To Close Achievement Gap, Parents Learning Key Research on Kids’ Brains

Army Medicine by TBI is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

By Jahnavi Bhatia
BU News Service

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle.

On a recent Thursday afternoon in a classroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. School, a group of parents turned into excited crafters, making ramps out of tissue paper and “calming bottles” with water, super glue and glitter.

The moms and dads were at their weekly session of the “Mind Matters: Families Make a Difference” program.

Cambridge Public Schools partnered with Harvard University researchers to create the program to help parents understand their child’s brain development through a series of 10 weekly sessions for parents with children between 3 and 8-years-old. School leaders say that knowledge can help low-income parents put their children on a more equal footing than children from better-off families.

“The goal is to help parents understand how the brain develops, to enable their child to be more prepared for school, critical thinking, as well as social and emotional situations,” said Marguerite Hicks-Gyewu, a facilitator for the sessions, said in an interview at the Cambridge Public School District’s office.

Mixing academic and hands-on lessons

Each session lasts two hours and is divided between research presentations and activities.

“It’s a nice mix of academic learning and hands on interactive learning,” said Lissa Galluccio, another facilitator for the program.

Hicks Gyewu explained the “calming bottle” from Thursday’s session can be used to set time transitions like going to bed when all the glitter falls to the bottom or just to calm down a restless child.

“The take-home work is also all creative, hands-on activities that include things like reading to your child, writing them letters, and helping them identify their emotions,” Hicks-Gyewu added.

Giving kids assets

Galluccio said one of the main goals of the program was to help parents understand what assets their children already have and what they can realistically develop further.

The researchers have adopted a list of 40 “developmental assets” formulated by the Search Institute, a nonprofit that researches child brain development and behavior. These include external assets like family support and school climate as well as internal assets like integrity and cultural competence.

“The idea is to think about giving children assets to succeed, even if externally they may not have the best economic assets,” Galluccio said. “Maybe your neighborhood is not safe but what can you do within your home to create a better environment?”

Hicks-Gyewu and Galluccio are both family liaisons for the Cambridge Public Schools and went through a four-day training session last fall to become facilitators.

This training session was funded by the Harvard Ed Portal, where the program was started in 2012. The sessions for the parents are jointly funded by the Harvard Ed Portal, the Cambridge Public School District’s Title One office and the office of elementary education.

Joan Matsalia, the chief developer for the program at the Harvard Ed Portal, said they want to find out if parents can use new skills to change their parenting practices and support their child’s mental development.

Even though the activities get the parents buzzing, the academic component of the sessions is just as important, with parents constantly taking notes.

“Presenting new research about child brain development tells the parents that the issue is important enough that people dedicate their whole lives to studying it,” Matsalia said.

Across community, in different languages

The sessions are held at five different locations across Cambridge, with four of them in schools and one in Rindge Towers, a residential community.

Kenneth Salim, the superintendent for the Cambridge Public School District, said it was important for them to have one location that was in a residential community.

“It’s not just about families taking the time to come to the schools but also about us taking the program to where the families are located,” he said.

The Amigos school, which is one of the locations, offers the program only in Spanish.

Matsalia said from the initiation of the program, the researchers had a commitment to working with Spanish-speaking parents. Almost all the material used in the sessions is in both, English and Spanish.

“It’s very important for facilitators to take cultural relevance into account,” Matsalia said. “Thinking about who is in the room and whether you need to modify your content and examples is necessary.”

She added the program was open to looking into other languages as well.

“A few years ago, a community-based Vietnamese group asked if they could translate the material into Vietnamese for their parents and that was great,” Matsalia said.

Giving parents access to tools

Lillian Rater, the facilitator of the Spanish program at the Amigos school, thinks programs like this help bring more equity to knowledge and skills parents have at their disposal.

“We have families who would have never had access to this research but can now help their children with better parenting practices,” Rater said.

Matsalia said  the researchers were working on an impact report for the program, which will be released in July.

Even before the impact report has been released, there is interest on both Harvard and the Cambridge Public Schools’ sides to continue this partnership.

“Family Community Partnership is one of the five strategic objectives in the district plan,” said the superintendent. “Connecting with families is a critical goal and this program helps us do that.”

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