Using film to bridge the parent-professional divide
Could film help parents and professionals to appreciate each other’s experiences and point of view? Clare Palmer, Henrik Lynggaard and Catherine Wordsworth discuss how films are being used to establish and sustain relationships
‘Working with challenging parents’ was a recent headline in an article for school staff in Tes on working with parents of children with special needs (Corby, 2018).
Not surprisingly, this caused much anger online among parents of children and adults with learning disabilities.
They responded in kind, asking: ‘How do you cope with challenging professionals?’
This illustrates just how quickly relationships between families and services can become polarised and how difficult it can be to establish and sustain collaborative working relationships.
In one of the training films we describe in this article, Owen Clinton, a family carer, observes:
‘This whole situation could be dealt with if family carers were regarded much more as a resource rather than something which had to be dealt with.’
We wanted to highlight and address some of the issues and dilemmas that can arise in the interactions between family carers and professionals. We developed two films and training resources entitled Learn With Us and Mind the Gap(s).
They were the result of a fruitful co-production between Family Carers in the London Borough of Islington, Islington Learning Disabilities Partnership and local charity Centre 404.
Family and professional carers
Learn With Us – Working in Partnership with Family Carers is a 45-minute documentary, beautifully made by Loaded Productions (www.loadedproductions.co.uk). It gives rare and remarkable insights into the experiences of family carers and staff who support people with learning disabilities.
Interviews with family carers, support workers and managers produce a thought-provoking narrative. The film opens with a moving poem by parent Jo Roach (see box).
Family carers discuss their intense anxiety about the future, especially over what will happen to their relatives with learning disabilities when they are not there.
Interviews show how the social model of disability applies to families, who share in the discrimination and disadvantage experienced by their relatives.
‘There were many things I would see a lot of my friends and their families doing, which, actually, we as a family could never do.’ Jignesh Patel, brother and family carer
The film emphasises that each family has its own back story, with difficult times. This theme is also echoed in staff comments:
‘Every family carer is individual in their approach, their response and their experience.’ Claire Curtis, housing manager
And you Suzie, what should I leave you?
Not the pewter statue of the boy
his right hand missing,
let him stay on the mantelpiece
for the second hand dealers.
Not photos of my mother who died
before you were born into that grieving time.
Not money, to be banked for you
by someone else.
Not my poems, you’ll never read them.
But the very fiercest of watchdogs
who wouldn’t sleep for a hundred years.
Published in “Oxford Poets 2007; An Anthology” by OUP and Carcanet Press.
The film includes two scenarios played by actors. In one, a mother calls the supported living house where her daughter lives to find out if she has gone swimming that day, as agreed in her review. This has not happened, and there is a major difference of opinion between the staff and the mother around issues of choice, confidentiality and best interest.
After the film was made, a three-hour workshop was designed and piloted with support staff. This includes group exercises and handouts. We wrote facilitators’ guidance for delivering the workshops. Family carers and managers work in pairs to run the sessions.
How to enable trust and good communication is a focus of the workshop, as is the importance of acknowledging and identifying the disagreement and moving forward, rather than avoiding problems and difficult situations. The film highlights how even small details can undermine trust and lead to a feeling of ‘what happens when I’m not here?’
Participants have given their views:
‘It filled a gap in my training I didn’t know existed till today.’ Support worker
‘I really enjoyed the day and came away feeling empowered and inspired. The people who appeared in the film were very brave and forthcoming.’ Family carer who attended a workshop sponsored by the National Valuing Families Forum
The sequel: an accurate portrayal
As with all good films, there was a demand for a sequel to Learn With Us.
Many people suggested we made another film, this time about the conflicts that can arise between family carers and social workers, and Mind The Gap(s) was born.
We all know there are excellent, dedicated staff who achieve good outcomes for the people they support and are much appreciated by families. We also know there are situations that are hostile, paralysing and exhausting for everyone involved.
People behave in ways that are deeply frustrating to others. They get labelled as The Problem – this could be the person with learning disabilities, family carer, social worker, manager or doctor.
We hear family carers say: ‘It’s not my disabled son/daughter who makes me ill – it’s dealing with the services.’
On the other hand, professionals will say: ‘There’s no problem with John/Mary – it’s their parents who are impossible/difficult.’
We worked with separate focus groups of family carers and professionals, asking them to discuss difficult experiences they had each had with the other.
Most evident were the Gap(s) in perceptions and feelings between the two groups. With the family carers, stories of anger, disappointment and grief dominated. With the professionals, what was most likely to emerge was frustration, questions of ‘Who is the client?’ and differing opinions about what was best for the person with learning disabilities.
The film, accompanied by a trainers’ resource pack, presents four situations of conflict or deadlock between a family with a son or daughter who has learning disabilities and the services working with them. In each scenario, actors play the parts of family members and social workers.
As well as illustrating disputes, we showed people speaking directly to camera as a way of demonstrating the underlying issues and emotions.
A unique feature of the film is the addition of two Gogglebox-style panels – one of family carers and the other of professionals – who comment on some of the issues raised.
The four scenarios that feature in the film are entitled Money, Transition, Review and Elderly Parents. They generate lively and wide-ranging discussion about the themes and dilemmas raised.
For example, in Review, an annual review is pending for Sarah, aged 30, who lives with her parents. She has learning disabilities with autism and some challenging behaviour. Her mother Anne is 55 and does voluntary work when she can. Her father Sam, 57, works full time.
The family have learned unofficially from a support worker that the social services department is planning that Sarah should attend a local day centre rather than the out of borough day centre she has attended for several years.
This decision is partly due to a policy of ‘bringing people back in to local services’ and partly on account of safeguarding concerns about the current day centre – which the new social worker is not at liberty to discuss as an investigation is under way.
The scenario starts with the parents calling the social worker in a worried and angry state, and Sam becomes increasingly enraged.
Mind the Gap(s) is accompanied by a facilitators’ resource pack, which can be used to run sessions of one, two or three hours.
We have been very pleased with the reception the film and the workshop have had. Professionals have said:
‘It is authentic and real. It reflects many of the situations we are dealing with in our everyday practice.’
Family carers have said:
‘This is a genuine portrayal of some of the difficulties we face.’
In our experience, the model of using films with training resources works well outside Islington, where other providers and councils are trying to improve partnership working with family carers.
The training workshops have offered a space for professionals, students and family carers where complex problems can be debated, giving participants a wider range of options for establishing collaborative partnerships.
For more information about the film-based training resources contact:
Clare Palmer, family carer, film producer, trainer: email@example.com
Henrik Lynggaard, clinical psychologist, film producer, trainer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Catherine Wordsworth, family liaison officer, Centre 404: email@example.com, www.centre404.org.uk/learnwithus
Corby G (2018) SEND: working with challenging parents. Tes, 22 May
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