Essentials: Support Students With Parents In Prison (with James Ottley)

Essentials: Support Students With Parents In Prison (with James Ottley)

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In this Essentials podcast episode, we explore how to support students with a parent in prison. This issue is hugely overlooked - though it's estimated to affect 312,000 children in the UK alone.

Our guest is expert James Ottley, who shares his insights on how teachers can create a supportive classroom environment and help students cope with the emotional challenges parental imprisonment.

Important links:

Click here for the full interview from episode 28.

Children Heard and Seen: visit for more information, or call 07557 339258 if you're in the UK.

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Show notes / transcription

James Ottley  0:00  

And you'd be really surprised with the amount of times we get told, sorry, we don't have children like that in our school. I think just having an open attitude to different families. You know, there is no such thing as a typical prisoners family, you know, they come from all walks of life all around the country, all classes, all ethnicities. So it's creating that safe open space where families feel like they can go and say, Look, this has happened, what do we do?

Simon Currigan  0:26  

Welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course, students. When classroom behaviour gets in the way of success, we're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural Special Needs whole school strategy, and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear their latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the school behaviour secrets podcast. 

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to this essentials episode of school behaviour secrets, where I share with you one important strategy or insight from an earlier interview episode that can have an impact for the students you work with in your school or classroom. Because in a world where we're constantly bombarded with new information and ideas, it's good to keep these proven time tested evidence based techniques at the forefront of our minds. And in this essentials episode I'm going to share part of my interview with James Ottley from Episode 28. James is from the organisation Children Heard and Seen, which specialises in supporting kids affected by parental imprisonment. Now, that may sound like it would only be a small proportion of students, but estimates say in the UK alone, there are 312,000 children with a parent in prison. So this is more likely to affect a student in your classroom, you might think I started by asking James how he engages with pupils when he starts working with them, how he started building a bridge towards a relationship with them.

James Ottley  2:19  

It depends on what their experience of professionals have been lots of our families, particularly if it's been sexual offences, social care will swoop in they'll do assessments they'll you know, kind of break through families lives and then disappear. So that can be sometimes a barrier for us in you know, are you just going to be like that are you just going to come in, you know, turn our lives upside down and then go. So a lot of time, it's building up that trust with children, that we're not going anywhere, that we are still going to be there and that we're there to support them. So again, because we're not relying on doing successions, and getting all of our work done in a short space of time, we can build up those relationships, I'll often have three or four, maybe five sessions with a child before I even start talking about their parent and just getting to know them and then getting to know me and getting to know the charity and being able to ask questions about us and about children with a parent in prison in general, before we start talking about, you know, their parent and their experience, some children just want to tell you straight away, and they want to tell you everything because it's something that they've you know, they finally got somebody that they can talk to, and they know it's safe. Obviously every child is different. But yeah, the fact that we can build those relationships and have that time really helps.

Simon Currigan  3:32  

When you start to break down those walls. And that child started to be more honest about what's happening in their lives. What kind of practical challenges do they tell you about thinking particularly around school?

James Ottley  3:41  

Yeah, so a lot is about who they should tell whether they should tell friends how they should say it. Lots of our parents have been in the local media or on national media. So children have seen it. They've read it in a paper they come the next day. Oh, I heard your dad's in prison. What happened? And then you know, the child freezes. I don't know what to say. So we're trying to equip them with an easy answer that they can say, which keeps them safe and doesn't give away too many details. We have lots of children wondering about you know, can they still love their parents, their parent has done something wrong, but they still love them. That's particularly felt by children were the mum has been the victim. So you know, I love my dad, but he's hurt my mom. And I can't talk to mom about dad because I don't want to upset her. And then about how to stay in contact as well. Contact is a real difficult one. And because parents are just sent to prison, there's no fault about you know, their family and visiting and things like that. So we've got families, one end of the country and their parent is at the other end of the country. We've got parents who are in foreign prisons. So it's about how you maintain that relationship when you're not going to be able to visit or you're not going to be able to see them.

Simon Currigan  4:51  

Can you talk us through a story about a child or a family that you were working with and the impact of your support on the other side of those difficulties.

James Ottley  4:58  

The woman that I'm meant to And earlier, when she first started coming in, she wouldn't take her coat off, she wouldn't leave the house, she wouldn't talk, she would cry. Whenever she tried to talk, the change in her if you could see her now is unbelievable. We had a student on placement with us who did some work with the man because the mum wanted to get out into work, she had never worked. So we helped her to do a CV, we took her shopping so that she could buy something for an interview, we took her through interview techniques, she managed to get her first job, which was an incredible achievement. Unfortunately, due to childcare issue, she wasn't able to maintain it, but she is now gone on and she's doing a health and social care course at Ruskin College, and she's so strong now she's so confident she's dealing with the children she's achieving in her life. She's just a different woman, you know, she was huddled up and now she's like, you know, head high walk and strong. So the change in her has been amazing. The children have come to our groups, they love the group, they'd be sitting on the bus saying, are we going to a group because our dad is in prison, you know, they weren't shy about it. They absolutely love come in, they've grown. We've been supporting them for nearly three years now. So they've grown up, they've helped other children to, you know, feel a part of the group. So yeah, the change in that family has been fantastic. And that was from a primary school referral, it kind of shows how important those links are, because the school already had a good relationship with the parent, but they needed that extra support. And then we were able to offer that and yeah, the change has been magnificent.

