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Multi-family therapy in schools: ‘Working with families in the way that we do is far more useful than any one-to-one work I’ve done’

Family therapy

Publication date: April 27, 2018

Families are an incredible resource. Working in groups is a fantastic model and I want more people to know about it.’ So says, Mark Griffiths who has been an educational psychotherapist and UKCP member since 2000. ‘Working with families in the way that we do is far more useful than any one-to-one work I’ve done.’

Mark leads the The School & Family Works, an innovative social enterprise working with schools and families to help vulnerable children. He is passionate about the work they do and will be sharing his enthusiasm at UKCP’s conference, Minding the Gap in Children’s Mental Health.

‘Most of the people we work with have been involved in previous interventions that haven’t worked,’ Mark says. ‘The parents often feel isolated and stuck. They’re wary – wary of engaging with another service, wary of others they may have seen across the playground. They may have a difficult relationship with the school, which may be another cause for caution because the groups are co-facilitated by a senior leader from the school who works as the ‘school-based partner’ alongside an experienced therapist.’

The multi-family groups comprise six to eight parents each bringing along one child. The aim is to recruit the children who would most benefit from support. The children may have low attainment, be making little progress, their school attendance may be poor, they may have behavioural issues or peer group difficulties.

Once the school has identified the children, we go to the parents seeking partnership in helping their child. ‘It can take as long as two months to recruit families to the group – other interventions don’t even last that long. The average length of our intervention is 14 months,’ says Mark.

‘The first thing we do is set ground rules which everyone signs. We talk about confidentiality, what happens if people outside the group ask them about it, what happens if two of the parents meet each other in the supermarket. The rules are important in holding the whole thing together.’

The group meets weekly. Each session starts with a reminder about the rules, followed by a ‘What’s hot?’ discussion about what each child feels has gone well and what they’ve struggled since the previous meeting. The group makes suggestions about what might help and sets ‘internal’ targets for the children to achieve during the group work.

Targets are individual and arise to meet the difficulty the child is trying to address. ‘Targets might be making eye contact with people,’ says Mark. ‘Or for someone who may not be able to say what they’re struggling with in the group, the target might simply be to talk more. These internal targets may be incremental steps to the external targets that the parents and school set for the children; longer term goals about what they want to achieve.’

‘What’s hot’ is followed by an activity such as planting sunflowers, collaborative story writing, playing a board game or making sock puppets.

‘During the activity we continually come back to the targets. And the group holds the children to account and rates them on how they’ve done. The children are praised and helped where they get stuck. Everyone who’s there becomes attached to the development of these children. Hopefully this creates a positive spiral.’

After 90 minutes, the children leave, and the parents have a session together we call ‘Parent Reflection Time’. Parents review and analyse moments from the earlier session, and reflect on links to patterns in their families and experiences in their own lives. But it doesn’t end there. The therapist stays in the school for the rest of the day, working with other teachers and extending the ethos of the group work throughout the school.

Mark says, ‘Our work is inclusive and co-productive. It’s about families helping families. The people we work with have complex needs and face multiple disadvantages. They have a lot to cope with in their lives. The parents can be pretty reactive because they don’t have a lot of time to reflect. They may have fallen out of the school system themselves. We want to help people to a position where they can make a choice. Trust has to be earned. So, the time in the group is a novel experience for many, where we all witness confidence and competence growing from week to week. It’s a great privilege to be involved.

For more information about the UKCP Minding the Gap in Children’s Mental Health conference, visit www.psychotherapy.org.uk/events. To learn more about multi-family therapy in schools visit www.theschoolandfamilyworks.co.uk.