Family therapy keeps children in their classes
In the town Soroe in Denmark
Narrative Practices processes
support socially marginalized children
to stay part of an ordinary school.
By the Psychologists Christian Kragh-Pedersen and Jannike Fogh
Some years ago at a Danish town Soroe a therapy programme for marginalized children was established. This programme supports children to stay at their schools which they are on the verge of getting expelled from.
Some of the children at schools in Denmark experience a great deal of trouble with the structures and the demands. Often these children seem to have problems concentrating and often they act in ways that are very disruptive or even violent. Most of these children have a dreadful time at school and their behavior also have negative consequences for their fellow students.
A number of different responses and treatment facilities have been developed in Denmark – these places have in common that they remove the so called “problem child” from their class and treat them in another context. In these facilities the children usually get along better than before, but often they have a lot of problems re-integrating to the ordinary school system later on. Many of these support and treatment facilities thus unintended have the consequence of further stigmatizing these children. Often a parallel culture in these facilities arise that doesn’t enable the children to develop the skills they need to participate at the ordinary schools.
A new model for intervention
The last couple of years in the town Soroe we have developed an intervention model to support these children and their families. This approach is a synthesis of narrative ideas, multi family therapy and systemic ideas. We work with the children´s 2 primary systems – the family and the school.
The families meet at a special class. Here the children and the families’ stories are being privileged: As narrative therapist we believe that the stories we tell about ourselves shapes our becoming. To help the children and their families away from the influence of the problem saturated stories and towards a more preferred story we focus mainly on the children’s knowledge and skills – steps that leads them in new directions and to another and more positive interaction with their surroundings. These new steps enable the children to experience they have some influence in their lives which is highly motivating for them.
In the Family Class we see the problems as something different and distinct from the children. It is the problem that is the problem and not the child. When you don’t look at the problem as something belonging to the child or the family it makes it much easier to realize what ways the problem is working and then to see how it fits with the children’s hopes, intentions and dreams.
By investigating into the problems way of working and its consequences it becomes more noticeable to see how the child in certain situations and contexts is able to limit the influence of the problem: In doing so we support the child in establishing vivid and diverse stories of identity.
Our combination of narrative ideas and the Family Class model is called the “Narrative Family Class”.
Families stand by each other
The duration of the families´ stay at the Family Class is usually between 6 and 12 months. There are 8 children at a time in the class along with their parents. Class is open 3 mornings a week (8-11.30 am). No child is allowed to be there without a parent (or a closely related significant adult). We have” a daily round” at the class (a gathering for children, parents, teachers and psychologist). Here the children share their targets and significant experiences since last time at the Family Class. This is an occasion to talk with the children about their experiences from school. After the round the children will do their school work which they were supposed to be doing had they attended the ordinary classes (f.inst. Danish or math). The teachers in this context are their parents. We support the parents when they have uncertainties or when conflicts arise. Around11-11.30 the children return to their regular classes.
In the months that the families attend the Family Class they are constantly put in situations where they stand by each other with ideas and know-how which they have discovered as families. For instance we start the week with a parents gathering where they share with each other what their focus will be for this week. At the same time we ask the other parents to stand by each other – helping each other with their special focus. We also ask them to reflect on possibilities in helping them to keep their focus. An example of this could be that the parents will support each other if one of the children resists doing his or her schoolwork. Another example is that the parents acknowledge progress and new steps taken by the other parents. In this way we take care that the parents knowledge gets centered, which adds to the experience of personal agency.
Understanding between parents
We often see a different effects when parents increase their accountability towards the children by not threatening them but instead keeping their promises. A parent said after having been at the Family Class for a while: “ I don’t use all my time arguing with my kid anymore. The arguing meant that I lost the joy and wish of spending time with him. It was terrible. Now I want to be with him again and to do things which we both like. It has also become easier to act on my words, because now we listen to each other earlier on we argued all the time.”
When the parents and the children get a more mutual understanding of how the problems influence them at school and/or in the family, it often becomes possible to work with preferred ways of living. This can be a platform from which the parents and their children can develop an even better understanding of each other.
Sometimes we choose to focus on themes with the entire group instead of the parents teaching the children. Examples of this could be focusing on “violence at school” or “friendship”
The talks that changes the child´s stories
At the Family Class we spend a good deal of time having conversations with the children thickening their preferred stories. The dominant stories in the children’s life have a huge impact on how they feel, think and act. In our conversations with the children we support them in their knowledge about how to move in directions they prefer and we support them in their skills and knowledge in doing so. To expose and thereby destabilize the problem we ask the children questions like what have made them keep on resisting the problem – so we can talk about what hopes are precious to them and how to act on this.
To further examine the problem´s influence upon the child´s life we also ask questions like why hasn´t it got worse – what is it that supports the child so that is has not given in. Here we seek what this holding on to or going away from is an expression of. We do this as we believe that behind the pain and efforts there are some stories which connect to the children´s hopes and dreams about life being more rich and fun. By listening to what it is which is not expressed but is implicit in the said we also have focus on what the child is being separated from when the problem takes over.
