MindMatters Panel: Module 3.1 Meeting parents’ information needs

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia, welcome to the MindMatters panel. Comedian Craig Ferguson said “I think when you become a parent, you go from being a star in the movie of your own life to the supporting player in the movie of someone else’s.” So how can we engage and share information with parents in a way that doesn’t treat them like bit-players in their kids’ lives? Helping me find out is: clinical psychologist and family therapist Andrew Fuller; Centre for Multi-cultural Youth Education support officer, Placid Jayasuriya. Hello. 

Placid Jayasuriya:
Hello.

Julia Zemiro:
School psychologist, Sarah Inness; teacher, Nerissa Rodriguez and parent, Monique Parlevliet.  Hello. 

Monique Parlevliet:
Hello.

Julia Zemiro:
But before we get started let’s see how Eagleton has approached this problem.

Eagleton High clip:

PHILLIP
Engaging parents and families. It’s really important, but it also can be really tough. They’re busy, they’re juggling commitments. We used to have parent information nights but attendance was not good. Then we thought, why does it always have to be blah blah blah? How can we engage parents in a really different way? We came up with the Eagleton High Parent Sleepover. 

It’s really great. Everyone gets to party, socialise and talk about mental health strategies. It’s all about the playlist! We start with Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy and we end with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We go on the complete journey.

Ah Mr Pollock, what do you like about the parent sleep over?

MR POLLOCK
No kids.

PHILLIP
It’s our most popular event!
Oh, fairy bread! 

Julia Zemiro:
Oh yes it’s delicious but it does seem a little involved. We’ll put that fairy bread down. What do we actually mean by engaging parents?

Sarah Inness:
I think we’re trying to get them over the threshold of the school gate, I think, and not to be so distant from school at times. I think we want them to be involved in their children’s lives at school and to feel engaged in what’s happening at school with their children but also at those key times that we need to communicate with them and not be avoiding us or think that we’re knocking on their door or phoning them because their children have done something wrong every time you have a phone call from school. I think that’s what we really mean.

Julia Zemiro:
I’m surprised by all of this, I’m surprised because why don’t parents want to be involved in school, I mean, wouldn’t you want to cross the threshold? Aren’t you – not all the time and be there 24 hours a day sure – but isn’t it something that you actually need to do and want to do? She said, having no children of her own and have no idea – question – mark.

Sarah Inness:
Look, I think, when people get to having their children go to secondary school, there’s something interesting that happens. The involvement is no longer the same as it was in primary school, primary school’s a very much a warm, opening, involved engaging place.

Julia Zemiro:
Well stop right there that’s crazy. Why isn’t high school a warm engaging social…?-

Sarah Inness:
Well that’s a very good point, we are, but we are it’s I think maybe some schools maybe don’t work on that in a way that parents feel that. I think that sometimes we don’t advertise very clearly to our parents where to go, who to talk to when you need support or who might call you for what reasons and how the systems are in place at the school to support our students.

Monique Parlevliet:
It can be a balancing act because of course at this age the students are going to their parents ‘leave me alone.’  So yeah, gradually from the end of grade six you really notice that they’re going ‘You’re not actually coming to the school are you?’

Julia Zemiro:
So kids actually might not want their parents to cross the threshold of high school?

Monique Parlevliet:
No, so it’s finding that balance really, of how you can do it without the kid going ‘Oh mum, oh mum.’

Julia Zemiro:
That’s it. It’s over. Why aren’t parents interested in schools, what are the barriers, Andrew?

