People often ask me why I enjoy my job so much. Firstly, for me it’s about being the best person I can be so that my children and grandchildren feel loved and cared for, and have a positive role model. It’s taking my journey and connecting with others who have had similar struggles as I did when my kids were young. We all know that parenting is a challenging job but it can also be the most rewarding. I’ll share a bit more about my journey with PNS and share a picture of my dad with you as a way of honouring his memory and the work that he put in to make me the person I am today.

Across Scotland, there is an ever-increasing recognition of parents and carers as the ‘first educators’ of young children. They are also talked about – but not always treated as -- people who deserve to be ‘at the table’ for important decisions about the education, health and the wellbeing of a child or children.

Ending the longstanding professional and governmental inclination to dismiss, lament, or simply overlook the potential contributions of parents beyond, as well as within, the home is a welcome trend. Now, it is time to strengthen and ´normalise´ the inclusion of mothers, fathers, and carers as valued and equal partners with professionals and officials. Together, they are responsible for making Scotland a truly great place to grow up. So, day-to-day practice must now catch up with both policy and government pronouncements about the prime importance of parents.

Just like in Orwell´s classic “Animal Farm”, some parents have been regarded by schools and other public agencies as ‘more equal than others’. Many mothers, fathers, and carers who rarely participate or volunteer to become involved have been misunderstood. It is usually the case that they care very deeply about their (and others’) children, but feel uncomfortable about contact with the very same places and people with whom they had adverse experiences in the past. They need to be, and feel, welcome in new ways.

For many years, Parent Network Scotland has worked to widen access and participation among diverse groups of parents who have infrequently been among the favoured few who are equitably included in decision making. PNS’ work is based upon the same principle as oxygen masks on airplanes. In other words, PNS helps parents to get the ‘oxygen’ they need themselves first, so they can then feel more confident about themselves as people – and as contributors to their early years settings, schools and communities.

In the more than 25 years that I’ve been working in communities with parents I’ve seen changes to policy and funding. Some have been positive and helpful to parents and children alike. Some have not.

There was a time in Scotland when ‘old fashioned’ community development projects in which people truly had a say in their collective lives. I think at some point, experts and officials thought technology would replace meaningful relationships of mutual respect and trust; that is, that parents would no longer desire and need to connect.

Although technology is sometimes a brilliant tool, PNS has consistently seen the powerful value and effectiveness of face-to-face relationships with one another and with the others adults playing a key role in children´s lives. PNS builds the local support networks that are the foundation of strong communities. I’m hopeful that the tide is turning again, with funders showing growing support for the work we do to utilise both social media and socialising.

We want to continue creating spaces where parents can physically be together, support each other and reduce the sense of isolation and disempowerment that compromises their and their children´s wellbeing. In those spaces we want to offer support that encourages and enables them to grow their skills, knowledge, confidence and, eventually, their positive influence on the children, institutions and agencies that matter to them.

At Parent Network Scotland, we’re filling some of the gaps left behind as a result of previous local, community-led projects disappearing. Our efforts continue to close gaps in local community initiatives and the development of local community leaders. In particular, we promote such a sense of agency and empowerment among the mothers, fathers and carers too often ‘left behind’ and marginalised in their personal and public lives.

Our work leaves a lasting legacy so that individuals and their communities can continue to grow stronger after we leave.

This is why we decided to develop the concept of ‘family hubs’ – inspired by my visit to the USA in 2015 as a Winston Churchill Travelling Research Fellow. One of the 12 parent engagement projects I visited was the Parenting University Boston. It was launched in 2009 to help build the capacity of parents to be actively engaged in their children’s education. The sessions for parents, in school settings, focused on child development, what children are learning in school, advocacy, parent leadership and effective parenting skills. We aim to tailor this support for parents in their own Scottish communities.

I observed this unique way of engaging parents and had ideas for how the model could be combined with Parent Network Scotland’s three-step ‘Parenting Matters’ model of supporting parents to build their own capacity.

