This is a reflection on a journey into group leadership, via a passion and experience. I teach Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) in the ACT. I discovered P.E.T. with the birth of my first child, some 15 years ago. I was a new parent with very little knowledge of babies, let alone parenting. I had only the experience of being parented to guide me around those unseen corners and road bumps on my parenting journey. As I attended each session of the course, I found the philosophy and skills of P.E.T. changing the entire way I would approach parenting – and my life.
P.E.T. taught me to value children as people. I learnt about empathy, and the importance of helping children learn about feelings. I learnt to separate my issues from that of my child’s. I learnt to respect children, and how to communicate that respect. One of the most mind-blowing aspects of P.E.T., for me, was to find that I did not have to use rewards or punishment in order to bring up a balanced and considerate child. In fact, I learnt that using rewards and punishments could be deleterious to the outcomes of children. Of course, this was completely opposite to the way I had been brought up. I was hooked!
I was determined to bring this course to other parents. After two years of searching, I found a P.E.T. instructor training course. The P.E.T. course was designed and structured for parents like me, who simply wanted to bring the skills and principles to others. I had some facilitator training and experience, but not in parenting course group leadership.
Once I had completed the training, I was ready and rearing to go. I was keen and enthusiastic, younger (then) and idealistic. I was also an unemployed single mother with a young child, in a new city. I had no experience in running my own business, leading groups without the support of an organisation, and I had no family able to care for my toddler.
Still, I was (stubbornly) determined to soldier on.
Setting up the groups
The P.E.T. instructor manual gives some helpful hints on setting up your first group. I took some of their ideas on board, and searched around for some friends who might like to be my ‘guinea pigs’. Some schools also advertised the course. Eight parents joined the first group, being a mixture of friends and interested parents from the community.
These groups had to be self-funding. I needed to cover the cost of the text-book and workbook that was provided to every participant, along with rent, supper costs, my babysitter etc. At this time (13 years ago), charging to attend a parenting course seemed a new concept in Canberra. Any parenting courses the local community centres provided were free, or very low cost. I had no access to external funding.
The first course went well (no one dropped out!), and as a follow up, I ran courses every term – sometimes up to three groups a week. There were experiments with both day and night courses, and in varying locations around Canberra and surrounding regions. The groups mostly ran at a monetary loss, but I had to continue – brining these concepts to others was just too important! There was also tremendous job satisfaction, which is impossible to value monetarily.
Through trial and error, I found it useful to:
- Offer an evening course (the course is run from 7pm to 10.15pm).
- Site the course in a central location. In Canberra, we are fortunate that no matter where we live, the longest it takes it around 40 minutes to travel to the geographic centre. However, parents from the surrounding countryside have also travelled up to one and a half hours each way, to attend the course.
- Run the course during term time, once a week.
- Offer the course consistently throughout the year. This is helpful for couples without a babysitter, as parents can attend consecutive courses. It also helps with word-of-mouth advertising.
- Continue to feel passionate about the subject.
Running the groups
Shortly after becoming an accredited P.E.T. instructor, I attended an IGL group leader-training workshop, and gained knowledge and skills that would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the groups. The well set out P.E.T. instructor manual was embedded with group-work principles, which supported the group leader training.
Below is a reflection on some of my learnings regarding group work.
Amongst the general group rules we all have as leaders, I found these three to be crucial:
- Confidentiality. Canberra is a very small community, so tight group rules around confidentiality are essential.
- Emergency procedure. On two occasions, our class has been interrupted by the fire alarm. I now ensure that emergency procedures are part of the group rules.
- “It’s OK to make mistakes”. This rule takes the pressure from parents to be perfect, and allows them to learn through trial and error, both inside and outside the group.
- Share supper duties. This helps in the process of cohesion. I have enduring memories of a couple of groups seated on the floor, gathered around a feast of food prepared by and for the members of that group.
Balancing task and maintenance; therapy and education
As a sole group leader, I find these the most difficult tasks. P.E.T. is a structured course, with the development of skills the primary focus of the course. When I first began teaching, I concentrated on the task function. However, over the years I have concluded that being part of a supportive group is as important to the participant as the skills acquisition. As a parent, you can feel isolated, vulnerable and judged, and rarely discuss the impact of parenting on your life. Through the eight weeks of the course, I observe parents reflect, grow and change. This is the therapeutic element of the course, which is supported by careful maintenance of the group by the leader.
