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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.
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Demeatrise Givens
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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.
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