1 This article was downloaded by: [Canadian Research Knowledge Network] On: 10 March 2011 Access details: Access Details: [subscription number ] Publisher Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: Registered office: Mortimer House, Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK European Journal of Social Work Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: Building collaboration between school and parents: issues for school social workers and parents whose young children exhibit violent behaviour at school Marie Drolet; Maryse Paquin; Magnolia Soutyrine To cite this Article Drolet, Marie, Paquin, Maryse and Soutyrine, Magnolia(2006) 'Building collaboration between school and parents: issues for school social workers and parents whose young children exhibit violent behaviour at school', European Journal of Social Work, 9: 2, To link to this Article: DOI: / URL: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Full terms and conditions of use: This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug doses should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
2 European Journal of Social Work Vol. 9, No. 2, June 2006, pp Building collaboration between school and parents: issues for school social workers and parents whose young children exhibit violent behaviour at school Mettre en place une collaboration entre les écoles et les parents: des enjeux pour le travail social scolaire et les parents de jeunes enfants présentant des conduites violentes à l école Marie Drolet, Maryse Paquin & Magnolia Soutyrine This research explores the perceptions of 60 parents whose children, aged from three to nine, had been involved in bullying, as defined under the Safe Schools Act and the Code of Conduct. Some of these children had been suspended from school, while others were potential candidates for suspension. These parents were recruited from Ottawa s two French-language school boards to participate in qualitative interviews between June 2000 and June The aim of this research was to cast new light on the perceptions of parents and schools with regard to their relationships, and on the role of school social workers in maintaining and enhancing collaborative partnerships. The desire of some parents to be involved in the decisions concerning remedial action taken to address their child s aggressive behaviour touched a raw nerve in some schools. Nonetheless, when schools and parents ultimately recognize the daily challenges that both Correspondence to: Dr Marie Drolet, School of Social Work, University of Ottawa, 43 Templeton Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada. Tel: (613) , Ext. 6397; Fax: (613) ; ISSN (print)/issn (online) # 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: /
3 202 M. Drolet et al. parties face, and a shared plan of action develops therein, the path to effective collaboration becomes clear. Early intervention on the part of school social workers gives them an edge in their efforts as mediators. They seize every opportunity to initiate different collaborative approaches between schools and parents, so that the issue of bullying can be handled in a more respectful way for everyone. Keywords: School Social Work; Collaboration between Schools and Parents; Relationships between Schools and Parents; Partnership between Schools and Parents; Bullying Cette étude explore les perceptions de 60 parents d enfants de 3 à 9 ans qui présentent des conduites d intimidation à l égard de leurs pairs aux termes de la Loi sur la sécurité dans les écoles et du Code de conduite provincial. Ces enfants font l objet d une suspension scolaire ou d une possibilité de suspension. Ces parents recrutés auprès des deux conseils scolaires de langue française d Ottawa ont participé à des entrevues qualitatives menées entre juin 2000 et juin Cette recherche vise à mieux cerner leurs perceptions en ce qui a trait à leurs relations avec l école, ainsi que concernant l apport des travailleuses sociales scolaires pour mettre en place et solidifier une collaboration entre ces deux milieux. Le désir qu ont certains parents de participer aux décisions relatives aux mesures à prendre pour remédier aux conduites violentes de leur enfant est nettement apparu comme le point névralgique avec certaines écoles. La reconnaissance mutuelle des enjeux quotidiens qu affrontent les écoles et les parents, ainsi qu un plan d action concerté soulèvent des pistes en faveur d une collaboration efficace entre ces deux milieux. L intervention précoce des travailleuses sociales scolaires, en tant que médiatrices, soutient aussi un tel processus de collaboration. Ces intervenantes profitent alors de chaque opportunité pour initier différentes approches de collaboration entre les écoles et les parents. Les enjeux concernant l intimidation à l école pourront donc être mieux affrontés, et ce dans le respect de chaque partie. Mots-clé: Travail Social Scolaire; Collaboration entre les Écoles et les Parents; Relations entre les Écoles et les Parents; Partenariat entre les Écoles et les Parents; Intimidation Efforts aimed at controlling violence in schools have been receiving more attention in recent years because of problems experienced by victims of bullying (Bullis et al., 2001; Charlot & Émin, 2001; Hayden & Blaya, 2001; NCPS, 2002; Verlinden et al., 2000). Although incidents of physical aggression and the number of aggressors remain proportionally low compared to the overall student population (Debarbieux et al., 2000; Debarbieux, 2001; Hayden & Blaya, 2001), there has been an increase in physical threats and, therefore, in feelings of insecurity on the part of students and staff. To introduce solutions to this problem, one focus of the stakeholders centres upon early intervention (Lœber & Farrington, 2000; NCPS, 2002). Using early
