Chain reaction

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Family Links aims to banish bad behaviour by building self-esteem and understanding between children, parents and staff. It's even helping to soothe relations at the Home Office. Wendy Wallace reports

Barbed wire was the first thing Jill Hudson saw when she arrived at Pegasus school on the Blackbird Leys estate in east Oxford five years ago. And the first thing she smelled was cigarette smoke. The school to which she'd been seconded was then in special measures and "wasn't a place for kids".

"I zoomed to Tesco and bought a bunch of flowers," says the headteacher, who was appointed permanently six months later. "The surroundings have to be right for teachers and children to thrive." Flowers are still all around - bunches of scented stocks in the reception area, in her office, in the nursery, outside (parents and carers planted 2003 daffodils last autumn to mark the new year).

The flowers were easy. More difficult was achieving the kind of behaviour that now characterises Pegasus school from the playground to the staffroom.

Pegasus has been a testing ground for a programme of emotional literacy devised by the Oxford-based charity Family Links, and now spreading around Britain, encouraged by the Home Office.

Based on research carried out in the United States in the 1970s by Dr Stephen J Bavolek, the "nurturing programme" identifies four key ingredients for successful school and family relationships: self-awareness and self-esteem; appropriate expectations of children; positive approaches to discipline; and - of paramount importance - empathy. While the ideas may seem convincing, working out how to make whole-school communities live up to them is another matter. But that is what Family Links is enabling growing numbers of schools to do.

Jill Hudson came to Pegasus from Lewknor primary in Watlington, the kind of picture book thatched village more usually associated with Oxfordshire, and with few serious behavioural issues. Blackbird Leys is a different kind of village - a vast 1960s council estate with high unemployment; where one in three adults has no qualifications and less than 1 per cent of young people go to university. Behaviour at the 420-pupil school was "distressingly awful" and the community demoralised. "I believe in the phrase, 'You can't teach a child until you can reach them'," says Ms Hudson.

She and other teachers at the school credit the nurturing programme with a major and ongoing part in the transformation of Pegasus. Out of special measures for the past three years, the school now has a waiting list and a welcoming, cheerful air. Children's often difficult home circumstances have not changed. "I've learned to have enormous respect for these children," says Ms Hudson. "They cope with situations I could never have coped with at that age, and am not sure if I could cope with now." But the nurturing programme provides tools for children to deal with their feelings, and take charge of their behaviour. Adults, in a slightly different guise, are shown how to identify their feelings under stress, and to deal with children's behaviour effectively.

The nurturing programme is not easy. "You have to believe in it at a senior staff level," says Ms Hudson. "Then you have to appoint staff who are in tune with those ideas. The tougher the children, the more necessary it is."

It begins with a whole-staff two-day training session in which participants look at how they were disciplined as children, how they feel about being praised and criticised, what insight they have into their own and other people's feelings and behaviour, and how much - or how little - they empathise with children. The ideas are then taken back into school, in the form of a 10-week programme every term for every class, indefinitely.

Teacher handbooks provide a programme of circle-time and PSHE activities, which they can follow to the letter or adapt for their own needs. Everyone gets top-up training once or twice a term, and support from the nominated Family Links teacher - in this case Year 4 teacher and deputy head Jo Berry. The school's behaviour management policy is based on the programme, and staff, says Ms Hudson, have to live it. "We've got to model the way we want children to be."

If the head is a self-professed evangelist for the programme, others are no less enthusiastic. Newly qualified teacher Debbie Washington, 30, teaches reception at Pegasus. "Family Links is one of the reasons I chose to come here," she says. "I saw it in action in my teaching practice and it's amazing - the effect not just on the children, but on the whole school."

With 28 children in her class, nine of them on the special needs register - mainly for emotional difficulties - Ms Washington says a clear and positive way of dealing with difficult behaviour is vital. "They all respond to being given choices and consequences, and praising the behaviour you do want and ignoring the behaviour you don't," she says. "It makes clear to them that you value them as people."

Ms Washington does circle time three times a week with her class, more often if a new child has joined or there is an issue simmering in the playground. "The programme is in everything you do," she says. "The way you speak to children, the positive reinforcement throughout the school - it never stops."

Nursery teacher Liz Jones is responsible for introducing children to the principles of the nurturing programme when they enter school, aged three.

She teaches children that they have "personal power", that they can make choices about what they do and that choices have consequences. In weekly circle times, children also start to build up a vocabulary for talking about feelings - "warm, fuzzy" pleasant ones, and "cold, prickly" angry or unpleasant ones. "Their experience is quite limited and we use it to build up self-esteem," says Ms Jones. "You're basing everything on praise, praising the good and ignoring as much as you can of negative behaviour."

