s no shame, so clients have no problem with this) I was thinking the whole time about how different our meetings with parents in school might be. If, that is, we went about them differently. Saw them not as part of the disciplinary process but as a solutions-focused intervention. I’m prepared to hazard that if everything depended on these meetings making a positive difference, our Ofsted rating, our outcomes, then we would conduct disciplinary meetings with families completely differently. We would be searching for solutions, not laying down warnings and ultimatums, and we would be embracing solutions-focused practice as a methodology and a language to enable us to do that.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Ben revealed his grand ‘flowerpot theory’. Each flower in the s-f pot represents a characteristic feature of effective practice, Ben explained; that is, the qualities of hope, collaboration and creativity. He then shared a handful of practical tips on how to cultivate these qualities through s-f conversations. I’ve listed some of these below, under the three headings.
- Simply saying, ‘You have come to the right person!’
- ‘What will it look like when it’s better?’
- ‘What new skills will you need to get there?’
- ‘When have you been able to overcome a problem in the past?
- ‘How did you do it?’
- Testimony. Others who have been where you are and triumphed
- What steps of progress have already been made? ‘You’re here! You’re already on the road!’
- Scaling exercise – measuring progress
- ‘How do you want to celebrate when you’ve got these new skills?’
- ‘Who do you want to bring to the meeting?’
- ‘What skills do the helpers have that we could use?’
- Focusing on each in turn – helpers identifying skills in each other
- ‘What skills do you have? (What would your Mum / Dad / Gran say your skills are?)’
- Thanking people for any positive change
- Complimenting – not just at the end but throughout the conversation
- Apologising for anything that hasn’t helped in the past
- Asking for feedback
- Believing that the child is clever and will have ideas
- Seeing parents as the experts on the child – respecting this
- Avoiding a focus on the problem – brainstorming ideas
- Collecting these from everyone. Recording on post-it notes. Refering to in future meetings
- Offering many ideas if necessary, so group evaluates and chooses, but not directing
We heard story after story about the transformational power of hope, collaboration and creativity – harnessed by a skilled s-f practitioner – over the two days of the conference. Positive change happens quickly too, compared to other therapies such as CBT. Six sessions are typically enough – sometimes just one can make a massive difference.
Our Lincolnshire PSP is solution focussed and Dr Geoff James will be training PSP coaches later this term. It’s not just my hope but my expectation that they will return to their schools inspired to try this simple but profoundly different approach. It will be interesting to follow their journey and to talk to the children they go on to help.