4 European Journal of Social Work 203 intervention strategies, school social workers endeavour to maximize the opportunities for schools to work together with the parents of young children who are physically or verbally aggressive at school, with a view to controlling this behaviour as soon as possible. Schoolparent collaboration is recognized as a key element in children s overall development. Parents direct involvement in the learning environment of their children (particularly at a young age) increases their children s motivation to perform well (Bowen, 1999; Broussard, 2003; Epstein, 2001; Grolnick et al., 2002; Marcon, 1999; Peña, 2000; Vincent & Tomlinson, 1997) and increases their attendance (Keith et al., 1998; Teasley, 2004; Zelman & Waterman, 1998 ). Schoolparent collaboration is also known to have a beneficial effect on children s social skills (Kohl et al., 2000) by reducing problem behaviours (Burke et al., 2002; Reid et al., 1999; Webster- Stratton et al., 2001). Achieving positive outcomes such as these therefore calls for greater focus to be placed on early intervention and on the schoolparent partnership (Algozzine & Pam, 2002; Reid et al., 1999; Reynolds, 1999; Webster- Stratton, 1998; Webster-Stratton et al., 2001). To control bullying in schools, the Ontario government has enacted a framework of laws to deal with violent acts committed by children, including those between the ages of three and nine. By 1994, the province had introduced a zero tolerance policy. Under the terms of the Violence-Free Schools Policy (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1994), each school was required to develop and implement a code of conduct addressing student violence. In 2001, the Ontario government proclaimed the Safe Schools Act (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2000) and the Code of Conduct (OME, 2001). This legislative framework introduced what was essentially a get tough approach, which was designed to set a more uniform and systematic application of remedial measures in place and to ensure parents cooperation. 1 Under this legislative framework, however, there lies the possibility for increased conflict between the parents of aggressive young children and the schools *a situation that may call for mediation by social workers who have specialized in school and family issues. Accordingly, it is important that the role of school social workers be well understood. As well, these professionals need to have a clear grasp of the perceptions that parents and schools have of their own relationship, thereby ensuring that the best form of intervention is adopted. The new legal implications have also raised some questions about the nature of collaborative frameworks and how school social workers maintain and enhance partnerships. This paper sets out to build on major publications addressing both the role of the school social worker as well as the schoolparent relationship. It will highlight the points that parents consider to be crucial in their partnership with schools, and will examine the role of the school social worker in cooperative initiatives within the context of controlling bullying involving youngsters aged from three to nine.
5 204 M. Drolet et al. The role of school-based social work: working together to help children and parents In Ontario, as in other Canadian jurisdictions (CASW, 2002; OASW, n.d.), the role of school social workers differs from that of school attendance officers (Link, 1991; Pritchard et al., 1998) even though they remain closely connected. Employed by school boards, these social workers provide their services on a voluntary basis directly to children, parents, educators and school administrators (OASW, n.d.). Although they respond most often to appeals from school staff faced with students truancy, learning difficulties or aggressive behaviour (CASW, 2002), school social workers analyse the child s personal strengths and milieux (Bernard, 1997). As such, school social work functions from an ecological perspective (Allen-Meares et al., 2000; Constable et al., 1996; Diehl, 2003; Dupper, 2003; Freeman et al., 1998; Germain, 2000). The role of school social workers typically involves counselling children, providing direct support to parents, sometimes even in the home (Allen & Tracy, 2004), facilitating schoolparent interactions, and referring children and families to appropriate community resources (Agresta, 2004; CASW, 2002; OASW, n.d.). Given school social workers expanding role as consultants to teachers (Lynn et al., 2003; Viggiani et al., 2002), Dupper (2003) stresses the value of more proactive practices, namely, defending the rights of children and their families, empowering parents, and working in partnership with the entire school and community to set up prevention services and programmes adapted to the changing needs of children and their families. Areas to which school social workers pay special attention include the control of bullying (NASW in Agresta, 2004; Dupper, 2003), the development of children s social skills, and the support of parents in the application of effective childrearing practices (Bonnaffon, 2001). School social workers are in the best position to promote effective schoolparent communication and to foster multi-level collaborative interventions (Dupper, 2003). They have long been recognized for their promotion of parental involvement in children s school life (Bowen, 1999; Kurtz & Barth, 1989). Collaboration, when applied specifically to the schoolparent connection, has been defined as a dynamic framework that endorses collegial, interdependent and coequal styles of interaction between families and educators who work together to achieve common goals (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). Three elements that support this partnership are regular two-way communication, mutual support and shared decision making (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). However, the key to making this partnership work is to view parents as genuine partners entitled to share in any decision making (Dupper, 2003). Intervention by social workers encompasses five levels of collaboration that the former can initiate for the benefit of children, their families, and the relationship between parents and schools (Lawson et al. in Anderson-Butcher & Ashton, 2004; Lawson & Barkdull, 2001).
