I know that when I did my first degree, family dynamics where not mentioned at all. Years later, when I did my second, they were still not discussed. Now I am working on my professional development further, and this is still a key area, that is rarely talked about.
I believe that the family unit is a vital component in a child’s life and so many different family groups are now present in our society, which I personally feel is wonderful. I love how bright, vibrant and culturally diverse society is and will continue to become. However, we need to ensure that this is being taken into consideration in the classroom.
I wouldn’t dream of telling others what to do or say when in a range of different situations, that is not my place, yet I do feel that the family is overlooked. In whichever form they come, ‘The Family’ are the primary care givers for such a large percentage of a child’s life, we need to ensure that enough respect is paid to them and the knowledge that they hold about the child. Ask yourself a few key questions and you’ll find that you can factor so much more into your day along with having a significantly deeper understanding of how that child process and deals with situations.
- Do you get to know the families when a new child joins your class?
No matter what year group, this is really important as you will immediately begin to build a bond of trust between the school and home. I always try to think of ways to enhance this bond, such as being visible on the playground at the end of the day and speaking to the families, not just about their child but about family life. Making eye contact, shaking their hand when you first meet them and smiling when having a conversation – I use these well known and yet unfortunately rarely used techniques when I speak to parents. I feel that it makes the conversation more meaningful to both them and myself.
- How long does it take for you to find out that a child is from a one parent family or has a same sex relationship?
During the transition period I make a point of speaking to as many of the families that come for the ‘Meet the teacher’ chat, as possible. This is also one of the many questions that I ask the previous teacher, so that I know the family layout from day one. I find that the parents are pleased when I already know their home has two Mummies and the children were conceived through IVF with a donor.
- If from a single parent family, how often does the child see, speak to, have contact with the other parent?
Having my own children in a single parent family I know how much behaviour can change, becoming very out of character, in the run up to contact with a distant parent. I have been asked by several parents throughout my career to track the behaviour of their child as they are noticing significant mood alterations at certain key times in the month, and in the end it was identified as being a manifestation of anxiety. This has in turn helped me to ensure there is ample support in place for the child, whenever they need it, as they process their own emotions.
- Do you know if the child joining you has siblings, either blood relatives, half or step siblings?
Reconstituted families create new dynamics and this can be challenging for children to wrap their minds around and as a result there are times when emotions run high, behaviour can be challenging and extra support will need to be in place. Due to working in a school that classed the children with vertical grouping I spent several years with a family who had the aunt and nephew in the same class and the nephew was older than the aunt. Situations like this are more common than you think and the support that needs to be on offer should to be thought through carefully and can at times be timely yet, the benefit for the children, for their learning, for their opinions about the world they live in and for their developing values, it is worth it.
Being aware of the family dynamics and creating a relationship with the family from ‘Day 1’ can save you time and embarrassment throughout the year yet more importantly, you can ease the stress and anxiety that the child is going through. Festivals and celebrations can be so much easier for the child if separate invitations have been sent out and divorced parents can watch the Christmas production at different times on different days. Making beautiful Mothers Day cards for an afternoon and sending them home to a family where the child has two Dad’s or the biological mother sadly passed away last year can be distressing for everyone involved.
All I can say is, know your families as it makes such a difference!