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Posted: Jan 4, 2011 10:28

WHEN PARENT INVOLVEMENT IS NOT OPTIONAL

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by Lon Woodbury

One of the common elements in all the schools and programs I work with is what I call Parent-Choice. It is an attitude, or even a philosophy, more than just a technique.

I use this term because it is unique from the traditional procedures of finding residential help for struggling teens. These are troubled children who have enough problems they need a residential experience where they cannot manipulate their parents or others around them. To be successful with these children the residential program must have skilled staff working with them 24 hours a day. Traditionally, when a parent had an "acting out" child, the usual procedure was to go to some professional for help. The parent might go to a Doctor, hoping the Doctor could find a place or therapist that would help, or go to State Social Services and hope the problem was serious enough that the state would place the child in a suitable place. Or, if the child was doing something illegal, the parent might even report the child hoping the court system and Juvenile Justice could give him/her the help needed. In this traditional procedure, the professional was the decision maker and the parents were mostly passive bystanders in both finding a suitable place and in the treatment. The model these professionals often had were the parents were the problem, and professionals were the solution.

Although society has come a long way from those days, I still at times find this old attitude on the part of some professionals who by their actions, and sometimes by their words, seem to be telling the parents - "You screwed up your kid. Bring him/her to us, don't bother us, and we'll fix the child."

With this attitude and philosophy, parents are optional. Of course, many professionals working with kids placed by professionals make attempts to involve the parents in the intervention. Still, everybody knows parents involved with this kind of program are optional, powerless and could be removed from the intervention at any time some professional thinks they are being a bother. The only antidote to this sense of powerlessness is Parent Empowerment through the parents having real responsibility and power in decision making regarding their child.

All the research I've read has concluded the most important factor in a child's education, healing or even just growing up is the involvement of the parents. The Internet is full of tips and ideas for professionals about how to get parents more involved in both their children's schools and in his/her healing. The problem is most of these efforts are attempts to get parents to do what the professionals want done, in the way the professionals want. The net result is that parents are still relatively powerless, with limited responsibilities, and they often act accordingly - with lukewarm involvement. Not only do parents in this situation sometimes feel powerless and thus show modest interest, they sometimes also get the sense of entitlement - which means they think they deserve the service without having to do anything on their own.

One example that comes to mind is a situation I watched when a public school district needing money for play ground equipment for the children asked the school parent group to help. A chili feed was put together and financially it was a success, raising enough money for the equipment. This was good, but I noticed among the parents were doctors, lawyers, contractors and many other parents with successful careers.
Surely those successful parents had more to offer the school system and the students than simple duty as short order cooks, waiters and waitresses! However, at this time this was the only way the local educators would allow parents to be actively involved. In essence, parent involvement was structured to be limited and controlled. A similar dynamic occurs in most public funded programs for troubled teens. The parents, knowing they have little or no say tend to get into the mindset of expecting the professionals to "fix" their child and that it has little or no relationship to their own parenting.

The dynamics are entirely different when parents have responsibility in both the selection of a service and in the treatment or education of a child. When parents see that they have some say and responsibility in the situation, most parents will rise to the occasion and take more responsibility for the success of their child. And if the parents are reluctant to exercise responsibility, it is the responsibility of the program to help educate the parents in how to work with the program and to explain the advantages to both parent and child of this parent involvement. At least this has been what the schools and programs in the network I work with have found. Of course some parents will not or cannot participate, but this is no excuse to exclude all parents and eliminate the positive effect of having those parents actively involved.
These schools and programs have found the best way to get parent involvement is to start by having the parents exercise a vital say in the selection of a school or program for their child. Parents can choose the program they want their child to be in, and if they are disappointed with the performance of the staff, they have the power and responsibility of changing their mind and finding a different place for their child. Although there are exceptions, most of the time parents make good decisions, especially when they take advantage of professional help like engaging a competent professionally trained and experienced independent educational consultant or the program takes on the task of educating the parent in what they can do to help their child by working with the program. What initiates all these positives is the ability of parents to choose to place their child on their own, without needing to ask permission from some professional or to allow a situation to deteriorate until the State needs to take action.

Another thing many of these schools and programs do are welcome the parents as part of the solution by organizing parent-child workshops at the program and some even put the parents on a parallel program so they are experiencing much the same things as their child. This level of involvement encourages greater parent commitment to their child's healing and education, and prepares the parent to be better able to understand and work with their child both in the program and when he/she comes home. By facilitating the parent and child sharing in the experience, the parent-child bond is enhanced.

Many therapies are oriented to working with the child as a part of the family system. This is not only compatible with Parent-Choice, but is a natural extension of it. When parent involvement is successful in any stage of intervention or education, the family is strengthened, the child is healing or maturing, and parenting becomes the rich experience it was meant to be.

This can only be accomplished when the parents are accepted as full partners in their child's healing and education. The program actively helping the parents to be responsible for some of the experience is the only effective way to accomplish this.

Thus, Parent-Choice is not just an idle slogan, or just a technique, but a breakthrough in successful healing and education for a child with problems. These lessons learned are not just for "troubled" children, but are helpful to every child to grow up to become a healthy and functional adult. The first step is for the parent to take responsibility for the placement of their child when it is needed by choosing where the child will be placed. Continuing this attitude by professionals accepting parents as partners in the school or program experience is a natural and effective continuation.

Public programs and schools could do well to find ways to emulate this Parent-Choice mentality in the context of public programs whenever possible.


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