Thursday, April 9, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Nothern Westchester

Parenting Education 101

In the State of New York, no one may drive a car, operate certain machinery, provide medical or legal services, or even give you a manicure, without a license. That state-issued license verifies that the individual has received all necessary training required for the job or skill exercised. But the most important job comes without any training whatsoever, that of being a parent. Fortunately, Westchester County schools and agencies are stepping up to the plate to compensate for this deficiency.

Many local schools in our area over some type of basic “parenting education 101” to our students. The White Plains School district offers a course called “Child Psychology and Development 1” to high school juniors and seniors. The district states that the purpose of this course is to:

“Explore the responsibilities of parenthood and the importance of family. Units on sign and symptoms of pregnancy, delivery, birth defects, fetal developments, maternal health care are covered. Students are given an overview of the physical, emotional, social and intellectual development of a child’s first year of life.

The semester course includes projects such as a weekend with Think It Over Baby, and guest speakers. Students use technology to investigate new trends that are impacting the field of child development”.

The Think it Over Baby is a computerized doll, offered by Realityworks and costing approximately $550 - $600 each, that
many high schools in our County offer to local students to take home to experience the reality of caring for a newborn. According to the company, the purpose of these dolls is to “Teach proper infant care skills, parenting education, pregnancy prevention and early childhood

The Realityworks combine curriculum with “interactive, science-based technology for true-to-life simulations that virtually shape the future”. According to the company, “educators in the fields of Career and Technical Education (CTE), Family and Consumer Sciences,
Early Childhood Development, Parenting, Health, Health Occupations, Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Life Skills have been providing unforgettable learning experiences with Realityworks products since 1994”.

Our local high school students take home a life-sized doll that cries when it “needs” feedings, diaper changing, and burping. Computer chips monitor the student caring for the baby, and their response to the “baby’s” needs, e.g., when the “baby’s” diaper is changed, a chip in each diaper notes which one is placed on the “baby” and at what time.

A student may select breast or bottle feeding and holds the appropriate computerized device in front of the “baby’s” mouth to simulate feeding. After feeding, the student must burp the “baby”; too much force will cause the doll to scream and will register a negative grade for inappropriate
care in the computer monitoring system. Thus, these dolls may be used to instruct students on the techniques of correct infant care, but also to teach how inappropriate care, and even abusive touch, may harm a child.

Just like a real baby, the doll will keep on crying, eventually escalating to screaming, until the student provides the right solution, diaper change, feeding, or simply rocking to calm fussiness. The doll will “coo” once it is “happy” and the student can then stop feeding or rocking. The doll
is even programmed to coo when awake and happy and to breathe shallowly when asleep. And just like in real life, some unfortunate students can end up with a colicky baby and have to rock it for extended periods of time to calm it down.

As for the reality of the “baby’s” screams? The Westchester Facebook pages are filled with parents’ supportive chats about the sleepless nights experienced by their households thanks to their child’s “Think it Over” baby and their relief when their “grandchildren” are returned to the schools!

The “Think it Over” babies give our local students an around-the-clock interactive experience with a lifelike newborn. The computerized doll can, and indeed does, wake the student up many times in the course of each night and the student is graded on how quickly and appropriately the student responds to the “baby’s” cries and how accurately the student addresses the “baby’s” needs. Students caring for a “Think it Over” baby are easily identified in the hallways of our local high schools; they’re the ones racing into school late the next morning looking bleary-eyed and bedraggled, hair askew and often still wearing pajamas, clutching the doll to their chests (the baby stays with the student 24/7) while dragging backpacks and personal belongings every which way. Within hours the students feel all of the stress and exhaustion that any new parent can relate to, which is precisely the point.

However, many parents in our County do not have the benefit of parent education classes or a support network and must struggle by themselves to deal with the stresses of raising and caring for children. For those parents there is a safety net, the Parent-Child Center in White Plains. Partially
funded with Westchester County Department of Social Services grants and private funding, the White Plains Parent Child Center is one of 100 similar centers nationwide that are affiliated with the National Exchange Club Foundation. The Center offers a wealth of services to educate and
train parents:

• Parent aides to support and counsel overwhelmed parents;

• “Back to Sleep” programs for children;

• Parenting groups;

• Intensive programs for families in crisis and to prevent foster care;

• Information and referral;

• Seminars and workshops for local businesses, agencies, community organizations, schools and parent groups;

• A 24-hour help line, 914- 682-CARE.

Last week, the Center held a seminar on “A Mother’s/Father’s Rage” to discuss methods to deal with children when overwhelmed with stress as a kickoff to their participation in National Child Abuse Prevention Month this April. The leader of that workshop, Ms. Linda Paver, the Assistant Executive Director of the Center, spoke with the Guardian about the wealth of services they have to offer all parents in our County.