We are in the process of developing these ‘family hubs’ and applying for funding to operate them first in a set of community venues and primary schools in North Ayrshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde and East Ayrshire. These will be run by parents as spaces where they feel safe and can help shape the kind of support they want when and how they want it.

The hubs will be supported by PNS staff in the first instance whilst building the capacity of local parent volunteers. In turn, these local parent volunteers will then run the activities, form/maintain the hubs and gain all of the ‘old fashioned’ community development skills and experience I mentioned earlier.

The parents we work with are often isolated and too often are the adults who are themselves the products of too many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Some face challenges of their own that often make them feel vulnerable; sometimes so much so that they require one-to-one support before they even feel able to participate in a peer group. Like everyone else, they must learn to resolve and move beyond their own ACEs before they can prevent such adversity from burdening another generation of young Scots. The cycle must be broken and PNS has an established track record of doing just that for the participating parents.

When ready, over a period of 8 to 12 weeks, or in some cases 10/12 weeks, mothers, fathers and carers engage in group activities designed to help them grow in confidence and competence – as individuals, as parents and as community contributors. Giving them the oxygen first allows them to have more to share with the people in their lives.

It’s very common for parents to help one another deal with the challenges they are facing with their child’s behaviour early on. We help them to reflect on what is going on underneath that behaviour. Carrying out exercises and asking questions like: When was the last time you were really angry? How were you feeling? When you were angry and frustrated, what did you need?

Such conversations often include a hug and a heartfelt appreciation for having someone to listen and someone to say: ‘I’m important to them’. Helping parents acknowledge and address with their own feelings, particularly when their own experiences of being parented have been difficult, is absolutely key. It can have a transformative effect as they begin to empathise much more closely with their own child’s feelings and see the value of taking the time to listen, to read a story, or simply do the dishes together and chat. These are the golden moments when parents see the connection between feelings, needs and behaviours. It makes the value of ‘attachment’ real and tangible.

After this period, PNS participants move on to engage in creative activities that they can recreate together with their child later. In recent projects, children have joined their parents in these sessions, which for some has been a new and incredibly powerful experience.

All parents have the opportunity to progress on to our 2nd stage – the Parenting for All development award through the Institute of Leadership Management. This is delivered by Parent Network Scotland and accredited through the Social Enterprise Academy. This is delivered over 24 hours to meet the needs of the parents with whom we engage.

The award embeds the training previously undertaken in Parenting Matters and develops participants’ skills in group work, coaching, and relationship 

building. This step has changed many participants’ lives and can lead to some becoming facilitators of Parent Network Scotland courses themselves. Others have gone on to community volunteer roles, find jobs or move on to higher education.

I always refer people to the testimonies of those who have taken part in the PNS programme to gain insight into the impact we can have.

It has helped me grow as a person, mentally and physically as I can now be in groups, talk to strangers confidently. I can communicate more positively and overall [have] a more positive life. I get along better with my child and don’t feel as angry with her behaviour as I have tools to help me which I would never have known about.

For the first time in a long time I have friends who are genuine and because we were given a safe open space to communicate, we are close and can talk about anything and know we aren’t judging each other. More importantly for me in my development is not fearing the future as I never planned on one. I now knew I do not need to fear the future and I have a purpose and know I can stick to something. I know all my pain and suffering has made me a stronger person and I can help other people overcome their fears and pain and hopefully inspire them to start a fresh and not be ashamed of their past.”

Witnessing participants’ confidence grow and seeing where this takes them is the reason I do what I do. The potential has always been there, but too few organisations and agencies held their hands out to nurture and guide mothers, Fathers and carers through their journeys.

I do believe the Scottish Government and many Local Authorities, Funders and a variety of professionals are now realising the huge potential of building the capacity of parents who need meaningful, personal, respectful support to play their crucial roles as well as possible. That power that can be harnessed not only to help children, but also to assist communities in becoming as strong as they can be.

Jackie Tolland, Chief Executive

Parent Network Scotland