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Your Child at School and What the Principal Grapples With

January 30, 2016

I had the pleasure to speaking to two groups of school principals and vice principals yesterday as a guest speaker at their annual conference. Both groups were sold out and we addressed the same issue in both presentations: The Principal as the Custodian of Mental Health.

As with all my workshops, after advising of my background and experience, I ask why they chose to attend this workshop. I wonder what brought them in and what they were hoping for me to speak about and what issues they were grappling with that they thought I might help with.

By seeking the group’s input at the beginning of the workshop, I can then tailor my presentation and information directly to meeting their needs.

Two separate groups, consisting of a mix of high school and elementary school principals and vice principals from the same school board provided a near identical list of issues they grapple with:

  1. Indulged/coddled students with a sense of entitlement, mostly from middle class to more affluent neighborhoods;
  2. Students who were traumatized by life in poverty stricken and violent neighborhoods;
  3. Parents who defended and advocated for their students against the input and guidance of school professionals (across socioeconomic boundaries);
  4. Students who were difficult to connect with;
  5. Parents who were difficult to connect with;
  6. Anxiety and depression in students and parents as well as staff and how to provide support.

From each group one person requested that I provide specific guidance – tools to better manage the issues they grapple with. This wasn’t presented as a challenge but a heartfelt request as clearly there was a sense of at times being overwhelmed by the enormity of issues they grapple with against the backdrop of sincerely wishing to be helpful. These were two very engaged groups of caring professionals dealing with some degree of impotence in their role as educators and administrators.

I took my first order of business to normalize and contextualize their collective experiences. I spoke to the social and economic changes over the past 30 years and the impact of same on family and individual functioning. Things have changed and people are more challenging to serve. You’re not crazy. You are not lacking skill. The landscape is different as are the issues confronted as a result.

Changed is seeing people as having authority as a result of their role. Now people must recognize that authority is supplanted by the notion of influence and influence is determined by relationship. The degree to which we can facilitate relationships that are experienced as caring and well-intentioned, the greater the influence we may have on the decision making of the other. I offered guidance and tips on how to create the impression of a caring relationship recognizing that one doesn’t truly have to care (as odd as that many sound) to be perceived as caring.

Also changed is the notion of giving directives and expecting compliance or follow-through.

Giving directives (not uncommon by people in authority) is now experienced in a power and control paradigm by those subject to the direction. This begets resentment. I offered that while it is still appropriate to provide professional opinion, the discretion to utilize the opinion provided must reside with the person receiving the opinion. There must be no pressing expectation by the person delivering the opinion for it to be followed. We respect decision making, but with the understanding that any decision made does not exclude the person making the decision (parent, child or other staff member) from the consequences of that decision. In so doing, we are only seeking to change the context from one of a pare/control paradigm to one of concerned consultant. Those were only a few of the tools and tips offered to help increase the likelihood of being helpful.

Overall, I was pleased with the workshops and I believe they were too. My take-aways included:

  1. Mental health issues are a forefront concern for educators. They are seeing the impact of societal and economic changes on individual functioning and well-being;
  2. There remains a dearth of resources to support not only the student and family, but those responsible for their education at all levels of administration. This is a political-economic reality and not a reflection on the educators;
  3. Not only are the so-called poor areas affected, but middle class and affluent neighborhoods, albeit with some different contributors to causation. The so-called afluenza problem is real and affecting many;
  4. We in mental health must do more to educate and inform the public on these social-economic trends and provide guidance to parents to help meet the more modern demands of parenting.

I wish to express my appreciation for both of yesterday’s candid discussions.

I continue to advocate and educate in this area in the interst of children’s well-being. I remain available to provide workshops to professional and parent groups. It is a pleasure to be of service in this capacity.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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