The New Beginnings programme began in May this year and as I write this, it’s hard to believe that we are already over half way through the 24 week course. In fact, we are now at the stage where we are thinking about who will be in our next cohort in January 2019. Our first cohort currently consists of 5 women, all of whom were referred in by a social care professional in the hope that they would receive a therapeutic form of support; one which would help them recognise and build on their strengths so that they could improve the way they live their lives and those of their children.
As we have moved through the past 13 weeks the women have learned a lot about the impact previous trauma can have on their identity, their behaviour, their social interactions, their communication skills, their home life and their ability to build relationships in a personal and professional capacity. They have learned a lot about who they were, who they are and who they want to be. During this time, I too have learned a lot about me- as a teacher, a supervisor and a programme leader. But the most valuable thing that I have learned is that sometimes it isn’t always about me teaching them… but them teaching me.
One thing that I have learned a lot more about recently is the concept of ‘being ready’. In particular, how do we know when a parent is ready to work with people like us, on New Beginnings, and more importantly perhaps, when are they ready to work with their own social worker? This concept has probably sparked my interest because it links to the work I have been doing around the notion of ‘disguised compliance’ (see Leigh, Beddoe and Keddell, forthcoming and Leigh, forthcoming) and the argument that there are, put simply, some parents who say they will or want to do something but then don’t. There are more technical discussions around the use of disguised compliance and I will draw on these in a bit but for now, I want to talk about the part of relationship-based practice that is rarely talked about: the being ready to engage with a complete stranger stage.
Before the programme began, I sent round a flyer with details of what the course would consist of and asked social workers to refer in parents they were working with, those who might ‘be ready’ to benefit from the New Beginnings approach. At the time, if I’m honest, I didn’t really know what a ‘ready’ parent looked like. Were they the kind of parent who would be saying “Sign me up. I am ready to turn my life around?” Somehow, I didn’t think so. Or would it be a case of their social worker saying to them one day, “I think you’re ready for this new thing that promises to take you on a voyage of self discovery- are you ready?” “You know what, yes I am!” Again, I didn’t really think so.
But not being privy to the conversations that would take place between social worker and parent, I wasn’t really sure what that kind of conversation would entail. I realise now that the position I was in back then, not really familiar with the local authority or those who worked for it, showed how little I knew in relation to framing the call to either families or professionals.
The beauty of honesty
It wasn’t until recently, during one of our sessions on communication, that I learned that none of the women we had been working with had ever actually been ready. Although after I had received the referral and then met with the parent and their referring professional to talk about the programme and what it would entail, they had all said they were ready, I learned later that they hadn’t meant what they had said. And thinking about it now, who can blame them? There aren’t many people I know who agree to start something new, whether it be a new course or job, without some kind of hesitation or reservation. And I doubt many of us would appreciate being told, “I think you’re ready for this- it’s what you really need” when in our own minds it’s the last thing we think we need or want to do.
But the beauty of being allowed into someone’s life and being given permission to build a relationship with them is that when you get to that honesty stage, the stage where the parent knows that she can say whatever she wants to you and you will not reprimand her for her comments, is the stage, I have learned, when she starts to teach you. The women told me that day that they had only agreed to come on to the programme because they were worried that if they had said “No” it would look like they weren’t engaging with professionals. When we talked about why they wanted to appear as if they were engaging, they said that they had been worried they would look bad if they didn’t come onto the course and that “things would become difficult”.
When I asked them about the relationships they had with their referring professional, they said that they had a good relationship with them and a few even went further than that, stating that they would be lost without them. So, it’s important to note, we are not working with parents who feel they cannot talk to their social care professional but those who appreciate the fact that they can. However, despite having good relationships with their referring professionals, the same theme emerged for all of them: the fear of not doing the right thing.
