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Nurture groups and parental engagement

Nurture groups are a multi-dimensional group intervention with a whole-school focus, and running them successfully depends on a wide array of different factors. In thisarticle exploring nurture groups, Batul Al-Khatib considers parental involvement in the groups and the ways that staff and parents can establish positive relationships and work well together.

Summary

  • Parent involvement is crucial to the success of nurture group provision.
  • Professionals working to set up nurture group need to show empathy and understanding.
  • The key to overcoming barriers to engagement is mindful and effective communication.
  • Parents need to be given information and support.

Parents are sometimes unaware of the contribution that they make and so it is important that the value of their knowledge and the impact that they can have in supporting school staff is highlighted. Parent involvement is crucial to all aspects of a child’s educational experience and, by default, to the success of nurture group provision.

Benefits of parental support

When children are assessed for nurture group placements, the information that parents can provide is crucial and influential. For example, obtaining baseline information such as how the child reacts in their family situation, their relationship with siblings and friends, and how the child approaches homework can be used to gauge the improvements or deteriorations towards the child’s goals.

Outcome studies tell us that the overwhelming majority of parents feel that nurture groups are effective and report many different benefits in terms of behaviour, emotional well-being and their social and academic engagement. Parents see their child who was once reluctant to go to school become keen and enthusiastic. Children who have been difficult to handle become calmer and more cooperative. There are usually improvements in academic performance and all round better relationships at home.

Barriers to engagement

Although parents play a pivotal role, not all of them welcome the idea of their child being placed in a nurture group. There may be a number of concerns held by parents about the prospect of a nurture group which, if not actively addressed, may result in the parent either refusing the nurture group from the outset or, perhaps worse, acting in ways that subversively undermine the child’s engagement with the group and disrupt its functioning, such as bringing the child late to school or keeping the child off school.

By the time a nurture group place is being proposed for a child, there will usually be an extensive history of things that have not gone well for the child. It is difficult for any parent to listen to other people’s accounts of their child’s struggles and failings and a difficult relationship with the school may have arisen as a result. The nurture group will need to consider this on a case by case basis. There may exist negative and entrenched pattern of communication where the parent blames the school and then the school blames the parents for the child’s problems.

As this is likely to be a feature of parent–staff relationships for this particular group, professionals working to set up nurture group need to take a different stance, one of empathy and understanding. This is easy to say, but in reality it can be very difficult to show genuine empathy when we know that there has been very poor care. It can help to think of blame for what it is, an unconscious defence against one’s own anxiety and guilt. When blame is then directed at us, this can enable us to put aside our feelings of defensiveness or anger and instead be curious about what the anxiety behind this blaming behaviour may relate to. Different ideas can then be generated in regard to containing this anxiety through saying the right things to the parent. Following this, the blaming behaviour may well subside. This type of thoughtful, reflective practice is a vital ingredient in creating positive relationships with others and building mutual trust and respect.

Nurture groups are for children who are having difficulty adjusting to mainstream classrooms. Children receive some of their school day in the nurture room, which should occupy a central position in the school but which, nonetheless, involves segregation from the child’s usual class. Whilst many carers see the gentle regime of the nurture group as a welcome alternative to being in the more pressurised environment of a mainstream classroom, others suspect that the nurture room is in reality a ‘sin bin’ with a different name where unwanted children are placed. They fear that once placed in the nurture group their child will be stigmatised, labelled and rejected. Parents may be worried about humiliating comments in the playground and be concerned about their child’s self-esteem.

Mindful communication: The key to overcoming barriers

The key to overcoming these barriers is mindful and effective communication from nurture group staff and from all school staff involved in the operating of the nurture group. This will include the senior management team, the class teachers and administrative staff who might all have to communicate with parents about the nurture group.

It is most helpful if we consider that the responsibility to facilitate effective communication lies with the professional rather than the parents. This is because we can be in control of what we say but not what others say. Even though we may attempt to hide it, what we truly feel about something seeps into our interaction with others and can be detected through subtle markers in our choice of language, voice and body language. Parents whose children are experiencing problems are often highly sensitive to this, as they may have received higher than usual levels of negative attention from others.

On a whole-school level, all members of staff should have support with developing an awareness of the issues for parents so that communication can be respectful and so that they can avoid saying or doing things that evoke shame.

Providing information and support

Information and support for parents themselves is also of vital importance. Although what parents need will likely change as their child progresses through the group, in the initial stages carers may have concerns and questions requiring specific information about what nurture groups are and how their child has been identified and assessed. They may wish to know what children do in the group and how this is different from the mainstream class. In the later stages, parents may want information on their child’s progress. They will want to know about their child’s strengths and difficulties in terms of their social, emotional and behavioural progress as well as their academic progress.

In the final stages they will be interested in how their child copes with the return to the mainstream class. Parents may also look for general advice from teachers on how to promote and sustain their child’s progress at home.

The school’s relationship with parents is a cornerstone of any nurture group project. It is in the best interest of the child to get this right, as it will mean that your nurture group will run smoothly and achieve the desired outcomes.

About the author

Batul Al-Khatib is an educational and child psychologist who specialises in child and adolescent mental health. She works as a consultant in schools and at the Tavistock Centre. She is the co-founder of Courses for Kids. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Website: www.coursesforkids.co.uk 

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