Group composition and dynamic
An aspect of groups that has intrigued me over the years is the group composition, because of the effect on dynamic. When you advertise a course, you gamble on the mix of participants who will be interested in attending this course, at this particular moment in time. You, as a group leader, cannot determine the personality or background of a participant. Even with pre-group interviews, the person may be quite different in a group. The mix and spark of a group is its own property. You can try to help set the tone – be relaxed, respectful, sensitive, use some humour, not take yourself too seriously. But the group will ultimately define itself – largely through the mix of people attending. And this will influence the overall dynamic of the group.
Summarising at the end of the session
At the end of each session (even if we are running late), each participant is asked to answer the question “what you are taking away from the night – what stood out for you?’. This is done methodically, so that every person is able to speak, including the choice to pass. This provides a wonderful summary of the session, as inevitably each person will recall a different segment of the night, and has their own take on meaning. Another important outcome is that each person has a designated space in which to speak, which I feel is particularly important for the quieter members of the group. This segment also gives the group leader feedback on the efficacy of the session.
Self-disclosure is an aspect of group leadership with which I grapple. How much is too much? And what are the ethics of including examples from my experience with my children? I find that I am, in a way, telling ‘my story’, bringing alive the skills of P.E.T. in practice – the successes, and, importantly, the struggles of being a parent who chooses to use the P.E.T. techniques. Of course, I intersperse my personal examples with anonymous stories from past participants.
The feedback from participants has been encouraging, with many commenting on the usefulness of hearing real stories, as opposed to textbook examples. Recently, one parent who had completed the course with me three years ago, commented on how valuable she found the personal examples – and in fact, it was these “incidental learnings” (her words) that continued to stick with her, years after the course.
The evaluations at the end of the course have been invaluable, providing feedback on the changes in the participant and their family, and for me as a group leader. I endeavour to incorporate realistic suggestions into my course – and of course, some feedback can be challenging! For those of us who role-play, and perhaps ‘put on a voice’ (such as pretending to be a child), take heed! I was fortunate to receive this honest feedback some years back, which said “we can differentiate when a child is ‘speaking’ without a ‘child’ voice”. Consequently, I now role-play with my ‘normal’ voice. Mind you – this feedback contrasts with those who tell me they hear my voice in their head when they are trying P.E.T. with their children!
One of the most difficult moments occurred when I (inadvertently) let a husband know that his wife was attending the course – with her adulterous lover! At 11am one Sunday morning, the distraught husband phoned me, very angry. All I could do was listen to his hurt. Many years later, I came across an article entitled ‘The Adultery Factor’, in a book by Drusilla Modjeska. She described her time as an adult educator, and discovering ‘the adultery factor’, where lovers enrol in evening courses in order to get time together (they will often stop coming to class after the first couple of sessions).
The retention rate of participants in my P.E.T. courses has been around 93%. I believe this is due to the content of the course, rather than the monetary contribution made by the participants. For most parents, the most difficult investment is their time. However, once they begin the course, they find they look forward to the next session – as much to be part of the group, as well as for the skills development.
Fathers and couples
The P.E.T. course has consistently attracted a relatively high proportion of fathers. When I first began, the rate was around 30%, and in the latter years around 37% of course participants have been fathers. Sometimes the men have been ‘conscripted’ by their partners, but have enthusiastically stayed. One father described himself as becoming “evangelical” about the course after the first session, despite having been convinced to attend by his wife.
Many couples attend the P.E.T. course. Practically, couples often find it hard to attend together, so often one parent will attend one term, to be followed the next term by their partner. My observation is that couples attending together gain great benefit in being able to support each other immediately. The other benefit is the time the couples spend together at the course – without children. It becomes a source of relationship time.
Supervision is an essential element of providing a quality, professional service to parents. I value the professional development I gain through supervision, and the support. There have been ‘emergency’ times in groups, where the ability to reach out to someone else and discuss options, has been essential in maintaining the integrity of the group.
The road to teaching Parent Effectiveness Training as a private provider has been fascinating and exciting, and I continue to love the journey. I have met the most amazing people, and heard heart-warming and moving stories of changes in the lives of people and their families. When parents tell me that their children now talk to them and tell them they love them, that they and their children are more confident and considerate, that they feel less stressed, and are enjoying being a parent again – then I know that this is a voyage worth every bump along the way.