The family systems your institution is charged with engaging has built in resistance to your best efforts. The complexity increasing factor is that these barriers are centered in the uniqueness and collective identity of the family system. In order to complete your work successfully, your institution must have intentional processes to assess barriers, redress barriers as goals, and facilitate goal achievement. In the language of operational modeling, the institution can build in “controllables” as it understands the input entering the system. Always keep in mind that the institutional and individual end game is to increase choice and influence sustainable choice.
Assessment: Awareness of the Challenge
Trauma/Experience. Trauma is not just limited to catastrophic events or large scale tragedy. Trauma includes perceived losses, longing, or wishes unfulfilled. This definition expands the numbers of those who can identify as having experienced trauma. The measure of trauma/experience is the number of identifiable traumatic experiences, perceived losses, unfulfilled wishes and current or ongoing stressors related to culture. Less than 3 identified trauma/experience results in Mild Impact on choice. Identification of 3-5 results in Moderate Impact on choice. Six to nine (6-9) results in Intense Impact. Greater than 9 results in Severe Impact on choice.
The point of this definition is to validate the fact that perceived losses, longing, or wishes unfulfilled do impact choice behavior. The result for the institution is that your presentation of options is perceived differently based on trauma/experience. You will need to understand the family systems that you serve in order to counteract trauma/experience. Effective interventions will center on expanding perceived options and empowering families to choose those options.
An example I have observed field trips. Parents are presented with multiple options for financing a field trip that costs $25. Candy or some other sales mechanism or paying outright are two common choices. When these are the options presented, a family with a trauma/experience score of 5 may perceive their options to be 1) no way or 2) sacrificing other bills as the way to support the field trip. Sales is not an option due to the chaos of the family. First, the options must be expanded. Next, the family trauma/experience can be engaged in order to enable more sustainable choices.
I have often wondered why schools do not adopt corporate sponsors or parents as sponsors as funding sources for field trips and other expenditures. Knowing your family systems allows you to predict the needs in a given year. Preparation and policy can line up in preparation for the needs.
Expectation/Attribution, as a paired construct, is the operationalization of social role influenced by locus of control. That is, expectation/attribution is the extent to which an individual perceives that outcomes are due to her consonant identity. Consonance, as the opposite of dissonance, refers to a state of congruence between beliefs about oneself and behaviors practiced by the individual. As a reaction to trauma, sustainable expectation/attribution manifests in behaviors motivated by vulnerability, internal locus, and responsibility for outcomes.
The point of this definition is to connect a need for consonant identity with the outcomes experienced by the family system. The result for the institution is that the choice architecture of families includes this need for consonant identity. Therefore, if their behaviors are not in the sustainable realm (i.e. vulnerability, internal locus and responsibility for outcomes) an attempt to inform and change those behaviors necessarily is an attempt to change the identity construct of the family.
A good example of this is an experience of many teachers in the last two generations. Some parents are defenders of their children against the abuses of the system. Some see their role as partner with their child in education AGAINST the system. Upon receiving a call from the teacher, these parents are defensive, externally located, and suspicious of school policies. Attempts to partner with this family system are necessarily met with resistance because of the identity constructed. I and my child are partners AGAINST this abusive system.
Note that this construct is reinforced whenever teachers, administrators, and counselor lament their powerlessness in the face of educational policies, especially those from federal and state statutes. Parents perceive that as an inability for individual thought and the school as a drone for the “establishment” rather than a community school concerned with the needs of the neighborhood. This allows identity constructs of “manipulating/working the system” to find application in the relationship between the family system and the school.
Risk/resilience, as a paired construct, is the extent to which an individual perceives that he will rebound if a risk turns out to be disappointing. In this paired definition, the focus is not resilience alone–only the ability to overcome trauma. Risk/Resilience is the ability of the individual to risk in the next choice encountered even though he has been disappointed. The measure of risk/resilience is the amount of certainty the individual has of recovery no matter the outcome of the risk.
This construct holds some hope for schools. Family systems can rebound from trauma and unsustainable attributions. Yet, this construct also works another way. Families whose children experience punishments and other consequences for choices made are infinitely capable of reframing the challenge, disregarding any intended lesson, and resisting any change in functioning or behavior.
My example is less than an example and more like a reflection on the process of truancy remediation. I have read the truancy letter for Tennessee. It assigns this problem to the courts. The operational theory here is sound. “If the school does not have the leverage to get the child to school, the penal system can apply increased leverage on the family system.”
My problem with this is that the penal system was not created, or at least does not operate to foster resilience. Other community organizations exist that could apply the leverage desired on the family system. Even before seeking outside leverage, social workers, counselors and other holistic support staff could be deployed to engage with the family system in assessment and intervention. Involving the courts engages the family system in DEFENSE of their choices as opposed to OPENESS to new choices.
Intervention: Redress of Barriers
The constructs presented above provide the institution with typical barriers to good intentions. My point is that good intentions are not enough. The engagement of family systems must be data-based and predictive as well as intentional. A mountain of community data including family level data exists from sources such as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), Annie E Casey Foundation, and the US Census to name just a few. Because of reporting needs, the school district/corporation, city government, and state data centers also hold a great deal of useful information to inform predictions about the families that will comprise a school population in any given year.
The job of the institution is to utilize this data, predictive models, and human resource capability to plan interventions to meet the expected needs of the family systems that will connect with the school. In addition to new programs, ensure that policies and procedures promote sustainable approaches to trauma/experience, expectation/attribution, and risk/resilience. Modify policies that create choice architectures that structure families into an adversarial relationship with the school.
I love the word “redress.” It conveys exactly the cognitive restructuring to be achieved by the institution. Rather than the crew-cut drill sergeant in fatigues, structure the loving grandmother in the flower print. Drug sniffing dogs in the halls (I have witnessed!) does not convey peace and safety. Fresh baked cookies would do a much better job communicating a caring atmosphere.
The redress should have some standard features so that families and community can expect certain annual events. Consider the common barriers and the data about your families and community. In addition to the culture embodied in teacher-student interaction and policies and procedures, create large scale events that promote sustainable choice architecture in response to the barriers.
Some impressive examples I have seen over the years include Young Authors Conferences, Design Contests, Science Fairs, Talent Shows, School-wide Plays, and Service/Volunteer Projects & Awards. Even a weekly assembly, a typical daily announcements approach, recess and/or lunch time activities or allowances can be used to communicate the culture of caring, support, and learning. Maintain a database of the hobbies, training, or expertise of parents. Integrate parents as part of the system in their areas of expertise. Provide training in areas of interest. Intentionally develop the community through partnerships with community agencies to develop and inform parents. Win families to the side of the institution by meeting their needs and offering actual, real value to the partnership.
[Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is MAWMedia Group President. An individual and institutional consultant, Wright has over 16 years and dozens of consulting contracts completed. For educators, associations, and organizations, Dr. Wright offers curriculum, online strategy, and capital development consultations. Contact Dr. Wright here!]