Parenting is a tough gig, and when working with younger children, it’s especially clear when your student is coming from a family with very young parents who have little social support. Educators are in a unique position to help young and inexperienced parents. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years that have helped us help our students and their families succeed.
Put Aside Your Judgement
Young parents, especially mothers, are judged from the moment people discover pregnancy. The judgment is often harsh and cruel, even among medical staff, educators, and others in the community that pregnant young women really need assistance from.
Young fathers are often praised just for being present, but they are judged for their poor parenting skills by the time children reach school age.
Judgment isn’t helpful. Instruction is.
Not all young parents are receptive to help, though, largely because they feel distrustful of authority figures who have treated them unfairly or unkindly.
If you view the family as a unit and welcome the parents as if they were also your students, it really helps your perspective on their experiences.
Acceptance without judgment is one of the best gifts young parents can receive from an educator. You’ll have to build their trust before you can help them, so aside from acceptance, make contact with them frequently. Let them know you are here to help them as well as teach their child. Listen to their frustrations and fears, and help them locate resources as needed.
The Parenting Vacuum
Many times, young parents were once children of young parents themselves. This is a pattern that tends to repeat endlessly in many families. Because of the lack of experience going back generations, there may be an information vacuum with young parents you deal with.
They don’t know any different when it comes to raising children and what a healthy family looks like. They are doing what they’ve seen done, and what everyone around them does. Offering them information and support as they change is vital to providing change for the family. Anything you can offer to strengthen their support system will improve the lives of their children.
Families who have experienced young parenthood for generations are sometimes very distrustful of authority figures and may shy away or even become aggressive if you offer to help. If you continue to make yourself available to them, respond calmly but firmly to their behavior, and offer consistency, they are far more likely to approach you for help.
Some of the behaviors we experience from parents are very similar to those behaviors we see in our students. Treat them with the respect you would any fellow parent or adult, but be aware that you are setting an example with your own behavior.
Don’t take outbursts personally, just as you wouldn’t take the outbursts of a cranky student personally. They are attempting to protect themselves the only way they know how. Show them alternatives.
Often, young parents need help with very practical things. Teaching them about child development (“All four and five year olds ask a million questions.”), creating routines (ie: dinner, bath, story, bedtime), ways to encourage behaviors they would like to see from their child, or how to play with a seven-year-old if your imagination is completely worn out.
Young parents of older children and teens may struggle with being an authority figure rather than a buddy or friend. If they struggled in school, or didn’t complete high school, they may have questions about how to break that cycle and encourage their child to graduate.
Young parents with middle schoolers may have been great with young children but can’t figure out how to get involved with their preteen who seems to be distancing themselves from mom or dad.
Some parents don’t even know what questions to ask or what kind of help they need. They just know whatever they’re doing isn’t working and they need help.
Offering advice for how to talk to their child, ways to build relationships, and information about how a child or teens brain works at a certain age can be so helpful for parents. Sometimes they just need to hear that their child is normal, doing age-appropriate things, or succeeding in one area or another.
If you can’t offer that reassurance because the child is not behaving or learning in neurotypical ways, tell them that, but also give them advice on what to do. Parents who don’t feel confident in raising their child already may panic when they find out they’ve got a child who doesn’t follow all the “norms”. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed with parenting when things are going well. Parents may need extra support if they’re facing challenges in their road ahead.
Involving Child Protective Services
This is the stickiest part of becoming more involved with families.
When you mentor young families, you will find out a lot of information you don’t necessarily want to know, and some of that information is legally required to be passed on to CPS.
Before you begin your mentorship, make the family aware of what you are required to report. You may even print off flyers or informative brochures that include details about what constitutes as abuse or neglect.
If you come across those things, you will have to report it.
However, do all you can to keep your relationship with the family sound so that you can continue offering support.
When a child is taken by CPS because they are found to be abused or neglected, the goal of CPS is always to reunite the family. In order to get their children back, they will be required to attend training and classes regarding the specific area they struggle with as parents.
What you are doing when you take on this sort of parenting mentorship is frontloading that training, hopefully in order to keep the family together and prevent abuse and neglect before it occurs.
If you discover information during your conversations with the parents that has to be reported, mention that you are mentoring them. Let CPS know what you’ve talked about, what improvements you have seen, and what the family is already doing to support the child. Your intervention needs to be on record. It may change things, but it may not, but it is pertinent to the situation.
