The P.A.L.S. Project - supporting parents who have learning difficulties

Ruth Dyson from Birmingham, UK describes the work of  P.A.L.S. (Parenting, Advocacy, Learning and Support).

The South Birmingham Family Service Unit is part of a national voluntary organisation whose broad aims are to support and promote the welfare of families who are socially or economically disadvantaged. The unit works primarily with children under the age of eight years. We work in partnership with families in their own communities, liaising closely with statutory and other voluntary agencies. We operate what is called the ‘One Stop Model’. This means that families experiencing stress can walk in off the street and immediately get advice or practical support from the unit’s team of social workers and family workers.

The idea of the P.A.L.S. Project came about as a development of an existing Young Parents Project, where there was a rising number of referrals of parents who had a learning difficulty. It became apparent that some of these parents had not had their particular needs identified, or their needs had been inappropriately addressed by other agencies.

In 1997, the National Lotteries Board provided three years funding in order to continue the Young Parents Project and develop the service to parents who have learning difficulties and/or mental health problems. The aims and objectives of the P.A.L.S. Project are as follows:

  • To help parents develop their skills, confidence and self-esteem in relation to meeting their children’s all- round developmental needs.
  • To offer parents either individual or group support, or both, and the opportunity to discuss and share ideas, difficulties and concerns in relation to the care of their children.
  • To work in partnership with parents and other agencies in a way that is sensitive to their individual needs.
  • To offer parents support in accessing other appropriate services as and when needed.
  • To raise awareness and develop a model of working with other agencies.

The project endeavours to work in an anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory way. In order to help parents to develop parenting skills, workers support parents in identifying the skills that they already possess.

This can be a slow process as sometimes parents themselves are convinced that they cannot do anything and they do not have any skills. This is often far from the truth. Work is done in the home using the environment that is familiar to the family.

Parents who have learning difficulties experience the same anxieties and problems as every other parent. This may be about the impending birth of a baby, financial difficulties or relationship problems. Some extended families are supportive, some are not. Some parents who have been brought up in the care of the local authority do not have any extended family at all. Parents who have learning difficulties have the added stigma of the way in which society views such parents. Society might have tried to remove the old institutions from our gaze, but the attitudes that put them there in the first place are still around.

The P.A.L.S. Project tries to find different ways of working with parents. Many of the resources used have been developed by B.I.L.D. (British Institute for Learning Disabilities) and the Special Parenting Service in Cornwall. For example, the parenting skills cards (McGaw), which can be used in lots of different ways to help teach skills. The project also tries to be innovative and develop resources particular to a family’s needs wherever possible.

When a family is referred to the project a plan of work is agreed with them depending on the needs of the family. If there are literacy difficulties, other options e.g. tape recordings, use of video, or pictures are discussed. The family are involved in reviewing how the work is progressing and if there are difficulties what can be done to resolve them.

The family’s views and opinions are taken into consideration whilst also balancing the needs of the child/ children.

If other agencies are working with the family e.g. health visitor, community nurse, social services, the project liaises very closely with them so that information given to the family is consistent, and understandable. It is really important that agencies work together openly with families so that parents know exactly what is going on and why. Parents need information in order to be able to make choices and decisions about their children. Professionals need to be able to work together across agencies in order to prevent difficulties and find solutions quickly when necessary. This is particularly important where there are child protection concerns.

It has to be recognised that parents are very likely to need ongoing long-term support in some shape or form. The project endeavours to link families into their own community support networks so that they are able to get the support they need for themselves in the future. It goes without saying that children are a long- term commitment. It also needs to be said that parents who have learning difficulties need help to maintain that commitment. After all, they want the best for their children just like everyone else. With the right support, they can do it!

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 31, July 2000.


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