Andrew Fuller: 
Well parents and grandparents are both some of the most important teachers any child will ever have and so they are, they’re very interested in their child’s learning but they don’t feel welcomed into the school or they feel that they’re ‘out-experted’ by the teachers and I think that’s a real problem for any school to get around because if you can enlist that group of parents, even those that’ve had fairly negative experiences of school themselves, are still interested in the best for their kids and partly it’s because school’s a daunting place whereas Sarah said you don’t quite know, particularly in secondary and high schools, who to contact, where to go. So you really need to have parent liaison people, we really need to, keep, you know, really identifying, this is a key person, if you have an issue or you just want to connect with somebody, this is the person you should speak to. But also, we live in the age of the individual. So it’s no longer sufficient to put out a sort of bulletin board that says ‘would any parent be prepared to come along to information night on Thursday week?’ It’s more of the personal invitation saying ‘Julia, would you mind coming?’

Placid Jayasuriya:
Often, some of the newly arrived families, could be quite foreign for them to have an open channel into a school. They may come from a background where schools and teachers are on a pedestal and they are used to passing the responsibility of learning sometimes to schools and they don’t feel, or they don’t realise they have a role perhaps.

Andrew Fuller: 
Although again, we come back to the issue that we’ve discussed all the way through with resilience and it’s about improving relationships. So whether it’s a new arrival family saying ‘Placid, could you come up?’ and – we have to talk about you know having a positive contribution in the school’ say as a new arrival family, that’s an amazing bridge really into the new culture that that person’s joined. So it’s a great opportunity and also if they’re quite reverential as many of new arrival families are, of teachers, it actually builds something that makes it very powerful. We know that peak times in schools for connectedness, obviously with little kids having grandparents involved in reading programs it’s just a boom for those kids’ literacy levels but also around grade 5 and year 10 are the critical times. We know that basically re-connecting with those parents that have drifted off along the wayside really pays off big, big time because parent involvement correlates very strongly with school success and it correlates really strongly with the positive behaviour of the senior students in primary and in secondary or high schools and that’s of course a major gain for the teachers.

Julia Zemiro:
What kinds of information do you think parents would like schools to provide? What would have been helpful for you Mon? 

Monique Parlevliet:
It’s not just about their mental health, it’s the whole picture of how they’re travelling academically, how they’re travelling socially. Ash went to a different high school initially, and they had no idea – it was the same thing every year: This is Ash, these are her needs, you know, need to address these things and every year it was like we were going there for the first time. 

Placid Jayasuriya:
For some newly arrived families, the concept of mental health is foreign and often there’s no translation for mental health. 

Julia Zemiro:
There’s really no translation? For the word? Or the concept? 

Placid Jayasuriya:
That’s right. So schools have struggled with trying to talk about, you know, some of the issues some of the young people might be having with their parents, using interpreters trying to get that concept out, what does that mean.

Julia Zemiro:
What’s the number one thing, parents you think would like to get from teachers?

Andrew Fuller: 
To hear good news about their kid, really, some positive feedback about something they like about their child or something you like about what they’re doing at school. Positive news travels fast.

Nerissa Rodriguez:
It’s surprising, if I’ll call home and say, give some positive feedback to a parent it’s almost like the child changes immediately.

Andrew Fuller: 
Yes. Yes.

Nerissa Rodriguez:
They want to please you, they want to see you happy and they’re happy that you’ve called their parents and it’s phenomenal the difference it can make. That one phone call.

Sarah Inness:
Often, parents will ring me with questions specifically relating to their child, it’s very rare that they’ll ring me and say ‘give me some information about depression’ so it’s – often they’re asking questions about how their child might be travelling or what they could be doing, some very practical skills they could be doing to supporting their child. When it’s regarding mental health it’s often about just some basic education around what the difficulties might be coming out, the behavioural observations that the school has been making and maybe some things that perhaps I’ve worked with that child and supporting them so it could be things around bed time or diet or exercise in ways that parents can support their child to make sure that they’re accountable for those things.
Julia Zemiro:
We’ve established that you often don’t get a high level engagement of parents in high schools – they just won’t cross that threshold so what can schools actually do? How can schools be proactive?

Nerissa Rodriguez:
We’ve recently started an orientation program. This is the second year we’ve run it and last year it was, we have a day where the kids actually prepare a meal for their parents and invite them up in the afternoon – 

Julia Zemiro:
How fabulous.

