Friday, January 27, 2012

Why NOT to ask, "Is your homework done?"

Although my three children are all adults now, I remember the nightly family rituals around homework well.  As a working mother, evenings were crammed with things needing to be done.  Usually, one of the tasks for my kids was school assignments.  The task for me was to be available to help if they needed it, which was not always easy.

I began teaching when my oldest was eight, so when she and her siblings began bringing assignments home I had both a parental and a professional interest in what they were doing.  As a science instructor I usually had lab reports or some papers to grade after dinner, so it was not uncommon for me to sit at the kitchen table and do my "homework" while they were doing theirs.  We would discuss what they were working on and I would give nudges when they became distracted.  I remember being fascinated listening to my kids debate essay prompts like "How is the Communist Manifesto like the Declaration of Independence?" I have to admit I sometimes joined in.

When they were older I began a Master's Degree program and now had actual assignments from my own instructors, along with the prep and grading required by my job.  As teens, my girls took on the role of helping me examine my thinking, and encouraging me to get back to my writing, or to take a break if I obviously needed it.  We still often shared the kitchen table as we worked.

Back then I was not consciously aware of the power of modeling my love of learning and the excitement of mastering an intellectual challenge.  Even as an educator I hadn't really thought much about the underlying psychology at work in our shared learning / homework rituals.  Now—as a preventionist—I can see how lucky I was to have stumbled by necessity onto something that worked well. 

The secret was not that I was acutely aware of whether or not they had done their homework.  The secret is that I asked them about the content of their homework, what they were struggling with, and what they needed for help to be able to be successful.  I now know that asking what their assignments were, which ones they thought would be a snap, which ones they were intrigued by, and which ones they thought were dumb (and why) made a difference.  As I mentioned before, I didn't ask these things because I knew that doing so would more likely instill a commitment to school and learning.  I asked because as a teacher I was extra curious...and, because I was sitting right beside them at the table and could hear the dramatic sighs or emphatic calculator key pushes.

So, where am I going with this?  My goal, and the goal of the Five Town Communities That Care Coalition is to help our local kids thrive.  We know that when kids aren't committed to school or learning they are more likely to engage in problem behaviors that may lead to heartbreak and challenges later on.  We also know that schools themselves aren't the only things that influence our youth to love learning and to be committed to their education.  Families and the larger community does as well.

Questions like, "Is your homework done?" send a message that completion of the task is what is important.  If this is the only message that young people hear they may internalize that what matters is getting the stuff done so that they can get the grades.  Changing the question to "What assignment do you have tonight?"  and asking followup questions about what the topic of the assignments are and offering help can change that pattern.  This can lead to more healthy ideas about the importance of learning AND of getting decent grades.  It can also reduce the likelihood that these young people will get involved in problem adolescent behaviors .

The US Department of Education has a great tip sheet for parents and caregivers about homework. I encourage you to take a look at it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Moving Beyond “No”: Embracing the Positive in Prevention

When my daughter came home from school last year asking me to sign her up for STAR, I confess I knew very little about the social-development theory behind the program. What I did know was that parents whose children had been in STAR tended to rave about it.
They loved that their kids had a safe place to go after school where they could have fun learning a new skill while getting to know new friends. The word “prevention” didn’t come up in a single conversation. Instead, my fellow parents used words like “happy” and “engaged”, “focused” and “empowered” when talking about their kids’ experiences in STAR.
Compare this to the verbiage surrounding the Just Say No campaign, the national substance-abuse prevention effort from my late childhood days. Though there might very well have been associated positive taglines from that campaign, I simply don’t recall them. Only: Just. Say. No.
Now that I’m a Five Town CTC employee, it’s my job to know—and to spread the word about—how STAR (as well as other CTC programs and initiatives) fits into the big picture of promoting healthy youth in our five towns. From my relatively innocent perspective of a satisfied parent to a happy fifth-grader, I have come to see STAR through the lens of behavioral science.
My daughter was not, for example, just learning a skill while having a great time among friends (though she most certainly was doing so), she was learning skills in a “pro-social environment”—part of the STAR recipe for helping kids to “internalize healthy beliefs and clear standards.” Not a single negative in that description, yet as the data tells us, this model clearly serves to prevent trouble behaviors. Conversely, Just Say No, in all its bald negativity, proved ineffective, even possibly counter-productive.
Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to understand how a program like STAR can play a crucial role in preventing kids from getting into drugs, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, skipping school, etc. This is not to skirt our obvious parental duty; it is crucial that we talk to our kids (explicitly) about the dangers of the behaviors we want them to avoid for their own good. But: Get them involved, give them positive feedback, and recognize them for their achievements. Do so (parents, teachers, coaches…) and you’ll foster their desire to make healthy choices for themselves.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


This post is contributed by FTCTC board member Adam Kohlstrom, Pastor of Chestnut Street Baptist Church, Camden.

One of the many reasons we support the Communities That Care model - and specifically the work of Five Town CTC - is that it involves the whole community.  CTC is not just a "school" thing or a "law-enforcement" thing or a "social-services" thing or a "mental-health" thing.  As the name implies, it is a community thing - involving all of these and more.

