My View

Helping Parents Help Their Kids

A parent educator explains how home-visiting programs like hers teach skills that can help disadvantaged children develop and thrive.

Demeatrise Givens, known as Ms. D to colleages and clients, is a parent educator and team leader at a Memphis-based Parents as Teachers program operated by Porter-Leath, a local nonprofit. Parents as Teachers is one of 16 evidence-based home visiting programs that could be expanded under the terms of pending federal legislation.
National Journal
Demeatrise Givens
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Demeatrise Givens
May 9, 2014, 11:37 a.m.

De­meat­rise Givens, 41, works as a full-time par­ent edu­cat­or and team lead­er in the Par­ents as Teach­ers home-vis­it­ing pro­gram run by Port­er-Leath, a non­profit that serves chil­dren and fam­il­ies in the Mem­ph­is area.

Foun­ded in 1850 as Mem­ph­is’s first orphan­age, Port­er-Leath provides a wide range of com­munity ser­vices. An early ad­voc­ate of early-child­hood edu­ca­tion and in­ter­ven­tion pro­grams, Port­er-Leath has op­er­ated some sort of home-vis­it­ing pro­gram since 1990. In 2009, the or­gan­iz­a­tion es­tab­lished a Par­ents as Teach­ers pro­gram. It is rig­or­ously mon­itored and cer­ti­fied by the St. Louis-based Par­ents as Teach­ers or­gan­iz­a­tion.

Givens, a di­vorced moth­er of three, works in three of Mem­ph­is’s most eco­nom­ic­ally and so­cially dis­ad­vant­aged com­munit­ies.

Ed­ited ex­cerpts of an in­ter­view con­duc­ted by Jan­ell Ross fol­low.

I know people are fond of say­ing it takes a vil­lage to raise a child. It really does. But some­times the vil­lage is sick and ser­vices are needed.

I think some part of me has known that for a long time. When I was a girl, I used to run around say­ing I wanted to be a pe­di­at­ric psy­chi­at­rist. I’ve al­ways been fas­cin­ated by the way kids’ little minds work. But un­til a few years ago, I was do­ing hair and nails.

In 2012, a friend told me about Port­er-Leath and its Ameri­Corps vo­lun­teer pro­gram. All she really knew was that they pay you a little something — a sti­pend, give you be­ne­fits, and you work in their pro­grams. She said something that made me laugh and then ap­ply: “Now you will be work­ing with little kids, but you love them, so that might not be a prob­lem.”

When I tell you that I have nev­er had a job that I love this much, that I spend this much time think­ing about, plan­ning for, train­ing for, some­times wor­ry­ing about, I am not kid­ding. I feel like I’ve found my pur­pose.

I first came in as a Port­er-Leath Ameri­Corps vo­lun­teer, work­ing out of the Re­gion­al Med­ic­al Cen­ter. We call it “The Med.” Over at The Med, I was re­cruit­ing pa­tients for Cen­ter­ing Preg­nancy, a pren­at­al-care pro­gram that helps moms de­liv­er health­i­er ba­bies.

I loved that work but I was in need of a real job and a full-time salary. I shared that with my boss at Port­er-Leath, and, be­fore long, she put me on staff as a par­ent edu­cat­or in their Par­ents as Teach­ers home-vis­it­ing pro­gram. Since then, I’ve be­come a team lead­er. I have a case­load — 15 fam­il­ies, com­pared to about 30 handled by ex­per­i­enced par­ent edu­cat­ors — and I help to train oth­ers.

The amaz­ing thing about Par­ents as Teach­ers is that we con­nect with these fam­il­ies, ideally be­fore the child is born, and we start from the very be­gin­ning in­tro­du­cing con­cepts like read­ing to your preg­nant belly to en­hance the par­ent-baby bond. We share with these par­ents the sci­ence, what we know about bond­ing and the baby’s de­vel­op­ing brain. It’s like an es­sen­tial nu­tri­ent. By the time that baby ar­rives, those par­ents are aware of the crit­ic­al skills chil­dren need to mas­ter in those early years and the kind of en­vir­on­ment they need to be healthy, to de­vel­op nor­mally, and to do well in school. Then, if the com­mit­ment is there, we spend the next five years talk­ing about and do­ing what’s best for baby and his brain.

