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Children's Voice Article, May/June, 2004

Teach Your Parents Well

Learning how to be a great parent takes years of on-the-job training and a lot of trial and error. But classes for new parents, teen parents, single parents, and every other type of parent are making the journey a little less painful.

By Scott Kirkwood

If you want to practice law, drive a car, or even cut someone's hair, you're generally required to do some reading, take a class, and pass a test, but if you want to take on one of the hardest jobs there is-parenthood--there's no education, training, or experience necessary.

Fortunately, many programs throughout the country are recognizing the incredible amount of information that parents need to do their jobs well. And although parenting classes will never be mandatory, the following three programs are making a difference for caregivers and children.
Starting at the Beginning
Parents as Teachers (PAT) starts as early as any program can, offering pregnant women what they need to know before they even become parents. Rather than requiring parents to meet in a classroom each week, PAT instructors go to the homes of parents and parents-to-be. The program is firmly based on research of early brain and child development, and teachers translate science into information parents can use to guide their kids through every stage.

"Certain activities need to occur at certain times, and parents needs to capitalize on those windows of opportunity," says Sue Stepleton, President and CEO of PAT in St. Louis, Missouri.

"For instance, verbalization is so important--a lot of parents feel like they don't need to talk to their children until the children are ready to talk, but language development is occurring much earlier than that. So we encourage parents to sing with their kids and talk to them when they're driving the car. Saying simple things like, 'Look, the stop light is red, and now it's turning green,' and 'Here we go,' is critically important to literacy. At the same time, it's also important to relationship-building and emotional stimulation."

PAT instructors also perform developmental screenings to identify potential problems a physician might not notice, so they can be addressed early. One mother believed her 14-month-old child had a hearing problem, even though repeated visits to the pediatrician turned up nothing. But the family's PAT educator observed the child in the home, agreed with the mother's assessment, and set up a visit to an audiology clinic, where the problem was confirmed. Within a month, the child was wearing hearing aids in both ears.

PAT educators try to work with parents before the child's birth for two reasons--to make sure mothers-to-be don't contribute to a child's developmental problems by smoking and drinking during their pregnancy, and to prepare their clients for those first few months of parenthood, which often can be overwhelming.

Most successful parent educators recognize their work does not begin and end with the delivery of information on childhood development. PAT instructors understand that sometimes the most important thing you can do is help an adult make it through the day so they have the strength and energy left to be a better parent.

The PAT program in Hannibal, Missouri, works with many parents, but a primary focus is teen parents, who often face special challenges. Clients are referred from high school guidance counselors, teachers, nurses, and principals; the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program; the county health department; obstetricians; and former participants.

The local school district operates the program, offering in-home visits and classes on life skills, parenting, and child development, with credits toward a high school degree or a GED. Most young women involved have been forced to drop out of school to care for their children and support themselves, but the program provides transportation and child care to overcome these obstacles so teens can complete their education.

"Collaboration is the key word for a successful teen program," says Diane Addison, Early Childhood Director with Hannibal Public Schools. "It takes everyone in your community to make it successful. Even Start, Head Start, Early Head Start, and PAT are all essential. If teens don't have easy access to child care, the other efforts may not even be possible." The health department and WIC clinics provide free immunizations and formula, as well as food for mother and child.

PAT educators generally have four-year degrees in childhood education, child development, or related areas, and three to five years experience working with families and with children. That's especially important when working with teens, because in essence these educators are addressing the needs of two children--an adolescent and an infant.

"Teen parents are at a different place in their development than a parent at 25 or 26, so we also focus on living skills, planning a budget, planning a menu, shopping wisely, and making smart credit choices," says Sharon Wisdom, Even Start Director and a PAT parent educator with Hannibal Public Schools. "We also refer teens to other agencies if they're dealing with domestic violence issues or other challenges."

PAT educators understand that if parents see their children as a burden, it will add to their stress, which could lead to problems like abuse and neglect. So educators make it clear they're there for the parent, to remove as much stress as possible. For instance, some parents try to toilet train children too early, which leads to frustration; others may be upset that every other word their 2-year-old utters is "no," because they're not aware this is a typical behavior. Helping the parent understand these issues avoids a lot of unnecessary power struggles between parent and child.