6 European Journal of Social Work Family-centred collaboration is based on the view that parents are experts in addressing their own situation, and on taking concrete steps to involve them more actively in their children s school life. 2. Intra-organizational collaboration solidifies the interdependence of existing school services. Social workers, for example, support teachers by developing individualized behaviour-management and positive-reinforcement plans. 3. Inter-professional collaboration refers to all forms of joint initiatives addressing specific children s problems. 4. Inter-agency collaboration entails referring families to appropriate community resources. 5. Community collaboration involves planning and coordinating resources and services in conjunction with community agencies, to the benefit of children and their families. With respect to children demonstrating aggressive behaviours, family-centred practices are essential (Fraser, 1998). They refer to programmes aimed at helping parents learn how to manage their children s behaviour and empowering parents in their relationships with their young children (Markward & Bride, 2001). According to these authors, such programmes are the most appropriate in these cases, and social workers recognized expertise and experience in intervening with parents play an important part in this type of collaborative endeavour. Given the legal context vis-à-vis youngsters aggressive behaviour at school, social workers can play a key role as mediators between the home and school. They are ideally placed to advocate for early intervention and to encourage school staff and parents to pay more attention to each other s viewpoints and daily-living situations. Opportunities are thereby provided for maintaining and enhancing frameworks for parentschool collaboration. This leads to the following two research questions: in the context of the day-to-day experiences of parents with children ranging in age from three to nine who demonstrate aggressive behaviour at school, what are the elements that foster a positive relationship with the school? How can school social workers help nurture a positive relationship between the home and the school under these circumstances? Methodology To find answers to these questions, we conducted qualitative telephone interviews with 60 French-speaking parents with children between the ages of three and nine who had engaged in violent behaviour at school. The interviews centred on how they perceived their collaborative relationship with the school. These parents were either recruited from the two French-language school boards in Ottawa, Ontario, or referred to us by community groups offering outreach services to children and their parents. The interviews were open only to parents whose children had committed aggressive acts against their peers at school. These children had been suspended or were
7 206 M. Drolet et al. considered potential candidates for suspension, under Ontario s Safe Schools Act (OME, 2000) and Code of Conduct (OME, 2001). The sample group consisted solely of volunteers (Mayer et al., 2000). The interviews were conducted with one parent from each of the 60 households. The interview grid sought to identify each parent s perceptions about a range of issues with the aim of gaining a clear picture of the context surrounding their child s aggressive behaviour. The grid also served to elicit how they had collaborated with the school in dealing with their child s behaviour, and the extent to which they may or may not have felt empowered throughout the process. The results concerning the contributions of school social workers derive from a secondary analysis of the parents perceptions about the elements that either supported or hindered their collaborative relationship with the school. The interviews took place between June 2000 and June They lasted from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the parents availability, and consisted of both structured and unstructured formats. The transcripts were sorted with NVivo 1.3 and codified by means of a classic content-analysis method (Mayer et al., 2000). Results were analysed deductively and inductively (L Écuyer, 1985). Both horizontal and vertical analyses were carried out. The full set of findings and the respondent profiles stem from inductive reasoning (Huberman & Miles, 1991). As is generally the case for qualitative research, the results obtained are representative of a limited number of participants. These were volunteer subjects, hence our sample group consisted exclusively of parents who were willing to discuss their perceptions. Characteristics of the sample group The group of 60 parents included 55 women and five men. Boys accounted for 90% of the 60 children who had been involved in some form of bullying at school. Of these children, 23 were between the ages of three and six, while 37 were between the ages of seven and nine. Three children out of four (45/60) hit their schoolmates; the others were verbally abusive. According to what the parents had to say, the vast majority of these children (51/60) had great difficulty following instructions. Twelve of the children in our sample group had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), potentially requiring the use of Ritalin. 2 More than two thirds (42/60) of the children were receiving some form of help from social services. The following describes the families socio-demographic profiles. Of the 60 families, 23 lived below the poverty line for Ottawa ($24,999), as determined by the National Council of Welfare (NCW, 2002). 3 A total of 12 families had household incomes ranging from $25,000 to $49,999 per year; 25 families had annual incomes of $50,000 or more. For the purposes of this study, the families in the last two income brackets were grouped together as middle class. Of the 23 families living below the poverty line, 18 were single-parent households, closely mirroring the proportion cited in the NCW s research study on poverty. Single-parent households accounted for almost 50% of our sample (29/60), while two-parent families made up 26% of the