Nerissa Rodriguez:
And the kids – cooking food really engages people, it’s a very social thing.

Julia Zemiro:
Is that run by a teacher or you just let them loose in the home science room?, which I think would be dangerous frankly. 

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Definitely, so there’s 2 teachers – we run it together, myself and another teacher and it’s completely different, meeting parents in a relaxed environment, kids really thrive on presenting something for their parents.

Sarah Inness:
That’s a tactic that we’re going to try and start taking because our parents have given us feedback that they’re hungry for information, how do we solve these issues around technology? And how do we support our children to have healthy internet access?, for instance. So we’re trying to find ways that we can introduce – not the standard, here’s a speaker at the front of the room giving you a very direct information session, which can be quite dry and boring and I personally don’t want to attend those any more. I want to be involved in things I want to have discussions, I want to meet other parents, I want it to be a relaxed casual space so we can also recruit students as part of that, they’re more experts in technology than often our generation is now even and so we’re looking to find a forum for them to be a part of that where their parents can be involved in this workshop and I think parents are more likely to turn up if their kids are doing things.

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Definitely.

Julia Zemiro:
Placid, what could…? 

Placid Jayasuriya:
I definitely agree with that as a great strategy. Some of the schools that we’re supporting have, with our support, have set up family learning spaces. There’s a space in the school for parents to hang out, they also provide opportunity for some of their children to receive learning support – we’d run the homework clubs and stuff like that but the same time it’s an opportunity for parents to mingle and for teachers – for staff to provide other – you know career, it’s a huge topic the career pathways, educational pathways, a lot of the newly arrived, getting their heads around that, how it all works. I see there’s so many opportunities for schools to engage with the parents outside the school, they may have their churches or their place of worship or their festivals, the markets they may in particular go to, these are all opportunities for schools to grab, you know and often I’ve had experience where, you know, parents see this school actively trying to engage them into the school community and they’re like ‘hey’, you know, and there’re moving some of their students into that school. 

Julia Zemiro:
Yeah right, ok. How do you talk to parents about resilience? Or about drugs or about sex or what’s going on? Is it just – it’s a difficult conversation but it’s one that you go into?

Andrew Fuller: 
Oh yeah I think it’s fine to raise those sorts of issues and I think sometimes that it’s good to be revealing yourself about some of the problems that you have on a day to day basis with some of the kids that you work with, you know, that we don’t have all the answers either but these are the things that we often struggle with, do you find raising your kids that there are some issues that you struggle with? Obviously there are delightful moments as well, we can talk about those and we can talk about the heart-warming stuff as well, so it’s not all negative but at the same time realising that we have smooth patches and we also have bumpy rides every so often.

Placid Jayasuriya:
I guess, coming from the perspective of the newly arrived families, I guess having, you know, you have the standard newsletter, you know, having different languages, having audio newsletters because some newly arrived may not be literate in their own language. So having the audio and blogs and forums where parents can seek support from other parents and communicate with their children.

Sarah Inness:
I think there’s the standard newsletter, which I think, you know, can get ignored and lost in the busyness of life. I think it’s just though, really, taking the time at any point that that parent is in contact with you and grabbing them and just forcing them to listen to you. 

Julia Zemiro:
Please don’t leave.

Sarah Inness:
I think it’s about how you set up that space and make it comfortable so there’s the point of enrolment, you’ve got that opportunity to have those things. Any point within the school calendar where you might have parents visiting, whether it’s I guess a musical that the school’s putting on or a sports carnival that perhaps parents are coming along to watch. There are opportunities that have that contact.
Monique Parlevliet:
I agree with what you’re saying that it’s about every time you see them but also it’s about any time you communicate if you can show you know who that young person is, that makes all the difference for me in terms of being able to pick up the phone and call the school because yeah at her previous school I wouldn’t have picked up the phone because I’m like ‘why bother, they have actually no idea who she is.’