But the programme is not confined to children. The school is careful to look after the adults too. Every so often there is a "secret friend" week, when each staff member is randomly allotted a colleague to spoil for the week with cards, small presents and treats. Part of the philosophy is to be consistently welcoming to parents and carers - who have responded and now support the school in a way unimaginable in the days of barbed wire.

The principles of the nurturing programme extend to parentchild relationships. A 10-week parents' course at Pegasus has brought parents and carers on board with the same approach - empowering children, encouraging empathy with them and recognising the adults' needs as well. Mother-of-two Angela Davis, 32, says it has been a life-changing experience for her. "We live from one Wednesday to the next because the group is so good. It's an outlet where we can be ourselves; be honest about how the week has been and no one's going to put us down." She says her difficult relationship with her strong-willed toddler daughter is transformed. "And I'm better in myself, as a person." The head hopes Ms Davis will train to lead more family groups.

Around 250 primary schools throughout England, and one secondary, Bartholomew school in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, are now using the nurturing programme. Family Links has been training staff in Oxfordshire schools for the past five years, and more recently has trained teams to take the programme to schools in Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Hull and West Sussex.

"If you can get children thinking, feeling and behaving in positive ways by age 11, you're doing pretty well," says Candida Hunt, assistant director of Family Links.

The programme, under Family Links director Annette Mountford, who pioneered the introduction of the nurturing programme in Britain in 1992, and was awarded the MBE last year, has attracted government interest. The Home Office's family policy unit not only part-funded a book on the nurturing programme (see end for details), but also ran courses for staff at the unit. When he was education secretary, David Blunkett came to Pegasus and joined a circle time session that involved everyone putting hand cream on each other's hands, in an exploration of "gentle touch". (The idea of "hurting touch" is also explored, although not demonstrated.) Mr Blunkett was guest speaker at the book's launch in Westminster yesterday, where Lord Northbourne, patron of Family Links and a champion of family matters in the House of Lords, also spoke.

The great advantage of running the programme in schools, says Ms Hunt, is that it can reach all children in a non-stigmatising way, and promote emotional literacy. "It reaches the very quiet as well as those acting out and it gives them an alternative and healthier model than they may be getting in other parts of their lives. We hope to break the intergenerational cycle of difficult or unhappy relationships."

The programme, she says, can only work where the head is committed to it and able to take staff with him or her. But the training is fun and enriching. "Development of emotional literacy has to start with the adults.

The training is experiential, it's like circle time for adults. We encourage staff to think of themselves and their own needs, and that's as refreshing for them as it is for parents."

Ms Hudson says: "It's most important in September to reassure children who may not have had an easy summer that we're here for them, they're safe, and we love them. You can deliver a perfect lesson, but children can't learn if they're feeling small or belittled. We've got to look at helping them manage their emotions and feelings, partly as human beings, but also pragmatically."

For details of the nurturing programme, contact Family Links, New Marston Centre, Jack Straw's Lane, Oxford OX3 0DL. Tel: 01865 454004. The Parenting Puzzle: how to get the best out of family life, by Candida Hunt in consultation with Annette Mountford (Family Links, pound;14.99), is available from bookshops or Family Links CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS

The best way to help children learn to deal with their emotions is to learn to deal with your own. That's a central theme of the nurturing programme and of the book, The Parenting Puzzle, which includes an emotional literacy quiz. The questions, for parents and adults working with children, have four possible answers: not really; sometimes; often; yes. The authors recommend that you return to your answers in a few weeks, months or years and see if you still feel the same.

1. Am I aware of my own moods?

2. Am I clear about what I am thinking?

3. Can I recognise what my body is telling me about my feelings?

4. Do I acknowledge my powerful emotions comfortably?

5. Am I able to shift my mood?

6. Do I take my feelings into account when making a decision?

7. When I feel angry, do I erupt or become completely cut off?

8. Am I kind to myself when I feel anxioussaddepressed?

9. Do I think of myself as determined?

10. Can I work today for tomorrow's rewards?

11. Do I think of myself as optimistic?

12. Can I respond positively to setbacks?

13. Do I find it easy to admit when I am wrong?

14. Am I comfortable telling others what I am feeling?

15. Can I accurately sense what someone else is feeling from what they say, their tone of voice, and body language?

16. Do I usually make choices about how to behave that are helpful to me?

17. Do I feel I have the power to be in charge of and for myself?

18. Can I resolve the conflicts in my life satisfactorily?

19. Do I think others listen to me and try to understand things from my point of view?

20. Do I really listen to others and try to understand things from their point of view?

Taken from The Parenting Puzzle: how to get the best out of family life

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