“There are times as a parent when we all are stressed” Paver noted. “Sometimes it has nothing to do with the child and sometimes it has everything to do with the child. Usually parents have a network of support from family, friends, and other parents of young children so they
can see ‘It’s not just you or your child’. But some parents don’t have that.” Paver explained that some of the stress may be caused by the parents themselves. “A lot of parents do not understand young children. They may have expectations that are too high for the child’s age or they may feel that the child is being disrespectful. They don’t understand childhood development stages”.

Paver noted that some of the stress may also be due to external circumstances or situations that have nothing to do with the behavior of the child. “Sometimes the parent is not able to meet the child’s need. There may be other issues. The parent could be in chronic pain or have other family members to care for. And they may have no outlets to relieve their stress; they may have no one to even talk to”.

Paver stressed that all parents find it difficult to deal with children at times. “It’s when that stress becomes a pattern of behavior that the parent may be in difficulty” she noted. There are some external indicators to help identify parents who are overwhelmed with stress. “Frequent absenteeism in school can be a sign of educational neglect” Paver said. “There could be underlying reasons for a child’s chronic absenteeism. Is the child being bullied? Or are there obstacles at home?” Those obstacles could be as simple as a mother having to deal with a sickly infant or other family member and simply cannot leave the house to drive a child to school when that child misses the school bus. “Many parents caring for sick family members are isolated and often the children become isolated as well” Paver said. “In those situations, our aides try to identify solutions with the parent. We’ll do things like get the class list to see if there are classmates nearby that the child could go to school with”.

The Center helps parents with a variety of problems, including new mothers struggling with post partum depression. “We’ll work with that mother helping her to build to the point where she can bond with her child. We take a social work approach to parenting problems” Paver told the Guardian. “We ask what will make the parent’s life easier? What, if any, are the emotional issues? What strengths does the mother/father have that can help? What type of community support do they have?” If the stress has reached critical levels when the parent may be in danger of hurting their child, the Center will help them develop coping measures.

“We teach them what to put in place of ‘don’t hit’, we give them constructive ways of dealing”. Pave stressed that the Center is ‘non-judgmental’. “We are a supporting, nurturing, and problem-solving group” she noted. “There’s a very thin line that separates any of us parents. In an extremely stressful situation, any of us could find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to cope”. The stated mission of the Parent-Child Center is to reduce incidents of child abuse and neglect. “We have an 85% success rate” Paver noted. “We stay with families on an average of 18 months to make sure
that they keep the changes in behavior. Several of our parents have even become aides as well”.

The Parent-Child Center’s programs, services, and 24-hour help line is available to any parent in Westchester County regardless of race, age, or economic circumstances. However, the Center operates with a staff of only six individuals. “Fortunately we have over 75 volunteers,” Paver said. Those volunteers stand at the ready to help a stressed parent day and night. “Even parents with a strong support network may be unwilling or ashamed to call a friend or family member when they find themselves in an overwhelming behavioral situation” Paver said. “That parent can
call us, day or night, completely confidentially. We’ll talk to them and help soothe them and diffuse the stress. It doesn’t matter if the parent calling us is a struggling single mom or a rich mother living in a mansion in Scarsdale”.

Paver noted that parents of all backgrounds are at risk given the right circumstances. An affluent, educated mom who is emotionally and physically exhausted from being alone at home dealing with several sick children while dad is out of town on business could find herself on the verge of “losing
it” if the situation continues long enough. Since women are judged by how good a mother they are, an overwhelmed mom is usually too embarrassed to call her girlfriends or family members to tell them she wants to lash out because the situation is more than she can handle. For those times when a parent feels like the least little thing will literally be the straw that breaks their back, the Parent-Child Center’s confidential help line can be their life line.

A parent holding a child for the first time wonders how anyone could ever even think of hurting such a miracle. But any parent of a two-year-old or a rebellious teenager wonders how parents with fragile support networks or with other problems to deal with can survive those stages intact. There are few experienced parents who don’t realize that how, given the wrong combination of circumstances, a parent can “cross the line”.

Fortunately, the Parent-Child Center is there to help any parent back from the precipice, no matter who they are or how they got there. Sadly, one of the circumstances that increases stress for all parents is financial worries. Given the current economic crisis, the Parent Center is more critical than ever to help parents at their “wits end”. The Center will be hosting events throughout the month of April to reach out to local parents and educate them about the services they provide. On April 29th, the Center will hold a community outreach dinner at the Women’s Club in White Plains. While the purpose of the dinner is to honor the Center’s volunteers, local parents, and moms looking for a different “mom’s night out”, are equally welcome. Anyone needing any additional information regarding this event or any of the services the Center has to offer may call them during normal business hours at 914-997-2642. Any parent needing confidential help and support at any time, day or night, may reach a volunteer at the Center’s help line at 914-682-CARE (2273).

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