Knowing that the family is seeking help can strengthen their chances at reunification later or better their chances to receive services with the child still at least partially in their care.
As much as possible, work with social services to help the family in anyway you can.
Community Schools actually suggests that social services should have an office space in the school and meet with educators and families regularly. This would be the most ideal way to help families.
School districts truly need to start hiring and maintaining crisis counselors (who have nothing to do with day-to-day business of the school, schedules, or testing efforts) for students, staff, faculty, and families. Until the powers that be recognize that need and start making efforts to change it, teachers forming strong partnerships with social services may be the first step in creating a long-term relationship that aids families in the ways families actually need support.
“That’s Not My Job”
When confronted with the idea of helping and mentoring young parents, many teachers immediately respond, “That’s not my job. My job is to teach students.”
This response communicates a failure to understand that a student is not just a brain but a whole person. If your student is going home every night to parents who are drinking themselves into oblivion, using drugs to escape their own reality, or who yell, fight, and/or forget to even feed the child, you aren’t going to be able to do your job.
You have to take care of the “Maslow” before you attempt the “Bloom’s”. Needs must be met before learning can happen.
It may not be your job to help young parents, but whose job is it? And is it getting done? If your answer is “no one”, then you’ve just found your next assignment.
Focus on the things you are able to change. If you can sit with a parent 6 times for 30 minutes over a school year and literally change a child’s education future, why wouldn’t you take that opportunity?
Yes, it is your job to teach students. That means you may need to branch out a little and get creative to get the job done.
What Can Schools Do to Help?
Many districts provide parenting training for things like behavioral management, homework help, and academic support, but they don’t always reach young parents for a variety of reasons. Here are some aspects we found useful:
- First, if your school or district isn’t doing it already, provide training. Every little bit helps.
- Provide training events at multiple times. Some young parents can only attend while their child is at school. Others can only attend after work. Offering multiple sessions that cover the same information can improve their chances for attendance.
- Provide childcare during the training.
- Give parents the opportunity to work with parenting mentors one-on-one. Although general training is helpful, many times younger parents are missing out on basic information they need to know in order to use the information being offered. Giving them a mentor provides relationship-building opportunities
- Form relationships with the local social service offices. Open lines of communication, and ask social services to assist in providing training for both parents educators. Do whatever you can to foster relationships with services outside the district that can help young families mature and grow in ways that help students.
- Along the same lines, provide for the practical needs of families as much as possible. Schools all over the country are investing in washing machines and dryers for homeless families, food pantries, and places for children to get clean when they need it. Be sure families know about free and reduced lunch pricing programs. Keep individual sizes of toothbrushes and toothpaste (which may be provided by area dentists - you just have to ask), deodorant, and seasonal things like scarves and mittens in easy-to-reach places for quick donation. Look for programs offered by food banks for kids to get food for the weekend. Any practical ways your school or district can help families can go a long way.
Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD
Smart but Scattered for Teens by Peg Dawson, EdD, Richard Guare, PhD, and Colin Guare
These books are great for anyone working with kids and teens. They are geared toward parents, but there are some great tips for educators as well. One thing we love is that it has reproducible worksheets to help parents, teachers, and students plan, organize, and think through just about anything.
Another thing we love is the breakdown of ways to measure executive function. Once you determine exactly what a child/teen's strengths and weaknesses are, there is a chapter on how to target, strengthen, and utilize each of those.
We found each of these for less than $15 at the links above. There’s also one written specifically for young adults, and another written for adults, so if you’re working with young parents on their own skills (or you’re thinking you could use a boost yourself), those might be handy as well.
This is a really great resource, but young parents might not be able to delve into the complexities on their own. It’s perfect for one-on-one mentorship meetings with parents of elementary children. It also has reproducibles that you can give to parents who are working on relationship-building with their children. You can offer them advice, give them a handout for “homework”, and talk about what they accomplished the next time you get together.
National Association for the Education of Young Children - This is a great place to print off resources for parents. Anyone can access the articles on child development, and they have a whole section of information geared toward families. As a side note, their educator resources are also phenomenal if you teach young ones and have never perused their stash.
Here are websites specifically for supporting teens who are parents or pregnant: