The importance of difficult conversations

Issue: Volume 95, Number 5

Posted: 21 March 2016
Reference #: 1H9d0r

"This is really hard. Nobody enjoys doing this, but we all want to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children.”

This is how Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills describes the challenge – and importance – of having difficult conversations in a new series of videos outlining the work of the Children’s Action Plan.

He is also a paediatrician who regularly refers children he has concerns about to support services.

These concerns could stem from a parent’s drug use, mental health issues, or violence – and how this behaviour affects their children.

Dr Wills acknowledges that referring a child to support services requires difficult and challenging communication with parents. But it is often the first step to implementing positive change in the lives of vulnerable families.

A collaborative effort

Because teachers make up an important component of the children’s workforce, the Children’s Action Plan wants to help educators to have these conversations. Dr Wills believes teachers, who are working ‘at the coalface’, are very well aware of the problems in their school community.

“I think teachers are smart. They’re identifying these problems every day,” he says.

“These problems are increasing, and I think teachers know that. They know which children need those referrals, and so the next step is ‘what do I do about this’? And that’s where we need to do better.”

There are a number of reasons why teachers might feel hesitant about having these conversations with the parents of their students, and sometimes it’s as simple as believing it’s not their job to do so, says Dr Wills.

“Sometimes there’s a belief that this is someone else’s job. It’s not just in the teaching profession, but in other disciplines, too. There’s a belief that these problems are uncommon, when in fact they’re very common.”

Reluctance to have these conversations can come from a lack of skills and confidence, or a misguided belief that we are meddling.

“Sometimes teachers believe ‘it’s not my business, that I’m breaching confidentiality, it’s not my role.’ But none of that is true. These problems are so prevalent, that it’s simply unrealistic to expect that there are enough social workers to deal with these problems."

“So all of us who work with children need to have these core skills, to be able to have difficult conversations with children and with parents – conversations that are safe and allow us to figure out what’s going on, and to make appropriate and safe referrals.”

Whats’s available to help?

“That’s what the Children’s Action Plan is working on now,” he says.

“All the teacher professional bodies recognise that these are core skills for teachers, and we need to work on them."

“The question is not ‘is it our job?’ Of course it is. The question is, ‘how do we get that knowledge and skills to practitioners at the coalface, so they can ask questions safely and well, and make appropriate referrals?’ ”

"That will be discipline-specific."

“There are systems already in place in different disciplines. We need to have discussions, within the different groups, about best practice within that discipline, so we can get our workforces up to that skill level."

“What is not going to happen, is me as a paediatrician telling midwives or nurses or teachers how to do it in their job."

“But what I can do is describe what works, and what doesn’t work. The video clips model an evidence-based and effective way to have a challenging conversation with parents.
“And my experience of that is that all practitioners can learn those skills.”

The video clips

The Children’s Action Plan has released a set of video clips to illustrate how straightforward these conversations can be.

The clips feature Dr Wills demonstrating how he challenges families about these issues and then gains their support for a referral to a Children’s Team or to the Vulnerable Children’s Hub.

“The videos show that these are skills that anyone can learn. It demonstrates that these skills are straightforward,” he says. "But it’s important that teachers are given time to learn and practise the skills thoroughly."

“You can do harm by doing this poorly, so they’re skills that need to be properly taught, before attempting them with vulnerable families.”

“Teachers who are in Children’s Team areas (there are 10 around the country) will have access to professional development, to help them learn those skills. They have to be formally taught and practised in role play, in a supervised and safe setting.”

Children’s teams

Children’s Teams represent a new way to support vulnerable children whose issues do not quite meet the statutory intervention threshold of Child, Youth and Family.

A joint approach, these teams work with existing networks, such as government agencies, iwi and other non-governmental agencies, in a specific region to create a personalised plan for each child and their family.

If you are a teacher in an area where there is a Children’s Team, you can refer a child directly to this service.

However, it is always good practice to talk with the family first, and change is more likely if the family is engaged from the beginning. Go to the Children’s Action Plan site (www.childrensactionplan.govt.nz(external link)) for more in-depth information.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:33 PM, 21 March 2016

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