Support groups give siblings the time to shine
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Brothers and sisters of children with special educational needs and disabilities get the space to share their experiences and explore effective coping strategies.
To support siblings of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in primary school
The resource packs and training cost £500
The charity Sibs was founded in 2001 to represent siblings of disabled children and help professionals to set up local support groups. Siblings of disabled children can face a range of issues including disrupted sleep and anxiety about their brother or sister’s health. Many also act as young carers.
The sibling support groups provided children with a space outside the family home to meet other siblings, share experiences and feelings, and learn coping strategies. However, local authority and third sector funding cuts saw many groups close down. At the same time Sibs noticed a rise in schools approaching the charity for support.
“We thought there must be another way to do this,” says Sibs chief executive Clare Kassa. “Siblings are in school, so that is the place to reach them.” Sibs went on to develop Sibs Talk, a one-to-one intervention for schools designed to help staff deliver some of the outcomes achieved through the support groups.
Sibs Talk, launched in 2016, is a 10-session, one-to-one intervention for schools to complete with Key Stage 2 children who have a brother or sister with SEND. Each session lasts about 25 to 35 minutes. Most schools complete sessions with siblings during scheduled lessons, rather than at lunchtime or after school.
School staff attend a two-hour training session before delivering the intervention, focusing on the skills needed to listen to and acknowledge siblings’ feelings. Training includes a role play to practice how to respond to emotive questions and statements from siblings such as “Will my brother die?” or “I hate my sister”. The instinctive response can be to explain things to the pupil or to help find a solution to the problem but the training encourages staff to acknowledge siblings’ feelings before taking any other action.
Sibs Talk is designed to let siblings know they are not alone and help them to recognise their experiences are important too. “Putting children first and giving them attention they may not get at home is really powerful,” says Kassa. “Siblings often come second, third or fourth in line in their families.”
The resource packs, designed in partnership with siblings, parents and school staff, include stickers, an activity booklet, a leaflet for parents, a certificate upon completion of the intervention, and evaluation forms. Schools also have access to the YoungSibs website, which offers advice and support to seven- to 17-year-olds, including a moderated chat forum. Some deliver the intervention alongside existing support groups while for others it is a stand-alone programme.
During each session a staff member guides the sibling through an activity page in the booklet. The first session starts with sharing basic information about family and circumstances to help develop trust and a rapport with the staff member leading the intervention. Later sessions focus in more depth on their brother or sister’s disability or condition, the sibling’s feelings and experiences, and the issues that are challenging for them at home and school. “Lots of children don’t have the basic information about their sibling’s disability,” says Kassa. “The sessions can help answer children’s questions and find the information they need.”
The sessions also look at the skills, knowledge and attributes siblings have acquired and how their school can support them. “One school had identified a number of siblings who were stressed, struggling or getting in late because of their brother or sister, and felt they had no way of addressing that,” says Kassa. “Sibs Talk gave them the tools to talk to the children about their circumstances.”
Coming into 2021, Sibs Talk has never been more needed, with the Covid-19 pandemic hitting siblings particularly hard. Three quarters of parents surveyed by the charity in May 2020 said siblings’ mental health had become worse in lockdown while 50 per cent said siblings were providing more care for their brother or sister than before. “Schools are reporting increased levels of anxiety in siblings worried about taking the virus home to vulnerable brothers and sisters,” says Kassa.
Downs Junior School in Brighton delivers the Sibs Talk programme alongside its wider sibling support group. The group meetings allow children to talk about what is going on in their lives, play a game and take part in an activity. “We chose six out of 12 or 13 children from the group to take part in the one-to-one intervention,” says Lyndsey Judge, who helps run the group as a volunteer. “The one-to-one sessions were a good way to get to know the children, especially if they were new to the group or school. They were also a great way for them to get to know us as well at a personal level, if they wanted to discuss anything.”
The school has found the one-to-one sessions have a different dynamic from the group sessions. “The majority of our children are quite forthcoming and love sharing experiences they have had,” says Judge. “One boy was always quite silly in the group – he always seemed to be the group clown – but when I worked with him on a one-to-one basis his behaviour changed because he didn’t need to make anyone laugh. He would let his guard down and became more comfortable talking about his older sister who has a rare disability, his feelings towards her and his family life.” Sometimes issues arising in a one-to-one discussion are talked about in the group later, allowing sensitive topics to be aired and shared without identifying the child involved.
“Kids loved the stickers, and the certificate at the end – something so simple makes a really big difference,” says Judge. “Some put the stickers in their books and some proudly wore them on their T-shirt or jumper – it was another way people could find out they were a sibling, and a good talking point.”
An evaluation carried out by the University of Warwick in 2020 followed 55 children who took part in Sibs Talk. Researchers compared pupils’ scores on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, which measures behaviour and emotional wellbeing, before and after the intervention. Children had more positive scores across all measures after taking part in Sibs Talk than at the start. The greatest improvements were seen in hyperactivity, “prosocial” behaviours – being kind, sharing and helping others – and emotional problems such as anxiety and unhappiness. The average score for hyperactivity fell from 3.06 to 2.12 while the average score for emotional symptoms dropped from 2.69 to two. The average score for prosocial behaviour rose from 7.63 to 8.39. Scores are rated out of 10.
A total of 31 siblings taking part in the study also wrote short responses to four questions, which the researchers analysed. More than three quarters – 77 per cent – said they had learned new things over the course of the intervention. The analysis found 68 per cent said the intervention had supported them with relationships and communication while 39 per cent mentioned learning about coping strategies. Siblings wrote about feeling more able to talk about their feelings and experiences and said they felt listened to.
Sibs would like to expand Sibs Talk to an older age group although secondary schools are a more challenging environment. “More often than not they don’t know who is a sibling, and it is harder to pull children out of lessons,” says Kassa.
Sibs also hopes to develop work focusing specifically on sibling young carers. “We know young carers have a significantly lower attainment at GCSE and are more likely to not be in education, employment or training,” says Kassa. “These children grow up knowing they may have to support their brother or sister for a long time. That has an impact.”
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