Saturday, 30 April 2016

Alcohol: To get it right there must be a partnership between schools and parents - neither can do it alone

When I stand in front of a group of parents and congratulate them for attending the Parent Information Evening they are attending and tell them that I am really impressed with the numbers, some of them look around the room, their faces clearly showing that they are surprised by what I have just said. There are around 40-50 people in the room and obviously they were expecting to see so many more ... As I always say to the teachers organising an evening session, if you can pull in 20 parents for a talk on alcohol and other drugs, you're doing pretty well! That said, the last two years have seen numbers of parents attending my sessions grow considerably, with many of them pulling in well over 100 interested people and quite a few drawing between 200-300 (a result that any school should be incredibly proud of).

The saddest thing is that if I think about the most 'successful' parent sessions (in terms of numbers attending) I have ever held over the years, almost all of them were organised in response to a particular incident that had happened at the school (i.e., a death, a teenage party that made headlines in the local press or a series of drug-related suspensions or expulsions that had hit the media). When a school organises education sessions for parents on any social issue it can be difficult to draw a crowd, but when something goes wrong you can guarantee that parents will be banging the principal's door down demanding that something be done and done fast!

Now before anyone thinks that this is going to be a 'parent-knocking' piece and I'm trying to 'shame' Mums and Dads into attending every information session that the school puts on, let me say that I think any parent who takes an hour or two out of their busy lives to sit and listen to a presenter talking about any topic (let alone alcohol and other drugs) deserves a medal! You all have busy lives and I can't even begin to imagine the organisation it must take to make sure everything is fine at home, get into your car and make your way to a school after a hard day doing whatever it is that you do ... as I always say, if you do this (and so many of the parents I see do it regularly), you must really love your kids!

There are so many social issues that families have to deal with, some have been around for a long time, while others are comparatively new. These include such diverse topics as cyber-safety, sexuality, mental health, sexualisation of women, body image, gambling and bullying. Increasingly, schools are being asked to deal with more and more of these problems, with topics such as domestic violence and even the radicalisation of young people being added to the issues that schools are expected to cover in some way or another. But in an already crowded curriculum, schools and teachers are expected to do more and more in less and less time ...

Schools do not operate in a vacuum – they exist in a much larger world and no matter what effort they put into addressing these issues, unless there is support by the wider community it is almost impossible to make significant change in any of these areas. Most importantly, there must be a partnership with parents, i.e., parents need to know what the school is doing and support the education they are being provided in a practical way.

When it comes to alcohol I do not believe there is one parent of a 14 year-old who would want their teen to be provided education on 'how to drink responsibly'. At that age their brain is not fully developed, they have no life experience and every bit of evidence shows that they simply shouldn't be drinking alcohol - parents expect a prevention message to be delivered to their child at this age, i.e., 'don't drink' and then information provided why this should be the case. The sad part is that evidence shows that there are only about a quarter of this age group that have not already consumed alcohol (usually provided by their parents), so any teacher who is providing a prevention message to these young people is essentially banging their head against a brick wall. The information provided by the school is simply not supported by the family and the rules and consequences they have in place ...

I find it baffling that parents are surprised that their teen gets caught up with illicit drugs at the age of 17, staggered that their 'little darling' could be involved in this illegal activity, when they have been allowing them to break the law around alcohol and giving them two drinks to take to a party since they were 15! If you don't want your child to get into trouble with the law in the future, you have to make sure that you don't pick and choose the laws you have them follow now and that includes laws around the secondary supply of alcohol. 

The vast majority of schools try to do so much in so many of these areas (with teachers often receiving little, if any, professional development - you imagine trying to keep up with everything that is happening around these issues!) but they shouldn't be expected to 'parent' the children under their care and unfortunately that is being asked of them more and more. Does this mean that a parent should not reach out to the school or an individual teacher if they are experiencing problems? Of course not, as I said, this is a partnership - you can't necessarily do it by yourself and neither can the school - you've got to work together ...

This week I gave 15 talks to five schools over three states. All of the young people I presented to were amazing and incredibly receptive to the messages I delivered - but realistically what difference do I really make if those messages are not reinforced by the parents of those teens when they go home? I know that the schools support what I do (I make it very clear that I don't go back unless I know that I'm part of a larger program and that they don't simply 'tick a box' when I leave and say 'now we've done alcohol and other drugs') but what happens when they go home and ask to go to a party or gathering on the weekend? From talking to teachers across the country it is easy to tell that they feel the same frustration - they want to make a difference and keep their students as safe as possible but so many of the parents are not 'stepping up' as far as a partnership with the school is concerned, particularly around alcohol and parties.

I completely get it - parenting is hard, particularly when it comes to that wonderful time called 'adolescence'. It's never going to be easy, no matter how great your teen is, but it's going to be so much easier if you work in partnership with the school. No matter what the issue, try to find out what education is provided at school, the messages teachers (or external speakers) are delivering and then do your best to support what the school is doing whenever the opportunity arises. This may mean attending an occasional parent information session put on by the school - I am well aware how difficult this can be for some people but it can be really worth it. No-one expects you to attend everything but remember that the school does not organise these events for their own enjoyment! They cost money, they take a great deal of time and effort to ensure they run smoothly and teachers (who've had a full day themselves) have to spend time away from their own families to attend (and no, they don't get overtime for staying there after school!!)

The only thing all of us want is to keep our kids safe - the best way to do that is to work together. Schools and parents working together in partnership can be a powerful combination ...

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