At the same time, parent education classes also run the risk of drowning parents with too much information too soon.

"We want parents to they feel good about the amount of information they're getting, so it's not overwhelming," Stepleton says. "Everybody makes mistakes, and that's okay. If it's been two days since you read to your child, it doesn't mean you're a bad parent. The perfect parent doesn't exist. We're just trying to help make confident parents."

To help parents remain committed to the process, teen parents and their children gather each week for PACT time (Parents and Child Together), 90 minutes of activities, generally revolving around literacy--making a book, reading aloud, "parallel talk," storytelling, puzzles, or appropriate toys.

As a result, many teens have graduated from high school or received their GEDs, and a few have gone on to college. The program has grown stronger since connecting with Even Start, a family literacy program that offers help with math, reading, writing, and social studies. One teen began the program at a second-grade reading level and was reading at sixth-grade level a year later.

Originally, some people in the community questioned the wisdom of working with teens, fearing they had already gone too far down the path to be "rescued," but PAT educators saw the chance to help two generations become more productive citizens while showing teen parents the value of education. "If a mother does not graduate from high school, there's a 50% greater chance her child won't graduate," Addison says. "So we empower the parent to see the value of education and be the best parent they can possibly be."

One 17-year-old mother enrolled in PAT and Even Start in the winter of 2001, wandered in and out of several support programs, but continued with PAT until she finally earned her GED at age 20. Now she has a job working with disabled adults and was registered to take three classes at the local community college this spring.

PAT is a well-researched program, and studies point toward its effectiveness. According to one study, "PAT children showed better school readiness at the start of kindergarten, higher reading and math readiness at the end of kindergarten, higher kinder-garten grades, and fewer remedial education placements in first grade." Another showed that, at age 3, PAT children performed significantly above the national norms on a measure of school-related achievement, despite the fact the sample was over-represented on all traditional characteristics of risk. The system is now in place in all 50 states and several other countries, with plans to expand to China later this year.
Not Just About Raising Children
Like PAT, Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) is designed to prepare young children for school while preparing parents for a lifetime.

Although the name conjures images of 1960s California, HIPPY didn't arrive on these shores until 1984, 15 years after taking root in Israel, then moving on to Turkey, Germany, and other countries on several continents. Like most parenting programs, HIPPY is free to those who participate. Because half of its programs are operated through local school systems, Title I is the primary funding source; other programs are funded by community-based organizations, often working with grants.

Designed for parents of children 3-5 years old, HIPPY is also centered on home visits. For about an hour a week, educators work with parents to role-play a lesson that the parent will introduce to the child later that week. Originally, HIPPY USA organizers asked professional educators to lead the discussions, but these outsiders and experts were never quite accepted into the home. So organizers decided to train parents living in the community to help facilitate a connection. Today, parents guide the program as much as the educators do.

"A lot of times, as parents become more familiar with their home visitors, [the home visitors] really become members of the family," says Mary Doyle, State Director for the HIPPY Program in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

In one case, a parent felt comfortable enough to tell the home visitor that she suspected her boyfriend of sexually abusing the children in the home; that information was passed on to authorities. Another family was living in unsafe housing, so HIPPY referred them and even transported them to the housing authority, which contacted the landlord to make sure the situation was fixed.

If a family is having a hard time buying food, HIPPY will refer them to WIC or other community resources. Clearly it's not all about raising children--it's about helping parents live their lives so they can be better parents.

"A number of families have been so encouraged by being able to teach their own child that they've been confident enough to look for jobs," Doyle says. "They know that they're worth something."

After offering the program for 12 years, Doyle has countless success stories to share. Recently, a young man came to her door after seeing the HIPPY sign hung outside her office. His family had been enrolled in the very first program, and he told Doyle he had just begun his second year of college. He still remembered the name of the educator who came to his home each week with new books to read, setting him on a path he might not have been able to pursue otherwise.

"When we ask the parents what they like most about the program" Doyle boasts, "they say, 'It forces us to take one-on-one time with our children, which we know we should do, but [we often never got around to doing].' It's remarkable what our children are learning. They often tell us, 'I never knew parenthood could be a such great thing.'"
The Parenting Project
Although schools and nonprofit community-based organizations conduct most parent education classes, in San Clemente, California, the Orange County Sheriff's Department offers 10-week courses for parents struggling with difficult teenagers.

