A few weeks ago, South Hampstead High School made headlines after issuing a two-page contract to parents with guidance on tech use in the home. Although signing the contract was voluntary, the Daily Mail was quick to insist that the incident was evidence of "Generation Z" being "the new Taliban", trying to dictate the behaviours of their elders. (Because everyone knows that the Taliban’s real aim is for families to spend more time interacting with each other in the world of three dimensions and less time on social media).
The damaging impact of media being sneeringly critical of young people when they demonstrate an aptitude for social awareness and having a moral compass is a topic I will address in another column. What’s interesting about South Hampstead High’s approach is that it makes a bold attempt to "triangulate" messages that their pupils receive. After all, if a young person is restricted in their phone use and attends PHSCE lessons outlining the potential dangers of too much screen time at school, then goes home to an environment where everyone uses their online devices as a fifth limb, that’s both confusing and ineffectual.
During my more-than-a-decade working in schools, the dilemma of how to involve parents in wellbeing approaches has been both omnipresent and seemingly unsolvable. I have, of course, presented numerous parent talks, usually in the evening and outlining what I’ve been discussing with their children that day – anything from critical consumption of social media, to study skills that nurture mental wellbeing. By definition, however, the (usually small number of) parents who attend such talks are those who need them the least. I am preaching to the choir.
When speaking to young people, one has a captive audience. I have (usually) an hour of pupils’ lives in which they are trapped in a room with me, giving me the opportunity to subvert their expectations of what a lesson on mental health or body image or exam stress looks like. It’s telling that the commonest bit of feedback I get is "that was so much better than we thought it was going to be". Just this week, I received an email from a sixth-former I’d presented to which read, "Often you come out of these [assemblies] thinking, ‘Well, I knew that already,' but coming out of yours it was the opposite." Thus I am assured that, despite the prevalence of mental wellbeing in the headlines, were PHSCE lessons on the issue voluntary, most of them, just like their parents, wouldn’t show up.
So, how do you engage reluctant parents in the wellbeing conversation? The following might help (and are all strategies I have seen being implemented effectively in schools and colleges):
1. Think about branding and timing
If you advertise a visiting speaker or evening lecture as a talk about "mental health", often parents will (erroneously) believe that their attendance is a tacit admission of a "problem" at home. Stigma is still rife, particularly among the over-30s.
Therefore, it’s time to be inventive. A talk branded "How you can help your child achieve their potential without sacrificing their wellbeing" is probably going to attract a bigger audience than simply "Mental health", particularly if the student body has sharp-elbowed, middle-class parents.
If yours aren’t the type of parents who are unduly concerned about academic achievement, find out what issue they are concerned about. Whether it’s gangs, bullying or social media, it’s easy to shoehorn mental health into it – they’re all related (in fact, everything is).
Timing is also crucial. If your parent population has high numbers who stay at home, an information session at 3.30pm will attract larger numbers than one at 7pm (because who wants to get home and come back out to school again?). If yours is a school with a larger number of working parents, reverse that logic.
However, you can only do this if you have a relationship with parents, which brings me to…
2. Encourage parents into the school community with the cunning use of hot beverages
You know what grown-ups love? Coffee.
I’ve seen coffee used to great effect in one of the wealthiest schools, where they have a Costa built into the campus and one of the most deprived, where a local business comes and sets up a cart in the playground every morning.
If you can get those parents who don’t have to dash off to work immediately to stick around for a cuppa and a biscuit daily, you create a routine which allows them to feel part of, as opposed to an accessory to, the school community. When they’re invited into conversations about wellbeing, it will, therefore, feel less like criticism of their parenting and more like a collaborative endeavour.
3. Ask parents to be involved in activity-planning.
Where I live (West London) there is a large Muslim population. During Ramadan, one local primary school accepted an offer from a group of mums to come in and explain to the children what the ritual was and why some of their class were observing it. This was a fantastic way to capitalise on parent expertise and make them part of school life.
Similarly, every school has at least one parent who is passionate about mental health. Use them as your ally. Ask them to help rally the others. Show them what you have planned for that term to nurture wellbeing and ask them how it could be enhanced. You might find there are people in your parent body with expertise - they might be able to donate a few free mindfulness or yoga sessions for staff, for example. Or one of them might know an expert or outside speaker they can blag a freebie from.
The elephant in the room of education is the invisible battle lines which have been drawn between parents and teachers. Whilst individual relationships can be challenging, ultimately everyone is motivated by the same goal – doing the best by pupils. Schools need all the allies they can get right now, and parents might just provide a powerful, valuable and heretofore untapped resource.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here