Teach a family to fish

Rose Patterson
Insights Newsletter
26 July, 2013

It’s a story teachers often lament: Children bringing behavioural and emotional problems to school, without shoes on their feet or food in their bellies.
Research in 2005 estimated that 10% of children in New Zealand go without breakfast. The Kickstart Breakfast programme is addressing this, and improvements in learning and behaviour have been reported since its introduction.
It’s difficult to challenge a programme that is showing positive outcomes, but as my colleague Khyaati Acharya recently questioned; “Why would a parent bother if breakfast was being provided at school?”
A better solution is to teach parents skills to provide for their own children.
It is therefore promising that the Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett announced this week that she is expanding the Social Workers in Schools (SWiS) programme in primary and intermediate schools. The programme, which provides 285 schools with social workers, will be expanded to 670 low-decile schools.
It’s promising because the SWiS approach is ‘strengths based’. In other words, it teaches families to fish. A 2002 evaluation of the SWiS programme said:
"While listening and acknowledging their stories of struggle, pain and disempowerment, the worker rejects notions of psycho-pathology. Instead, the worker listens for threads of other narratives, stories of times when the families have overcome trials, shown resilience, summoned resources and attained goals."
Building resilience to deal with life’s struggles should surely be a goal of society, rather than further disempowering people by making them reliant on the state. Indeed, the 2002 evaluation of SWiS found that children were better behaved and performing better in school, and families had improved parenting skills, noting "the increased confidence of parents/caregivers to achieve previously unimagined levels of positive family life, work and education goals and the ability of families to problem-solve on their own." Many children were better fed and clothed by the end of the intervention.
The programme is not without its faults. Particularly concerning in the 2002 evaluation was the 29% turnover rate of social workers in the programme – double that of other social workers in New Zealand.
Nevertheless, the schools with social workers who stuck it out reported positive outcomes. Providing schools with what they are hungry for – good quality social workers – will ease the burden on teachers of dealing with the social problems children bring from home.
This enables teachers to focus on what they do best and provide what they are supposed to: an education.

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