As a former coordinator of a family support services program, employing Family Psycho-Education services as a key practice protocol was essential for supporting and empowering families and caregivers of children with Serious Emotional Disturbances. My work setting was a blend of clinical and community based support services to engage, empower and enhance the total wellness of the family, as a cohesive unit.
In short, the practitioners’ aim is to disseminate information about mental illnesses and help families to enhance their problem-solving and coping skills including their capacity to advocate for their children and themselves. In the process of providing FPE services, families build social supports and networks serving to solidify community connections and increase support program involvement.
What is Family Psycho-Education?
FPE is an approach for partnering with families to treat serious mental illnesses. Practitioners develop a working alliance with families as their central role. Psycho-education as a term can be misleading to some. FPE includes many elements, but it is not to be mistaken for family therapy. In therapeutic settings, the focus is on the family itself as object of treatment. In FPE, the illness is the object, not the family. In education settings, the objective is student achievement and the comprehensive development of children in learning environments, at home and in the community. many developmental aspects which intersect or influence learning are varied, and include a wide range of topics to introduce to families.
It is practical to offer useful and relevant information pertaining to family and child wellness. Families of children with learning diagnoses and IEPs benefit from helpful information and engaging in honest discussions pertaining to their children, family life and managing their child’s diagnoses and the symptomology at home. In school settings, in a multi-family format, FPE is helpful for families as it lets them know that they are not alone. It empowers them to participate fully in all things learning and family related. Research shows that outcomes improve if families receive information and support. That support also includes facilitating access to resources and other concrete services
A number of FPE program models have been developed over the years. They may differ in format-whether it is a single or multi-family format, duration of ‘treatment’, family participation and location. Nonetheless, there are critical ingredients of effective FPE, and they include:
- Education about mental illnesses/learning disabilities
- Information resources, especially during crises
- Skills training and ongoing guidance about managing mental illnesses
- Problem solving, and
- Social and emotional support
There are 3 specific phases of FPE in which services are provided.
- Joining sessions
- An educational workshop and
- Ongoing FPE sessions
The joining sessions are introductory. Practitioners meet with families to learn about their experiences, strengths and resources and their goals for treatment/participation. It is important to show respect, build trust and offer concrete help. Families have a focus on the long-term, but they really want immediate help and related concerns addressed. That is concrete. The alliance formed between practitioner and family/consumer is the foundation of FPE, and joining sessions are the first phase.
The second phase is educational workshop and they tend to be full day sessions. Workshops are based on a standardized curriculum to meet the distinct educational needs of family members. However, throughout the program, practitioners respond to individual needs of families by providing information and resources. It is important to keep families engaged and thus it is necessary to tailor education to meet their needs, with appropriate relevance.
After completing the joining sessions and 1-day workshop, practitioners ask families to continue attending ongoing sessions. Multifamily group formats are most effective in learning and school settings, as families benefit by connecting with others who have similar experiences and similar concerns. Once again, parents and families learn that they are not alone, as they cultivate mutually beneficial peer support networks. Often times, families without peer networks, will become and feel socially isolated.
Ongoing sessions should focus on current issues that families and parents face and are effectively addressed using a problem-solving or solution-focused approach. Carl Rogers believed that many personal problems can be solved by individuals themselves within the parameters of a working relationship built upon unconditional acceptance, wherein the helping person communicates authentic positive regard, is non-judgmental and employs effective listening or attending skills.
For practitioners to be solution-focused in any setting, these elements must be present, with an underlying belief in the capacity of families to be instrumental and active in working towards their solutions. The interaction between practitioner and family must be built upon cultural responsiveness, within a strengths-based approach, which demands that families are not to be perceived in deficit mode. Rather, focus is on what they can do and what they do already and what they want to address and believe will help to meet their needs. All outside of their capacity is built upon via the information and resources offered to them.
FPE is not a short-term intervention, for it is recommended as beneficial in achieving outcome success when they last for 9 months or more-perfect amount of time in school settings. For family practitioners who work with families and parents in school settings, engaging parents should be designed as family centered programs and a year-long intervention program. Every academic year, approximately 9 months, practitioners and liaisons can plan and implement sessions in a multi-family format in which information is provided, meaningful alliances are developed and parents engage in activities which support and promote their parenting, advocacy and leadership skills.
Family Psycho-Education applies in school settings and once mutually identified goals are set, sessions may be planned and implemented. As stated earlier, it is important to identify specific concerns, needs and challenges families face and address them within a format deemed appropriate. Sometimes the nature of family concerns are best addressed in individual family format. With common concerns, a multi-family format is best. The rules of confidentiality and trust applies, and this highlights the importance of initial joining sessions. Knowing your families is critical to program success and positive outcomes, and the overarching goal is to empower, educate, encourage and engage families towards total wellness and maximize capacity to support their children’s well being and their own self-sufficiency.