We ask these par­ents to think, dis­cuss, and at­tend to the de­tails of de­vel­op­ing their child’s brain in a way that may seem ba­sic and easy to someone who can buy stacks of par­ent­ing books or hops on the In­ter­net at home. But for a lot of the fam­il­ies I work with, this is a much big­ger task. When a fam­ily is strug­gling with ba­sic needs like food, shel­ter, safety, some level of fin­an­cial se­cur­ity, tak­ing time to think about how to turn pre­par­ing lunch in­to a brain-build­ing, learn­ing ex­per­i­ence for baby or child or a trans­form a dis­agree­ment with dad in­to an op­por­tun­ity to mod­el com­mu­nic­a­tions skills is a lot.

For a lot of our par­ti­cip­at­ing fam­il­ies, the work that we do with them may the first real and sus­tained op­por­tun­ity they have had in their lives to ana­lyze, to strategize, to plan.

What Par­ents as Teach­ers does is try to ad­dress the fam­ily eco­sys­tem. It doesn’t ig­nore the chal­lenges many of our par­ents face. As a mat­ter of fact, we try to con­nect them with re­sources when they need them. That may mean con­nect­ing one fam­ily with a spe­cial­ist for a hear­ing eval­u­ation or glasses, help­ing an­oth­er set of par­ents get job train­ing or in­form­a­tion on how to shop for and pre­pare healthy, lower-cost meals. But I think the really amaz­ing thing is that Par­ents as Teach­ers is in­cred­ibly prag­mat­ic and, some­how, op­tim­ist­ic.

It says, Mom — or, Mom and Dad — you are the most im­port­ant in­flu­ence in your chil­dren’s lives. You can nur­ture and raise a healthy and bright child. That is go­ing to re­quire more work in some fam­il­ies than oth­ers, but it can be done. It says you, par­ent, are the key.

The oth­er thing I really love about the pro­gram, about home vis­it­ing in gen­er­al, is that it’s prac­tic­al, not polit­ic­al or philo­soph­ic­al. People get caught up in de­bates about wheth­er ser­vices en­cour­age de­pend­ency. But Par­ents as Teach­ers says to both par­ents and par­ent edu­cat­ors, this is not about what happened be­fore, what choices were or were not made, or even about the way you grew up. It’s about that baby and where that child can go from here. I think our fam­il­ies of­ten find that re­fresh­ing, too.

We don’t just spend our time vis­it­ing fam­il­ies and con­grat­u­lat­ing ourselves for good deeds. We are con­stantly train­ing and con­stantly eval­u­at­ing our data. We know what Par­ents as Teach­ers is do­ing for these fam­il­ies. 

The bot­tom line is, the chil­dren in this pro­gram are smarter, safer, and out­per­form­ing sim­il­ar kids when they do get to school. And be­cause of the way this pro­gram op­er­ates — there’s a pre­cise cur­riculum that all the par­ent edu­cat­ors across the coun­try must fol­low — you see that in Mem­ph­is and every oth­er city where it op­er­ates.

Some­times, of course, you can’t help but feel deeply for so many of these fam­il­ies. You spend time with them and you be­gin to un­der­stand how for­tu­nate you truly are. You see pat­terns, the way so many of the chal­lenges they wrestle with really began when they them­selves were chil­dren and oth­er people were mak­ing the de­cisions. And when I say people, yes, I mean their par­ents. But, also, I mean all of us.

If a child grows up in a com­munity where jobs are scarce, the schools are bad, the food, the air and gen­er­al safety con­di­tions are not quite right, then there were also a series of de­cisions made about where to spend tax dol­lars and where to save, when and where to in­ter­vene.

I’m not ex­actly un­biased — but when I think about Par­ents as Teach­ers, I can’t ima­gine a bet­ter in­vest­ment to make in fam­il­ies. I feel like it’s just plain com­mon sense.

Janell Ross contributed to this article.
What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
21 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
1 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
1 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
1 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.