Mary, a 30-year-old single mother of three from Brooklyn, walked her four-year old son Jeremiah to the first day of pre-kindergarten at her neighborhood public school. Mrs. Smith, Jeremiah's new teacher, greeted them enthusiastically, encouraging Mary to explore the room with her son. To Mary's surprise, Mrs. Smith said, "As a parent, you are the most important person in your child's life. I'd like to meet with each of you privately in the next few weeks so we can get to know each other and work together to help your child have a great school experience!"
Despite the teacher's warm invitation, Mary was hesitant. In the past, she had been asked to meet with a teacher only when her older son started a fight on the playground! When they met, Mrs. Smith did not blame Mary for anything -- instead she asked her about her hopes and dreams for Jeremiah. There she was, sitting with a pre-k teacher, describing her family's cultural values and traditions and sharing some negative school experiences of her own.
Mary thought she had hit the teacher jackpot -- but what she didn't know was that Jeremiah's school was part of a program called ParentCorps, which serves parents and young children living in underserved, poor, urban communities. As part of the program, now in 10 schools in New York City, teachers learn to welcome and engage parents, and families of pre-k students are invited to participate in a series of family groups.
During the family groups, led by trained mental health professionals at the school during the early evening, parents learn strategies to help their children succeed. Through group activities and discussions, parents identify which goals are most important for their young children. Goals range from "helping my son get along with his sisters" to "making sure that my daughter graduates from high school." Parents learn scientifically proven parenting strategies and share ideas about how to use these newly acquired skills to help their children achieve these goals. For example, parents are encouraged to establish daily routines that include time for them to play with their children, read books together and eat meals as a family. They learn to set household rules for behavior and communicate clearly about expectations, pay attention to positive behavior, ignore mild misbehavior such as whining, and take away privileges or use time-out for more serious behavior such as aggression. As parents try out new strategies, they discuss their experiences with the group, receive support and help problem-solving, and ultimately choose a set of strategies that best fits the unique characteristics and circumstances of their own family. Often the most powerful moments are when parents open up about difficult and overwhelming situations -- like feeling embarrassed trying to ignore a 20-minute tantrum in the middle of a crowded store, or giving up when a child refused to stay in the time-out chair. Parents empathize with each other, normalize the uncomfortable feelings that they are having, and help each other persevere in working toward the goals they've set for their children.
By mastering a series of effective parenting strategies and eventually seeing positive changes in their children's behavior, program "graduates" not only gain confidence in their role as parents but often transform the way in which they think of themselves. For example, a father of four said of his experience, "I didn't graduate from high school, so I was intimidated every time I walked through the school doors. Through my participation in the program, I learned that I could be a role model for my kids." A grandmother of a kindergarten student described her experience this way: "I used to handle things a little rough. That's the way I was raised, and I really didn't know what else to do to keep my grandkids in line. I grew to trust and rely on other people in the group because they really understood all the stress I was dealing with. I learned that there were other options." A teen mother summed it like this: "The program taught me that I matter! Now I feel like I can help my daughter be strong and successful, and I want to help other young moms feel confident and get involved."
Children from low-income, underserved communities are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than children from middle class families. The good news is that the way in which parents and teachers interact with children during the early school years can make the difference between success and failure for the most vulnerable children.
ParentCorps is one of a number of programs for low-income families shown to lead to positive behavior, school and health outcomes for high-risk children. Across the nation, policymakers are starting to realize the economic value of investing scarce public resources in parenting programs that have been tested rigorously and found to work. Public investment in scientifically proven programs for low-income families during the early years of child development can prevent high-risk children from developing costly school, family, social and mental health problems.
Like Mary, parents across the country want to be part of the solution for their kids and communities. With commitment and support to families from underserved communities, there could be millions of parents like Mary who will be equipped with strategies to help their children succeed. An investment in parents will keep on returning value to all of us.
Dr. Laurie Miller Brotman is the developer of ParentCorps, the Director of the Institute for
Prevention Science and the Harris Obesity Prevention Effort (HOPE) at the NYU Child Study
Center and the Corzine Family Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York
University School of Medicine.