A collaborative therapeutic approach often proves the best way to assess and meet the needs of children experiencing barriers to learning.

In their new book, Dramatherapy and Family Therapy in Education: Essential Pieces of the Multi-Agency Jigsaw, teacher and dramatherapist Penny McFarlane and counsellor and family therapist Jenny Harvey (pictured, left to right)  combine their expertise to show how drama and family therapy are both essential pieces of the whole picture needed to address children’s social, emotional and behavioural problems effectively in schools.

In this interview, Penny and Jenny explain why dramatherapy and family therapy complement each other so well, and why schools must embrace this multi-disciplinary approach for the benefit of struggling students.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional backgrounds, and how you came to  collaborate on this new book?

Penny: I trained as a teacher and worked in primary and secondary education before qualifying as a dramatherapist. Having set up a Creative Arts Therapy in Schools project I continued helping children with emotional and behavioural problems through my work on a Multi-Agency support team in my role as dramatherapist and supervisor.

Jenny: I worked as a counsellor for a number of years for a bereavement service and an agency supporting adults with eating disorders. After obtaining a degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in Family Therapy I joined a Multi-Agency support team working in education for children and their families, where there are barriers to learning.

We began our professional partnership when we helped found a bereavement charity for children and their families. It was through our collaboration in visiting the families that we realized how well we worked together on a personal and professional level and how much our combined skills and expertise, although different, complemented each other. While family therapy often focuses on the adult members of the family, dramatherapy can introduce the voice of the child.

The idea for the book came about since we wanted to capture not only the essence of our work together but also the ethos of this innovative team of which we were both a part, and which was created to understand and address the needs of every child who entered its doors.

It was through working for the Multi-Agency Support team that we gained a fundamental understanding of the importance of communication in terms of family members, schools, therapists and other professionals on every level. It is our sincere hope that this book conveys this understanding.

The book explains simply and in jargon-free language our individual specialisms of family therapy and dramatherapy as well as examining how they work within an educational setting. Additionally, we look at the history, concept and practice of multi-agency working in general before going on to illustrate the workings of one particular team which offered multi-disciplinary support to children, families and schools. Through case studies we show the way family therapy and dramatherapy can provide an essential element to enhance multi-agency provision.

Why do family therapy and dramatherapy complement each other so well in the context of education?

Family therapy and dramatherapy are able to complement each other so well since they share similar base line principles and values. For example, both therapies not only allow the child and family to be centre stage in any intervention but also recognize the uniqueness of each family and child concerned. The context of education provides a time and place within which a child’s problems are likely to be manifested through difficult behaviour. Initially this behaviour can be explored through the psycho-dynamic intervention of dramatherapy but, in order to get to the root of the problem family therapy is necessary to address this on a systemic and holistic level.

Can you describe a particular success story?

We find it difficult to qualify the term ‘success’ since we generally leave this assessment up to the children and families concerned. However, to give one particular example, in a case involving a little boy who had begun to act out in school in an uncharacteristic manner, it became clear in the dramatherapy sessions that he was frightened of something or someone. Family therapy established that Mum’s brother had been abusive, both to her and to her child, and there was something about his mother’s new partner that subconsciously reminded the little boy of his uncle. Through joint working with the child and his family around these sensitive issues, everyone’s fears were addressed and the situation improved.

What are some common obstacles that practitioners may face when trying to introduce family therapy and dramatherapy to the education context, and how can this book help?

As the book describes, therapy is, on the whole, a newcomer to education and a rare component of a multi-agency team supporting schools. Practitioners in this field are, therefore, having to deal with a lack of awareness of how therapy works and how it can be used to support children and their families. In addition, historically, the intervention for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties has generally been based on behaviour improvement on a cognitive level rather than looking at the meaning behind the behaviour. For a school to accept that a deeper understanding and interpretation of behavioural difficulties is necessary to meet a child’s needs on a sustainable level is a big leap of faith. Therapy is about change and the capacity to maintain changes, and this book can help allay the fears that prevent schools from embracing this mode of intervention.

In this book we wanted to demonstrate the enthusiasm and passion that underpins our work with children and their families. We hope the readers will take away a greater understanding of dramatherapy and family therapy as well as a flavour of some of the techniques and strategies that we employ in our work. In addition, through sharing our experience of the creation of a multi-agency team, we would like to think that others might feel encouraged to develop similar provisions of support. By highlighting the contribution from all members of the team, we wanted to stress the importance of open communication between the diverse professional disciplines involved. As professions, dramatherapy and family therapy not only enhance these channels of communication but also contribute a holistic ethos to team practice. In this they are essential pieces of the multi-agency jigsaw.

Finally we hope that this book will motivate, inspire and support those readers already engaged in or thinking of engaging in the crucial work of helping troubled children in education achieve their potential and face their future.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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