Simple gestures such as the choice of biscuit can affect whether school-based parenting classes work well or whether they fail to engage parents, according to educational psychologist Rachel Jamieson.
Ms Jamieson, along with her colleague Colette MacCourt, have researched how best to implement in-school parenting groups.
She believes it is important to promote the classes properly, advertising in children's centres, doctors' surgeries and post offices. Schools can also hand out flyers and teachers should approach parents they think might benefit. "Schools should try to get a relationship with the parents," Ms Jamieson said. "Otherwise you just get three or four parents turning up. That's not good for group dynamics."
When parents do attend, they should be shown into a comfortable room, with tea, coffee and what Ms Jamieson calls "proper biscuits". "I know it sounds daft," she said, "but it makes them feel welcome." Schools should also offer creche facilities during the meeting.
Teachers need to ensure that there is no stigma attached to the classes too. "A lot of parents think people will think they're bad parents because they have to come to a group," said Ms Jamieson. "But actually they're the good ones because they want to sort things out."
Ideally, meetings should be held one morning a week for at least two months. Most parents expect to be taught how to impose sanctions and tackle their children's misbehaviour. In fact, this is not covered until the end of the course.
The first topic to be covered is how to play with and praise children. Parents are encouraged to spend 10 minutes a day playing with each child individually.
Within two weeks, this can reap results. "Children love parents spending time each day playing with them," said Ms Jamieson.
"It's not just the children who need to change. It's the parents, too. They have to change how they speak and relate to their children. It's almost like seeing a lightbulb coming on when they realise this."
Ms Jamieson believes schools should try to provide a forum for parents to discuss their children's behaviour, even after the formal classes have ended. This could take the form of further classes or information about courses and classes elsewhere. She also advocates informal, school-based coffee mornings.
"Parents can say, 'It's been a crap week', and talk about why," she said. "It's just a massive confidence thing. Coffee mornings give people a chance to meet up and support each other. We're just the facilitators. It's the parents who support each other."
TEA CUP CULTURE
Ideas about how schools can ensure parenting classes are successful include:
- Advertise the classes properly, to guarantee a good attendance.
- Make parents feel welcome and valued: give them a comfortable, well-signposted room, with tea, coffee and biscuits.
- Provide creche services, so that parents with young children can still attend.
- Tell parents repeatedly that attending the course does not mean they are bad parents. It means they care enough to make an effort.
- Ensure the class is run by a trained professional, rather than an enthusiastic amateur.
- Do not let any one parent dominate the session. Encourage everyone to participate, through pair-work and by asking everyone for their opinion.
- Help parents to see that it is not just the child who is responsible for misbehaviour. Parents need to question their own behaviour too.
- Allow time after the class to speak to less confident parents one-to-one.
- Consider setting up a regular coffee morning after the course finishes, so that parents can continue to meet.
- Suggest ways in which parents could volunteer or help out at school.