One might expect many parents and teens to be leery of the juvenile justice program, but Orange County's program is quite popular. And officers would much rather try to help parents in a classroom than confront them at a police station, while their teenager waits in a cell.

The courses are based on a curriculum created by the Parenting Project in Boulder City, Nevada, and in use in dozens of communities. It addresses all the reasons kids enter the criminal justice system, from extreme family conflict, poor school attendance and class performance, and substance abuse to negative peer associations, poor dating relationships, early sexuality, gang and cult involvement, runaway youth, violent children, and teen suicide.

Families apply what they learn to fit the needs of their children and the demands of their own situations, but certain principles guide the instruction. For instance, classes stress the fact that teenager's brains are wired differently so they often don't employ the same reasoning as adults, which means they'll generally need a parent's expectations spelled out clearly.

"We teach parents to actively supervise their child, to follow through with consequences, and to use short-term consequences, which fit the way teens think," says Janet Dunford, Crime Prevention Specialist with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "Parents get a higher response rate with short-term consequences because kids are more able to change their behavior--it gives them a fresh start, and they don't feel like they're on death row."

As with many parenting programs, one of the greatest benefits of the classes is the fact that parents meet other parents struggling with the same issues. This may seem incidental, but it's critical in a number of ways.

"One of the most common responses of parents is, 'It's so comforting to know that I'm not alone, that someone else has the same problem--maybe their situation is a little worse or not quite as bad, but I'm not alone,'" Dunford says. "And that makes them feel more comfortable sharing their experiences in the classroom."

Once the class is over, parents are encouraged to continue meeting on their own and supporting one another. Dunford acknowledges, "Miracles don't happen overnight. Change can be slow and incremental, and the help of a support group can keep the parent active in the Parenting Project concepts, and the support system is still available to them if they need it."

The range of parents who attend runs the gamut, from mothers and fathers to aunts and uncles, grandparents raising grandchildren, and even tag-team approaches with several family members from multiple generations. Dunford says that, in some cases, four parents have attended for one teenager--the birthparents had divorced and remarried, and they brought their spouses.

Many parents have reported positive change within their families. In one case, the parents of a high school girl discovered she had been drinking for some time, and the class helped them identify the problem and take steps to address it.

"Because of the class, the parents were more in tune with their child's needs," Dunford says. "They recognized the symptoms, and they knew exactly what to do. Rather than sitting back and saying, 'All kids go through this, and it's normal,' they knew enough to step up their supervision and their positive influence on their child. They laid down some house rules, let her know they were concerned for her safety, health, and well-being, and let her know alcohol was not allowed in the household." As a result, the young lady took steps to change her behavior and was able to seek counseling.

Now the largest court-mandated or juvenile diversion program in the country, the Parenting Project curriculum is being put to work in 32 states. The Parenting Project sends its materials to law enforcement agencies, probation departments, schools, mental health professionals, and others, and offers training sessions nationwide to ensure they have the skills to deliver the message appropriately and effectively.

"Our program was born and based on parents' questions," says the Parenting Project's Ralph "Bud" Fry, a retired police sergeant and coauthor of the curriculum. "What do you do when your kid refuses to go to school? What do you do when you find marijuana on your child? What do you do when your kid runs away form home?

"In homes where parents are having troubles with adolescent children," Fry says, "the words, 'I love you,' are spoken less and less, because they're always at odds with their kids. [So we remind parents to] get back in touch with their love of their kids and remember why they're doing what they're doing.

"The second big item is influence versus control: Parents do not control children--children control their own behavior. What parents do control is everything in the house. By using lots of love and affection, lots of positive consequences, and negative consequences for broken house rules, [parents can make change happen]."

Parents who take the classes vary widely in economic level, education, and other demographics. Some are dealing with kids who are already involved in the juvenile justice system; others are worried it will be the next step. Fry says many are single parents working long hours to support their families, struggling to find enough hours in the day to parent and put food on the table.