I know this is a finding that will not surprise many and, if I’m entirely honest it did not come as a big surprise to me, if anything it confirmed what I had already suspected. But what it did make me think about was the importance of ‘being ready’ and how it featured in a number of conversations I had had with professionals at the start. In fact, recently one social worker told me that when her service lead had asked her team why few referrals were being made to New Beginnings (back in May), she had said “It’s simple, the families I think would benefit are just not ready yet”. When I asked her what this meant, she said that she felt that they needed to be in a place where they were ready to accept responsibility and be willing to change. A good explanation and one which I completely understand but given what the women on New Beginnings have since shared with me, I still wonder, how do we know when anyone is really ready? And more importantly, what can I do in future to ensure that rather than be ready, the women (or men) we work with next time are as ‘ready as they can be’.
As ready as we can be
I put these questions to the women in the group, as well as our Patron (Surviving Safeguarding Annie), and they gave me some sound advice. It’s important to mention at this point that all of the women who complete the New Beginnings programme have the opportunity to become peer mentors for the parents on the next cohort and beyond. All of the women we are working with at present really want to become peer mentors. I think being given the opportunity to share what they have learned is part of what is motivating their change and driving them towards completing the programme. So, understanding how to find ‘as ready as we can be’ parents is a part of our recruitment phase that they will play an integral role in. What I have learned from them is that next time, rather than just going through professionals, we should hold an open fun day at the local children’s centre so that parents who are interested or passing by (it’s next to a school and health centre) can pop in and learn more about what the programme entails. They can speak to the women who have taken part and in turn, begin to make connections with the very person that might be their future peer mentor.
In addition, we (me, Leanne and the peer mentors) should spend time visiting and talking to social care professionals about the concept of a parent ‘being ready’ to engage with complete strangers and joining a course such as New Beginnings. This time should involve sharing what we have learned from the women we have been working with and explaining what this might mean for everyone involved in that parent’s life.
I’ve also learned that preparation is key. So, when referrals are made, we should spend time with the parent on a 1:1 basis so that we can get to know them and talk to them about any fears they might have and in turn, offer support to help overcome any barriers and provide reassurance as to what the future might hold. This getting to know each other stage needs to take place before group work starts, before we can expect to build a relationship with any family. In fairness, it makes complete sense- it was naïve of me to expect parents to come and take part in trauma informed group work without this groundwork. I know if the shoe had been on the other foot, I wouldn’t have wanted to.
And what the women have all said, is that they would like their referring professional to come with them on the first day of New Beginnings, the day when they properly meet the other members of the group for the first time. The women all talked about feeling petrified on their first day and how walking into something new should not be an activity that is taken lightly or that they are expected to do alone.
Doing it for me and my family, no-one else
I mentioned earlier that I have been doing quite a bit of work recently around the notion of disguised compliance and the impact that this popular term has had on practice and social care’s perceptions of parents. It is through this research that I have learned that not only does the term *‘disguised compliance’ (see below) not actually exist but that understanding why a parent might feel unable to express their true feelings about a care plan or intervention is what truly matters if we are to support change and build authentic relationships with families. This discussion highlights the importance of not ‘the being ready stage’ but ‘the getting ready stage’- the time when as professionals and peer mentors we can appropriately support those who want to give it a go with what they need to do so.
When I asked the women what they now thought of being on New Beginnings, the responses they gave did surprise me. They all said that now, halfway through, they loved the programme and rather than waiting for it to come to an end, they were worried about what they were going to do when it did. When I asked them what had changed- one of the women said: “Well, before I was doing it because I felt I had to but now, I am doing it for me and my family- no one else”. Over the next few weeks, the women will be blogging about their experiences of New Beginnings and what this journey has meant to them. This blog is, therefore, just the first of many to come.
Disguised compliance does not exist because it is highly unlikely that a parent would conceal their agreement (disguise their compliance) with a plan or form of intervention, rather more likely they would conceal their resistance. For more information see Leigh, Beddoe and Keddell, forthcoming and Leigh, forthcoming.