“Shall we stop there today?” This very simple sentence is one that I have most effective in both closing a session or holding the door open for further, deeper discussion. It has served me really well over the years in different settings- running focus groups or community consultations, in group therapy or case work and in my work with students and parents. It implicitly gives the person participating a choice and a sense of comfort in knowing they have the ability to either close or continue an uncomfortable discussion.
Over the last 18 months, a large part of my work has been with culturally and linguistically diverse families with young children. A key aspect was to support young parents in the early years, as they navigate lives in a new country. Much of the group work I did was around maintaining healthy relationships, managing conflict that often arises within families and focusing on having respectful relationships.
The supported groups were nominally meant to run for 90 minutes, often went on for two hours or more. At some of the sessions, the “real” conversation only happened after the session was technically over!
A client recently lamented that in some of her interactions with parents from diverse backgrounds, she came away with a totally different understanding than others parents, teachers or support workers. It transpired that she had indicated to a mother that the 3 year old in her group was having some difficulties and she felt it would be good to have the child see a speech pathologist. The mother was understandably concerned and agreed with the teacher that child should be seen. My client was pleased with her conversation with the mother and thought it was positive.
A couple of weeks later, she found out that the family had pulled their child from the group and had told some of the other parents that “teachers were keen find children with special needs, so they could get extra funding”.
The sense of shock that the teacher and her colleagues and supervisor felt cannot be overstated! They attempted unsuccessfully to get in touch with the family and discuss the matter.
That an innocuous discussion with a parent could unfold this way is something that many of us won’t ever expect. In my work with parents, families and professionals working within our different types of services, I often see simple, everyday interactions misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Our cultural lenses lead us to place different values and meanings to the same things. Everyday observations like “she’s such a princess” or “what a sook” or “he goes for what he wants” can be understood in many different ways.
In some communities, casual observations by authority figures like teachers, doctors and sports coaches are taken very seriously- children often face strict disciplining if parents think they are not pulling their full weight.
In some cultures, it is very difficult for parents to hear that their child is “lacking” or “falling behind” in any way. It is often perceived as parental shortcoming.
When I intervened with the family in question in the story above, they told me the casual manner in which the teacher spoke about their child’s issues was uncomfortable for them. It was inconceivable in their culture for an outsider to bring up health matters casually, without a context in a perceived “cavalier” manner.
In this and many other cases, an understanding of the cultural background and overlay that families operate from, can really support teachers, community workers and allied professionals in breaking barriers and fostering engagement. Practitioners do not need to put on new shoes, just need to understand what size fits the other person!