Instructors range from schoolteachers to probation officers and police officers. The courses are offered by local YMCAs, mental health professionals in private practice, and insurance companies such as Kaiser Permanente, which runs the program in Northern California. The program features two separate curricula--one for parents of children who are 5 - 10 years old, with special applications for ADHD issues, and another for older adolescents, which requires more extensive training of instructors. The only cost to participants is the book, which costs about $25.

Because many of the attendees are in the classroom because of a court order or referral, one might expect less than perfect attention or commitment. But even parents who are forced to attend the class generally get a lot out of it.

"These parents are in a miserable situation," Fry says, "and this course has the chance to change their life, to make them happy. There's not a parent out there who wants their kid in a gang, who wants their kid to be pregnant, or use drugs and destroy their lives--it wasn't their goal when they had a child. Ninety-eight percent of the parents out there deeply care about their kids and want the best for them. When you can show them a better way, they're off and running with it."

Scott Kirkwood is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

For More Information

220 East 23rd Street, #300
New York NY 10010

Parent Project
PO Box 60990
Boulder City NV 89005-0990

Parents as Teachers
2228 Ball Drive
St. Louis MO 63146
For more information about parenting programs in general, including CWLA's Creating Parenting-Rich Communities and Prudential Positive Parenting Initiatives, email, call 202/639-4930, or visit online at

Keys to Successful Parenting Programs

Parenting education isn't as simple as posting a flier or two and reserving a classroom one night a week. The most successful programs have a lot in common, from selecting their audience and recruiting attendees to offering quality information and making sure parents have support after the last class ends.

"First off, parent educators need to understand their audience," says Karen DeBord, Associate Professor and State Specialist, Child Development, North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "An instructor might plan a session on how to discipline young children and find that parents come with children from 2 years old to 8 years old, with different developmental needs. Or you may be dealing with a stepfamily situation, single parents, or grandparents" coming at the issue from different perspectives.

For that reason, DeBord often tells parent educators to go into that first teaching situation with no agenda, just to get a better perspective on the people they want to serve. If the organization funding the program wants certain needs to be addressed, educators should feel free to ask how the organizers know the parents want to learn about toilet training or crisis intervention or whatever subject is at hand.

DeBord advises instructors to "remain flexible, because sometimes you have to ditch what you had planned to talk about and discuss whatever parents are interested in. The key is to establish rapport and trust, to make sure the parents open their minds to what you're going to say--otherwise, it's a waste of time for the instructor and the parents, who may walk away with a chip on their shoulder."

To better understand the audience's needs, some educators conduct phone or mail-in surveys. Others join trusted members of the community to conduct door-to-door surveys, an approach that may be especially helpful in communities that are racially diverse or that present potential language barriers.

To truly change an individual's behavior, DeBord says a program must be fairly long in duration and intense--a single two-hour workshop is unlikely to change anyone's behavior. Follow-up is key, even if it involves something as simple as connecting parents to one another so they can help each other during trying times, just like a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.

"The mentoring relationship is really helpful," DeBord says, "Parents often attend sessions, then go back to the same environment they left, which makes it difficult to use the information--they may not be able to practice it, and they may not have the support from their family to carry through. Without that extra support, they may revert to old behaviors.

Most importantly, she advises, remember parents are just like anyone else--they end up looking after themselves first. Any comprehensive program helps them do just that.

"Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs says, we all try to meet our most basic needs first," DeBord says. "If people don't know where their next meal is coming from, and they're worried about their job while we're talking about being a wonderful parent and nurturing their child, it's really hard for them to hear that message. We have to talk to them about how to manage their own stress, which may mean helping them tap new resources or locate a job, then they'll be able to hear the message about being good parents."

From CWLA Press

Teaching Parents of Young Children: A Curriculum in 12 Sessions
By Laura L. Wetzel

Designed for anyone interested in conducting parenting classes, this curriculum compiles essential parenting information to help parents understand child behavior at different ages and stages of development. A Leader's Manual details strategies and dynamics in leading a parenting group, and Parent Power Pages offer a quick review of material covered in class, along with supplemental information. Parents will gain new insight into effective childrearing, and improve their ability to communicate, discipline, build self-esteem, and more.
Stock No. 5707   $12.95

Five Easy Ways to Order:

Mail:  CWLA
           PO Box 932831
           Atlanta GA 31193-2831

Call:  800/407-6273 (toll free)

Fax:  770/280-4160



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