Help starts at home
The project was set up in the autumn of 1999 to support parents and not specifically to affect behaviour at school, though it was recognised there would be knock-on effects, says the principal educational psychologist, Joyce Fullarton.
The evening sessions involve the local authority's eight educational psychologists, behaviour support managers and guidance teachers - who all volunteer - using materials adapted from parenting classes run by the Family Care Trust. The groups focus on issues such as listening to your child, negotiating and setting limits to behaviour.
To initiate the classes, psychological services sent out a letter via every child in East Renfrewshire. It received 650 responses, a huge uptake.
"What we like about the project is that it isn't targeted," says Mrs Fullarton. "There is no referral system involved. It's for any parent, not 'bad' parents.
"It's an attempt to provide something positive and anonymous. Parents' names are not kept on record and we do not inform schools which parents attend. We are simply here to facilitate.
"Our basic philosophy is that the only person's behaviour you can change is your own," Mrs Fullarton explains. "It's about responding differently to a child's behaviour, about not taking the bait, about not rewarding bad behaviour as most bad behaviour is about attention seeking.
"If you give a different reaction you will get a different response. It goes hand in hand with spending time with the child and finding new ways to interact.
"Tell them how they make you feel by their behaviour rather than pointing the finger to blame them," says Mrs Fullarton.
In role playing ideas such as these, the paents in turn play the truculent teenager or difficult child, which can result (as it did for one father) in them declaring in some anxiety: "I'd forgotten what it was like when my mother shouted at me."
Feedback about the sessions from parents has been positive and they have been challenging for all involved.
"We tread on sensitive ground and parents of both sexes can sometimes be in tears but they support each other tremendously. It can be quite startling," says Mrs Fullarton.
Most of the parents probably are not as bad parents as they once thought, she says, and many keep up social meetings after the sessions.
Mrs Fullarton sees the project as part of a long-term solution to exclusion. "Pupils can be excluded because the school setting challenges them: parents can't necessarily affect that. These classes are only part of the solution."
Sessions are running now in Barrhead and new groups will be started in the Eastwood area next session. Two extensions being considered are on-line facilities for parents and to have a psychologist available at certain times in health clinics so that parents can make use of their services as they would a doctor or nurse.
"Public access to psychological services is not as it should be," says Mrs Fullarton. "It is and should be about more than school referrals. We want to be pro-active rather than reactive. It's about early intervention both in terms of years and problems.
"If a problem develops in Primary 4 you need to deal with it then. It's no use when it becomes apparent in Secondary 2. It's too late.
"We're keen to help families as early as possible but all this has to be done outwith working hours because we are just too busy."
Information on workshops and Family Care Trust materials from East Renfrewshire Psychological Services, St Mark's Infant Building, Roebank Drive, Barrhead G78 2JA, tel 0141 577 4520