Julia Zemiro:
How do we integrate this into our mental health strategy?

Andrew Fuller: 
I think it’s really important just to realise that we all share a lot in common, that parents are very resourceful people, they’re busy but they all generally have at their heart, the best interest of their kids. With the adults actually talking to one another, not in a knowledgeable way about the kids, they might actually know who they’re talking about, then there’s a real sense that basically, there’s an adult world wrapping itself around that child and supporting him or her and that becomes a real basis of mental health strategy if you like. So it’s when the adults in the world model these good behaviours to kids – the kids go ‘oh that’s the way you behave here’ you know you’re friendly, you’re open, you’re welcoming. There’s not a sense of who’s to blame, it’s more of a sense that how do we fix this issue?

Placid Jayasuriya:
Often, you know, a young person may not be in one home, some backgrounds they might be over at their auntie’s house for a week, they might be over in another auntie’s house for another week so it’s just a shared caring role some of the communities have.

Julia Zemiro:
And how can you be sensitive to the needs of all these diverse communities because you know teachers have got to go in there and deal with all different kinds of things. 

Placid Jayasuriya:
I think the key is communication, giving opportunities to the parents to talk about their needs, you know, what’s going on.

Julia Zemiro:
What about community leaders, can they disseminate information as well?

Placid Jayasuriya:
Often a good way is to try to find that – can we find key people in that community who can work with you, support you, and you know often they do meet as groups, for church or temples or wherever.

Julia Zemiro:
Look, this is a lot to take in so what are the key things to remember, Andrew? And I always turn to you for the final word.
Andrew Fuller: 
Yeah thanks Julia. Kids only spend 15% of their time as kids in school. Most of their education’s going to occur outside of school so the idea that parents and grandparents and I keep mentioning grandparents because they’re a very important ingredient in this mix, important co-educators is critical. As Nerissa was saying, that early, sort of, positive contact that you can have individually with a parent just about something positive that young Jenny or Johnny or whatever their name is has done, it pays off big big time. Using technology is also incredibly powerful – having texting groups where you can text all of the parents in a class group and say ‘The class has been dealing with such and such this week, over the weekend if you’d like to discuss a particular issue’ this might be the one, it’s a really powerful thing to do, almost every parent has a mobile phone. Or we can start to think about sending, in some schools, postcards home, saying, you know, that your daughter has done something really well, you know, that kind of stuff. There’s a whole series of ways of communicating that we didn’t have 10 years ago that we need to really utilise much more powerfully so the balance of contact between a school and the parents is overwhelmingly positive rather than overwhelmingly problem based. Particularly to those parents who’ve maybe had shoddy experiences in school themselves. All they’re expecting from a school is to be contacted when there’s trouble and of course nobody likes to hear that do they? And so people kind of avoid that, it’s understandable.

Julia Zemiro:
So if there’s silence it should be – it’s fine. If there’s nothing then everything must be ok.

Andrew Fuller: 
That’s their belief.

Julia Zemiro:
Yeah yeah.

Andrew Fuller: 
And to realise that there are peak moments in the school journey when you really want to capitalise on parent connection. Obviously with new arrival families you want to grab them, involve them and get to know them because once you get to know them that’s a powerful way. It could be great to have one morning a week where, you know, don’t just drop your kid off at school, come in, have a coffee with some of the staff, have a shared breakfast or something like that, you know, just small strategies that don’t have to occur all the time but every so often.

Julia Zemiro:
That’s a very long wrap up, good on you though, I’m joking, he’s amazing, he’s amazing. Sometimes it’s good to think about parents from a teenager’s perspective and so we’ll end with a quote by Jarod Kintz. He wrote “I’m an only child so logically I gave birth to my parents because if it weren’t for me they wouldn’t be parents at all, they’d simply be a married couple.”