8 European Journal of Social Work 207 group, and stepfamilies, 5%. The parents had relatively high education levels: 34 had some post-secondary education (16 of them at the university level) and 24 had completed high school. The vast majority (50/60) of the parents interviewed were either working or studying. French was spoken in all the homes, and only seven families spoke languages other than French or English. Three parents out of five reported that stressful family events had amplified their children s violent behaviour. Half of the parents (29/60) admitted that conjugal discord was one of the elements that had an impact on their families, whether in the form of arguments or actual separation. Seven of the situations involved conjugal violence. Shared decision making: exposing a raw nerve In its Code of Conduct (OME, 2001), which frames violent behaviour at school, the Ontario Ministry of Education emphasizes the importance of active parental involvement. Parents are invited to meet with school staff to develop a joint intervention plan and to support the disciplinary measures taken by the school. However, because a key to successful collaboration with parents implies involving them in important decisions (Dupper, 2003), four questions on the grid (see Table 1 below) sought to identify the parents degree of involvement in the school s decisions concerning their children and their violent behaviours. Table 1 Parental involvement in decision making Question 38: Question 39: Question 40: Question 51: Has the school ever invited you to be part of the search for solutions? Yes $25,000 $49,999/$50K/ ($CAN) 20/37 Below poverty line 13/23 Total 33/60 Has the school actually involved you in making decisions concerning your child? Yes $25,000 $49,999/$50K/ 16/37 Below poverty line 9/23 Total 25/60 Have you been able to influence the decisions affecting your child? Yes $25,000 $49,999/$50K/ 14/37 Below poverty line 6/23 Total 20/60 Do you feel that you have any power of influence in the school? Yes $25,000 $49,999/$50K/ 18/37 Below poverty line 9/23 Total 27/60
9 208 M. Drolet et al. A slight majority of 55% (33/60) stated they had been asked to participate in the attempt to find solutions (Q38). And 42.5% (25/60) answered that the school actually involved them in making decisions concerning their child (Q39). However, 53% (32/60) said they had never taken part in any decisions regarding their child s aggressive behaviour (Q39). Their main complaint concerned the type of remedial action taken by the school: 14 parents were opposed to temporary suspension; five were against permanent expulsion; four opposed transfer to a special education class; and five opposed prescribing Ritalin. To question 51, Do you feel that you have any power of influence in the school?, once again almost half (45%; 27/60) responded in the affirmative with respect to their overall influence. On the other hand, question 40, Have you been able to influence the decisions affecting your child?, yielded three nearly equal sets of responses, the last third (19/60) of which included ambivalent responses, that is, they were neither affirmative nor negative. Parents whose answers fell into this grey area believed that the school had made the major decisions and involved them in more minor decisions about the intervention strategies tailored to their child. The answers to those four questions provided in the previous table and throughout the transcript of the 60 interviews form two respondent profiles (Huberman & Miles, 1991): willing collaborator (i.e. the 25 who answered yes to the four questions) or passive presence (i.e. the 19 who answered no to all four questions). Even though almost three quarters of the parents (44/60) fit into one of the above two profiles, the other 16 respondents were excluded because their answers were either not relevant or not conclusive enough to clearly indicate which profile applied. Moreover, there were not enough common threads connecting their perceptions to substantiate the establishment of a third profile. All the same, these 16 interviews served to confirm the very complex nature of the schoolhome relationship. It is the quality of the relationship between the parent and one staff member that is a determining factor in building effective parentschool partnerships. Moreover, that quality is more important than the actual frequency of contact between the two parties (Adams & Christenson, 2000). As seen in the following excerpt, the various levels of contact maintained between parents and the school is an issue of some importance. The complexity of the relationship is a key element on which the social worker may build a collaborative framework. A single mother, aged 30, who has an eight-year-old son, a high-school diploma and a full-time job, describes the complex nature of the school situation: The principal makes time for him. She gets him to talk about his feelings. She helps him see his way out of problems and encourages him to talk more about his feelings with us. She remembers me each time I phone her... And last year s teacher too, she tried to give him responsibilities. He liked the fish in the class aquarium, so she said, You can be the one that feeds him. That was good for him and we all got along...but this year s teacher, she sent me a letter saying my son is a troubled kid, that he s a kind of sad soul with learning problems and needs to see a psychiatrist.
