November 27, 2015

Engaging Traumatised Parents in the School Environment

This article was authored by Alexa Duke
Senior Training Consultant, Training and Professional Development at the Australian Childhood Foundation.

In many reality-TV shows we witness “the walk of shame” as one contestant after another is forced to exit the show in a very public manner after failing to meet this week’s challenge. And in some ways this reminds me of what it is like for some parents entering the school gates – a walk of shame.

For many of us, school holds fond memories but for others, school holds many triggers for trauma – the oval where they were bullied, the corridor where they were physically assaulted, the classroom where they were often publicly humiliated, the sting and the shame of corporal punishment, the principal’s office where they were frequently suspended. And I wonder if we, as educators, have ever stopped to walk through the school gates in the shoes of our most vulnerable parents? What is it like to walk through the school gate shamed? Shamed by your own school experiences, shamed by the behaviour of your son or daughter, shamed by your lack of education, shamed by your poverty, shamed by the teachers’ preconceived opinions about you and your family. Is this “walk of shame” necessary? And what does it mean for our traumatised children and parents?

We know that trauma can be intergenerational and that the most vulnerable students in our schools are often children of the most vulnerable students a generation before. And along with their own trauma experiences, they carry with them the family narrative of trauma. So what can we do to support these parents and if we don’t support them in a trauma-informed way and how can we support the child? Relationships are crucial to the healing of complex trauma, and a part of building relationship with the child, is building relationship with the parents. But if the only time we communicate with, or invite the parent into the school is when there is a problem, it can be difficult to build positive relationships. What do we do to establish safety, trust and respect?

We need to communicate with parents not just when things are difficult for their child, but also when things are going well: a phone call home when the child has experienced success, a phone call home for an act of kindness, a phone call home when they have had a good day, not just when it has been a bad day. This positive communication operates on many levels: it stops the parent from becoming defensive or angry whenever there is a phone call from the school, it demonstrates our interest in, and nurturing of their child, it allows for positive affirmation of both the parent and the child and it helps build positive relationships.

  • We also know that those who have experienced trauma become overly focused on identifying threat in a relationship because that is what they have had to do to protect themselves, but what are we as educators, doing to alleviate that sense of threat? Below are a list of ideas from my own experience as an educator which might help mimimise your next meeting with a parent who has their own trauma narrative: Offering a neutral meeting place can go a long way towards alleviating fear and anxiety and containing the emotional safety of the parent – the local community centre, a café, McDonalds or the local library are all less threatening places and avoid the inquisitive eyes, the sound of the school bell, the smell of the corridors, all of which might trigger the parent.
  • Think about the journey the parent has had to make to get to the meeting and the anxiety that might have entailed.
  • If it has to be at school, time it so that there are not students in the yard when the parent arrives, and make sure you are there to meet them. If the parent has to be kept waiting, make sure it is in a private space.
  • Make sure the space is warm, offer a cup of tea, glass of water, a biscuit, the school magazine to read. Is there student art work on the wall, maybe flowers in the room, and is the chair comfortable? Simple gestures which may help bring the parent to a place of calm.
  • Often there is more than one member of the school staff in the meeting – offer the option of a support person to sit in the meeting with the parent. Think about the seating in the room.
  • Begin with a positive about the child wherever possible and avoid language that will alienate the parent.
  • Try to avoid the first meeting with the parent being a negative for them and their child, first impressions are so important – make it a positive.

This may sound like simple common sense, but is it embedded in our practice? One of the most essential acts is to meet negative expectations with kindness, empathy and patience. Kindness pulls the rug out from under the defences we have learned to use to protect ourselves from feelings of rejection and abandonment. Compassion, warmth and love have the power to change our brains (Cozolino, 2014).

What do you do to build positive relationships and avoid that walk of shame?