Remembering that our faith communities are part of the larger community, The Partnership at has a great article titled Clergy Matter. The author makes this point:
The “good news” is that there is a powerful awakening in our faith communities and among a steadily growing army of enlightened clergy and faith leaders about their legitimate role in the prevention of substance use problems and in supporting the healing process for both addicted persons and their impacted family members.
While the faith community seems increasingly comfortable with and competent in its support for those healing from substance abuse, how are we doing at prevention?  Prevention seems a far more elusive and insubstantial goal.  It is easier to grasp how we treat substance use problems than how it is we might prevent those same problems in the first place.

This is where Five Town Communities That Care comes in.  The Communities That Care model is all about prevention.  The time and money that I and our church family donate to FTCTC goes towards the mission of promoting: "healthy youth development and [preventing] problem adolescent behaviors such as substance abuse, suicide, violence, delinquency, school drop-out, and teen pregnancy."  It is about prevention on a scale that we could never hope to accomplish on our own.

We must realize that the elusive goal of "prevention" is not something that can be accomplished by just one segment of the community. Prevention is not just a "school" thing or a "law-enforcement" thing or a "social-services" thing or a "mental-health" thing or a "faith" thing.  Prevention and "five towns where all people work together to create a safe and healthy environment for all" is a community thing.

Our church stands proudly as part of this community and as part of the work of prevention being done by Five Town Communities That Care.  Whatever segment of the larger community you represent, won't you join us?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How is a birthing class different from a workshop for parents of teens?

We suspect that many parents reading this blog participated in some form of birthing class while expecting their first child.   Lamaze and other childbirth education classes have become a normal part of what many expectant parents do.  It is important to note that this was not always so.  It is also important to note that women have been having babies for a long time, and it can be done without taking a class.

Here in midcoast Maine, birthing classes are suggested as a way for new parents to become educated about what to expect, some of the potential hazards that may come along, and what tools and techniques others have found helpful.  People can see the logic in signing up to learn more even if they probably will not have a difficult birth.  The classes are not treatment—they are more preventative in nature; they increase the likelihood of a positive experience.

Parenting workshops and classes for parents seem—to us—to fall in the same category as birthing classes.  They provide information about common problems encountered when raising children, provide an opportunity to share ideas with other parents, and provide coaches who model techniques that parents may find useful in given situations.  Taking a parenting workshop doesn't imply that you can't parent, any more than taking a Lamaze class implies that a woman couldn't have a baby without it.  You can successfully parent a child through their adolescent years without taking a parenting workshop, but participating in quality parenting workshops has been shown to increase the likelihood that these years can be navigated with less conflict.

Happily armed with this knowledge, and driven by data indicating that family conflict was a widespread risk factor for the problem behaviors that our CTC Coalition is trying to reduce, we began offering a program known as Guiding Good Choices or GGC back in 2005.  This series of five workshops for parents of 9-14 year olds has been proven in multiple studies to improve parenting skills and parent-child interactions; reduce adolescent substance abuse; reduce adolescent depressive symptoms; and reduce rates of self-harm by teens.  In high quality research studies, children of participants had 40% lower rates of alcohol and marijuana use; 54% less progression to more serious substance abuse; 26% greater likelihood of remaining drug free if not already using drugs; 38% lower rates of self-harm; and 28% fewer feelings of worthlessness. In other words, it works!

We recruited great facilitators, offered free childcare and homework help to all children in the family during the program times, and provided a meal for the entire family prior to the start of the workshop.  It requires that families give up only one night a week for five weeks.  We offered the program to parents for free.  We addressed all of the barriers that we could think of in order to have high rates of participation from local families.  We set out to reach our goal of serving at least 45 Five Town parents of 9-14 year olds each year.

We ran a few workshops and got great feedback from parents who came.  Those who came found it enjoyable and useful, but getting more parents to take the important step of coming to the first workshop proved frustratingly difficult.  We began to ask other agencies across the nation how they encouraged participation in parent programs and began to realize that American parents don't seem to flock to parent workshops if they aren't having "problems" with their children.  Most parents of pre-teens, it seems, go along without the sense of urgency to arm themselves with new knowledge that they have when the first pregnancy test reads positive.

Now, this may be because most of us have memories of being a teen and some parents believe that they learned what they needed from how their parents handled their upbringing.  (Memories of being born are not quite so accessible!)  But, it seems to us that there must be a larger issue at work here when considering why parents don't see value in workshops for parents of adolescents.  An adult's experience as a teen is pretty limited if you really think about it.  Most of us were raised by only one (or maybe two) family units, and many of us learned a few unhealthy habits from parents who were doing the best that they could.  Our memory is also affected by the fact that our experiences as teens are formed when our brains aren't yet done developing.

Could it be that our community doesn't think family conflict happens here?  Data tells us differently; in 2010 more than 57% of grade 8 students in the Five Towns reported that their family regularly experiences conflict.  Could it be that our community doesn't think that the programs offered work?  Data tells us differently; Guiding Good Choices has been repeatedly tested in many different types of communities and has been shown to make significant, positive differences.  Could it be that parents here don't care about their kids?  We don't believe so.  We have plenty of evidence that parents here care very much about their families.  Could it be that signing up for the workshops makes parents look vulnerable, or like they are "bad" parents?  Perhaps...

We really would like to hear what YOU think about this.  Why YES to birthing classes but NO to Guiding Good Choices?  Or did you say no to both?