We often experience that when the children come to us they have created a story about self that is about not being able to do school work and this often becomes self fulfilling: ”Why listen if you can´t learn anyway!” At the Family Class the children get a lot of adult support and this helps them in doing their school work. At the same time the targets support the children in their learning process.
Through narrative inspired questions it becomes more clear what the children and their parents want their lives to be about. To have these perspectives on their lives establish better possibilities to find new ways of living.
For instance during a conversation one of the children became aware of the reason why she could not concentrate was that she was always sad during the lessons because of conflicts with her school mates during the brakes. When she started listening to her friends and leave instead of hitting them when she got caught by anger they started enjoying being with her. This lead to her being more satisfied during lessons and gave her experiences of being able to learn.
The group of parents give each other support
Once a week we have parents gatherings and every forth week we meet with each family individually. At the parents gatherings we work around anything which is of interest to the group for instance ways of living, couple relationship, consequences around rights of access in divorced families and the life in the group of parents. We believe that the more knowledge the parents develop around their values and principles which are behind their upbringing of their children it becomes possible to find new pathways.
Often the parents share with us how they experience getting support from the group of parents when they help their children and each other to step away from the problem story and into a more rich landscape of action and meaning. This is also important for the cooperation with the school. Along with the parents experiences of having influence upon their lives they start to go into dialogues with the teachers around the conditions which are in their children´s everyday lives. Very often this leads to a mutual understanding between parents, children and the teachers because they become aware of each other´s intentions.
The ”score forms” hold on to small steps
As a starting point for a course the child´s teacher sets up some targets in cooperation with the Family Class which the child must try to reach during the course. The targets are stated in a “score form” which the child carries with it every day in all the lessons, both in its own class and in the Family Class. The children usually get four targets which for stance could be: 1)Take up the books when the lesson starts, 2) Remain seated on the chair during the lesson 3) Stay in the chosen games during the time in between lessons. 4) Stick to the rules in the games.
The ”score forms” is filled out by the teachers for the first time a week before the child starts at the Family Class, so that it can be used for evaluating the effects of the time at the Family Class. The child is given an empty “score form” stating every lesson during the week with a list over the targets. After each lesson the teacher fill out the “score form”. The score is an evaluation of the child´s achievements and is evaluated daily in community with the other children and their parents in the Family Class. Here the child read aloud its targets and goes through its scores. After this there is a short conversation between the psychologist and the child about the skills the child is developing. This is witnessed by the rest of the group.
The “score form” is a way of making clear what the child exactly has to learn to honor the demands at the school. Through the “score form” there is created a distance to the problems so that the expectations and the possibilities to take action becomes more clear. The children get access to reflect upon which influence the problems have on their learning and to experiment with new ways to act and with entering into relationships with class mates, parents and teachers.
Another important effect of the ” score form” is that the teacher is supported in looking for new steps and this makes way for the child to be seen as other than a “problem child”. The teachers support to the child also makes the parents pleased as they experience that other people can see that they make an effort which support their children in their developments.
Every six week all parties meet to evaluate the targets. The targets which the child has reached in a good way is then changed with a new target. When the child takes steps to reach all the targets put forward it will be reduced in its time at the Family Class from three to two days a week. If the good development continues the child will be reduced one more day and after this the course is terminated.
Long duration of the effects for two out of three children
Through the two and a half years which the family class has existed 13 children and their parents have been attended a course and 12 of these pupils have returned to their own classes on full time and 1 pupil has continued in a class with special support. The children are very different and their individual course has been very different – approximately length of a course has been 11 months, but there has been individual courses on both 3 and 15 months.
An evaluation of the Family Class shows that up to two thirds of the children can be expected to gain positive long duration effects from the course. The tendency is that the effect is greatest for the youngest pupils (from start at school until 2nd class). The evaluation also points to that a smaller number of the children later on need extra attention and support, but this will be possible to receive whilst they remain in their own classes.
We have seen that the children learn to handle uncertainties through asking for help when they are unable to solve a problem themselves and how the class mates gain more inspiration to be together with them because they do not disturb the teachings and generally show a more considerate conduct. It is primarily this social development which results in the children´s greater happiness for going to school and through this their engagement in learning. Also their ability to concentrate in the lessons is developed.
The parents to the children say that the children are more positive and happy, likewise do the parents go through a positive development during the course.
The children leave the Family Class with new experiences about receiving teachings and taking part in a learning process on equal terms with their class mates and because of this they become more integrated in the class both socially and around their learning.
Now the town Soroe has employed their own Psychologist at the Family Class. Our role is hereby reduced to a few hours every week to supervise the employees at the Family Class.
Psychologists Christian Kragh-Pedersen and Jannike Fogh from Narrativ Praksis, Copenhagen
Asen, Eia, Dawson, Neil & Mchugh, Brenda (2004). Flerfamilieterapi, Nye Veje i familiearbejde. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.
White, Michael, co-author Epston, David (1990). Narrativ Means to Therapeutic ends W.W. Norton & Company, London.
White, Michael & Morgan, Alice (2006). Narrative Therapy with children and their families. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, Michael (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. W.W. Norton & Company, London.
Michael White was the founder of Dulwich Centre in Adelaide where the authors of this article were trained in Narrative Therapy