10 European Journal of Social Work 209 We have to put aside all the good progress made and get some expert to pick up the pieces...it s like the teacher s saying, OK, you did your best, now let s pass the boy on to an expert. The principal is considering referring the mother to the school social worker for support.  Since one level of contact that becomes derailed may evolve into a major roadblock to collaboration between the school and parents, what are the elements for parents that foster a cooperative relationship? Moreover, how can school social workers help to pave the way for a smooth relationship between parents and the school? The following section describes how the perceptions of various parents in the two profiles differ. The willing collaborator profile: when both sides work together This first profile includes 25 of the 60 respondents (13 from the middle class and 12 below the poverty line). It basically reflects active collaboration between the school and parents, as defined by Christenson and Sheridan (2001). Although the parents in this profile considered that they had taken part in the decisions affecting their children (Dupper, 2003), some of them mentioned that nobody had asked for their opinions concerning the application of the Ontario Code of Conduct (OME, 2001). They stated, however, that the legal framework governing the decisions to be taken by the school did not interfere with their positive relationship with the school because they supported the mandated intervention to counter violent behaviour in that setting. These 25 parents trust in the school s expertise: They know best how to get my child to behave . In their eyes, the school has the major responsibility for helping children solve the problems they encounter therein. According to those parents, the effectiveness of a team approach is based, in part, on these three elements: 1. a shared understanding of the difficulties and constraints faced by each party; 2. mutual respect for each other s expertise and role in the child s life; and 3. a sense that, whatever one party s plan of action may entail, the overarching goal is the welfare of the child. In the view of these parents, regular two-way communication is the blueprint for cooperative problem solving and mutual support. With their children s well-being in mind, parents are able to talk about classroom issues with their youngsters and show their support for any necessary intervention. They can work with the school by implementing measures at home that address the child s aggressive conduct at school. This type of home-based plan of action ensures that these children hear the same message in the two main spheres of their lives. That process falls under a framework of overlapping influence (Epstein, 1992, 1995, 2001): a dynamic process complementing the efforts made by two institutions (i.e. school and family).
11 210 M. Drolet et al. The next excerpt illustrates the importance of that mutual support, whereby social workers will have a grasp of what direct school and parent collaboration involves. A mother, aged 40, with an eight-year-old son diagnosed with ADHD. She lives with her husband and another child. Both parents are in low-paying jobs. She reports: As soon as any problem happens, I am ready to discuss ways of finding a solution together. I asked the teacher at the beginning if she d mind filling out the comments box in my child s school agenda every day, because sometimes I don t find out until Thursday what happened on Monday. It was me who decided that every Friday I d check to see how he did during the week, and if he had problems, he d lose one privilege the next week...some of the teachers have even asked me for ideas about how they can improve the way they deal with my son in certain classroom situations. The school understands I don t always find it easy to handle my son. They know if they suggest something, I m going to take it seriously. They know that in our family, we always try to work for what s best for our boy.  When schools and parents work together as partners, parents develop a more supportive attitude towards the educational institution and a greater willingness to work towards positive change (Deslandes, 2001). This collaboration becomes a dynamic process built on constructive interactions. The passive presence profile: when tension permeates the decision-making process The 19 parents belonging to the non-collaborative, or passive presence, profile (11 from the middle class and eight living below the poverty line) clearly stand out from those in the collaborative profile. These 19 harbour real doubts about their influence in the school. In their opinion, the school has never truly involved them in the major decisions affecting their children (Dupper, 2003). They believe that the school forces them to maintain a passive role, imposes its choices and applies its rules rigidly. Their main complaint concerns the type of remedial action taken: temporary suspension, permanent expulsion, transfer to a special-education class, and exerting pressure on the parents to use Ritalin. Their perception of having being sidelined when major decisions were made is the key obstacle to their working collaboratively with the school, and lies at the root of this conflict. This couple are both recent university graduates and have a five-year-old son. The interviewed parent asserted, as an example of how tension can underlie the decisionmaking process: The principal was most professional and tactful, and we set up an appointment with her to draw up an intervention plan. The teaching assistant was also present, as were the vice-principal, the junior kindergarten teacher and the two of us...but they didn t follow this plan. They had their own plan, and it had nothing to do with an in-school solution. It made an argument for requesting the school board s permission to send him away. They didn t want to address anything at his school. The principal was determined to send him to a different one. And she avoided yet