When a family goes through divorce or the loss of a parent, children may feel like a dark cloud is hanging over them. At Greendale Primary School, the Parent Support Group plays a part to help these children and their families see that there can be rainbows after the storm.
By Neo Wen Tong
In Mr Michael Lim’s first years as Greendale Primary School’s counsellor, one of the students he was counselling was a boy whose father lived overseas. “He was telling me how excited he was to be able to see his father soon during the school holidays,” Mr Lim says.
But before the reunion could happen, the boy’s father passed away. “He looked so forlorn, and I could tell he was in great pain,” Mr Lim shared.
He could relate to the boy’s feelings of loss, as he too, had lost his father when he was eight years old.
“I remember how I felt. It was 1978, and no one really knew how to help me with it in school. I was insecure, had low self-esteem, and felt that I was different from the rest of my classmates. When I found out about others who went through similar loss, I felt inclined towards them,” he says. “The boy made we wonder if there was a peer support group for students like him.”
It prompted a search, and in 2010, Mr Lim found Rainbows, which offers grief support and peer support to children affected by loss of a loved one, be it through death, divorce, separation or abandonment. Offered by HELP Family Service Centre, the programme aims to give children a safe space to talk about their fears and worries, go through lessons on forgiveness, and learn about different kinds of families and coping tools.
Mr Lim signed up for the nine-hour training programme to be a certified Rainbows facilitator. Later that year, he conducted the first run of the 14-week programme for a small group of five students.
Enter Mrs Tina Tan, who was the chairperson of the Greendale Primary School Parent Support Group (PSG) from 2011 till May this year. “When we found out about the Rainbows programme in 2011, the PSG decided that this was the programme we wanted to invest our time in,” she says. “Maybe also because I’m a social worker, I feel for children with tough backgrounds.”
Mrs Tan and another PSG member, Ms Or Lee Hwa, underwent training that year to become Rainbows facilitators.
With more facilitators over time, the school could offer the programme to up to 15 students each time, grouping them according to age for more meaningful conversations. Mr Lim explains, “Because the students are cognitively at a similar level, it’s more helpful when they are having deep conversations about their feelings.”
Nominations to attend Rainbows come from form teachers. In Greendale Primary, form teachers spend one-on-one time in the first term of the year getting to know each student in their class. For students who may benefit from Rainbows, form teachers will first sound out their parents. If they are interested, the students’ names are then passed to Mr Lim, who sends consent forms to the parents or guardians via the students and answers any questions about the programme that they might have.
A highlight of the Rainbows programme is “Celebrate Me” days, held at the mid and end points of the programme. Parents are invited to join their children on these two days. The first “Celebrate Me” day is centred on forgiveness, and the students write letters to their parents. The second “Celebrate Me” day also serves as a graduation day for the programme, and is usually marked with a fun outing, during which parents can bond further with their children.
The PSG brings in a volunteer external social service agency to facilitate on these days, says Mrs Tan. Other than being the extra hands needed for the larger group size, the volunteers can chat with parents and sometimes find the chance to offer avenues for family counselling, financial aid, and more. It is an important link-up, explains Mrs Tan, as not all support, such as family counselling, can be provided by the school. “Our role as the Parent Support Group is to bring the two parties together.”
What keeps the PSG going with the Rainbows programme is witnessing how each batch of students learns to deal with their emotions in a positive way, and how they support their peers.
“We had an older boy in the programme, who appeared very cool and that his family situation was not affecting him much. But as the programme went on, he softened up. When another student cried after sharing about a situation at home, he put his arm around that student and said, ‘It’s okay, I also went through similar a situation before’,” she shares. “That’s the beauty of Rainbows. They get support from their peers from similar struggles. There’s a bit of community for them.”
Over 80 students have since graduated from Rainbows, and they leave the programme with fresh perspectives
“I have learnt that it not my fault that my parents had a divorce. Rainbows has helped me not to worry about the divorce and not to get angry about the little things,” says a student who went through the programme in Primary 3.
Mr Lim is grateful for the partnership of the PSG in running the Rainbows programme. “Without them, we may not have been able to continue the programme for so long.”