Simon Currigan  6:29  

Are there any telltale signs to look for so imagine we've got a pupil in our class who's been affected by this issue, perhaps it's a couple of months down the line. So it's not as fresh, people aren't talking about it as much is there anything we should watch out for to indicate that this pupil might be struggling with what's going on in their home life underneath,

James Ottley  6:46  

I think a lot of children are quite angry, and they don't know what to do with that anger, you know, they might be angry at their parent for being sent to prison, they might be angry at the other parent for not stopping their parents from doing what they did to go to prison. So I think there's a real mixed emotions of anger, of sadness, of anxiety and fear that something might happen. And then you know, that behaviour often comes out in the wrong way and ends up with children getting into trouble at school at home. So a lot of what we do is helping children in how to recognise those feelings and how to deal with those difficult feelings. But yeah, I would say that that's something to kind of look out for, you know, a change in behaviour, a child who was previously chatty, who's gone quiet child who was reasonably easy go in who's now becoming aggressive or frustrated, I think that's a big change for lots of like primary schools, particularly when we get referrals, it's that there's been a change in behaviour in class. Unfortunately, lots of our children feel that because their parent has gone to prison, but that's what's going to happen to them. You know, we work with families, where every male in the family has been in prison, you know, an eight year old boy thinking, that's my life given up, you know, what's the point, which is really sad for an eight year old or 10 year old to be thinking that way? So yeah, a change in behaviour, you know, a loss of interest in school, it's really helpful for for schools to ask questions to ask about dads, because you know, it's typically mums that do the picking up the dropping off, go to parents, evenings, things like that. And I think the more questions you can ask, Where is Dad, as you see the children, things like that, that will make it easier for parents to say, this is happening. When we first started, we contact lots of schools. And then when we tried to set up in new areas, we always contact the primary schools in that area. And you'd be really surprised with the amount of times we get told sorry, we don't have children like that in our school. I think just having an open attitude to different families. You know, there is no such thing as a typical prisoners family, you know, they come from all walks of life all around the country, all classes, all ethnicities. So it's creating that safe, open space where families feel like they can go and say, Look, this has happened, what do we do? A real fear for a lot of our families is if they tell somebody that social care is gonna get involved, and the children are going to get taken into care. So it's always trying to reduce those fears in families, and have that open attitude so that they can just come and say, Look, this has happened and we need help. 

Simon Currigan  9:13  

You spoke earlier about children, eight, 910 years old, their parent goes to prison, and they think this is it. This is the template, this is my future. How do you work with those children? What kind of strategies do you use to help change that view,

James Ottley  9:26  

Trying to raise their aspirations. You know, we're based in Oxford and Oxford is seen as very well to do place. There's the university, there's old institutions, and then we've got children who live in states in Oxford who feel that that is a different walk of life that's not for them. So we try as much as we can to give children those opportunities. So we've done you know, joint projects with the Bodleian Library with modern art, Oxford, we visited the University so that children can think actually, you know, maybe I can be part of this, maybe I can go to university one day, maybe I can work in the Bodleian, maybe I can be an artist, so trying to raise those as operations. We do a group on a Monday night virtually at the moment. It's called Chase. And it's for primary age children. It's kind of based on the, you know, the Scouts and Guides model of you do an activity and you earn a badge. And I think that you can never underestimate how much badges and certificates and you know, well, Dunn's have an impact on children. We were watching a documentary about women in prison. And there was a young woman who was in prison, it was the sixth time she'd been in prison, she had learning difficulties, and she was on her phone to her mum, because she'd been made an enhanced prisoner. And the way that she was saying it, it was like the greatest achievement of our life. You know, I've been to prison six times, ma'am. And I've never got enhanced, and I'm enhanced now. So we never underestimate the impact that certificates and you know, Weldon's and achievements have on our children. And then we also try as much as we can to find adults who have become successful, who had a parent in prison when they were a child. So we've got really good links with the Thames Valley Police, and there's a police officer who we work with closely who his dad was in prison when he was younger. So he can come and talk to the children and say, I know, you know, what you're going through I was you 20 years ago, and I chose a different path. And I'm here now, there aren't that many public figures or sort of famous people that you can point to to say, you know, look, that was somebody who had a parent prison. I'm sure there are loads out there, but they don't, they don't want to talk about it, which I guess shows the shame and stigma goes on. It's not just when you're a child, it goes on through your adult life as well. So the more public figures, celebrities, you know, people that children look up to that we can say, Look, this has happened to them, and they've come out the other side that really helps with children.

Simon Currigan  11:41  

And that was James Ottley talking about supporting pupils, who have a parent who is in the prison system. Remember, a lot of children and families affected by imprisonment, don't volunteer the information to schools, but those kids those peoples do still have emotional needs. So it's important that we as adults in school are proactive about supporting them. If you want to hear the full interview, and I definitely recommend that you do head back to Episode 28. I'll put a direct link in the episode description. And I'll also put links to Children Heard and Seen along with it if you want to find out more about them. And that's all we've got time for on this essentials episode. If you've enjoyed listening today, please remember to take some time to rate and review us it only takes 30 seconds and when you do, it prompts the algorithm to recommend school behaviour secrets to other listeners. And that helps us grow the podcast and reach other teachers, school leaders and parents. And while you've got your podcast app open, Do please remember to hit subscribe so you never miss another episode. Thanks for listening to this essentials episode. And I look forward to seeing you next time on school baby

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)