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Each school run a free, five-month program targeted specifically at parents with children aged zero to six. Most of the participants are single mothers. It is facilitated by two trained moderators and consists of twenty weekly sessions, each designed as a stand-alone module to accommodate parents who cannot attend every time. The approach understands that these sessions will not work unless they are informal and participatory and involve peer-to-peer learning rather than lectures from experts. Parents must feel that they are in charge of their lives, must experience some quick successes at home, and must not be made to feel inadequate or delinquent.
FOSTERING INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGES
The Expansion Strategy. Thitherto, 80 mentors were trained in the ELTERN-AG method, resulting in 100 parenting schools in the state of Lower Saxony, a depressed region of Eastern Germany. In June of 2008 the approach has reached more than 650 parents and 1 500 children. The vision is to extend far beyond this initial pool of clients. The ELTERN-AG project has in 2009 begun spreading parenting schools along with networks throughout some of the most depressed regions of Germany.
The expansion strategy offers a social dissemination system that will allow a continuous growth of the ELTERN-AG program to other parts of Germany. Though his organization is currently financed primarily through grants from foundations and state health ministries, the ELTERN-AG team plans to rely more heavily on payments from its network of cooperating partners, which will draw their funding from youth authorities, health insurers, foundations, and the private sector. Toolkits for franchisees will cost roughly EUR 2 500 and will include mentoring training, training materials, supervision (especially in the early stages), and yearly evaluations and content updates. The expansion strategy, which comprises a 7-yearperiod, begins with a small diffusion rate, and follows a pyramid scheme.
One of the most important steps towards expansion of the approach is the formation of a big number of new trainers (moderators). ELTERN-AG is launching this system first in the poorer states of Germany, where the need is most acute, and will then spread all over Germany.
The New Idea
In 2000, the important PISA-study of OECD counties found that in Germany, there is a very strong correlation between parents’ class and educational background and the social position of their children. This finding sent shockwaves through Germany and shook the national myth of equal opportunity. While the official reaction was to focus on reforming curricula and the school system as a whole, a team of scientists and practitioners at the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg (Germany), directed by the first author (Armbruster, 2004, 2006; Armbruster & Gröninger, 2005) began tackling the problem from a different angle: They believe it is crucial to work with the parents of disadvantaged children as early as possible, because they most influence their children in the formative years before they enter school.
Where others have failed, the so called ELTERN-AG approach succeeds in reaching poor, undereducated working class parents in depressed areas who have fallen through the German social safety net. The young creative team of investigators and social work students attract these parents (with children under seven-years-old) who are typically wary of state welfare
FOSTERING INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGESservices, by offering peer-to-peer parenting support groups, by building ingenious local networks to refer and welcome young parents, and by offering tangible incentives to participate (such as free childcare). Their program, ELTERN-AG (parenting community), allows parents to seek help and advice while avoiding the stigma of institutional welfare dependence.
This community-based, self-help parenting training program empowers poor, isolated parents to form peer networks, to learn alternatives to domestic violence and neglect and to become loving, capable parents for their children. The team and the first author have carefully developed their training method, in which moderators focus first on the things that these parents do well, and let them learn from each others’ successes. Trainers quickly involve the parents in running individual group sessions. Working with local partners, they then link the parents into self-perpetuating community networks — which include doctors, schoolteachers, kindergartens, and childcare organizations. The founders of ELTERN-AG thus help their target group overcome their social isolation and improve their children’s prospects. The initiator of ELTERN-AG has begun spreading these networks — along with their parenting schools—throughout several of the most depressed regions of Eastern Germany.
The most important public study on educational systems, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted first by the OECD in 2000, ranked Germany in the bottom third of the thirty-two mainly OECD countries. This came as a shock to most Germans.
Furthermore, the study showed that—contrary to what Germans assumed— there is a high correlation between socio-economic background, performance in school, and social standing later in life. Children born into the poorest, most depressed 25% of German counties (approximately 2 million) suffer pervasive disadvantages in their education and their later lives. ELTERN-AG research corroborated these findings: It found that the single most important determinant of a German child’s success in school and beyond is the zip code into which that child is born.
The German state has reacted to the study by focusing on reforming school curricula and by launching extra classes in elementary schools and high schools for disadvantaged students. However, these programs have proven rather ineffective. By the time these children enter school at the age of six or seven, most of the damage has been done. Born to working class parents without much formal education, the children are exposed to a higher risk of violence and domestic conflict, drug abuse, parental neglect, and broken family relationships before they reach the age of six. By the time
FOSTERING INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGESthey enter the school system, they have already fallen far behind. Later in life, they are much more prone to emotional instability, poor school performance, and family trouble.
Parents in these families, many of whom have experienced violence in their own lives, often lack the capacity for peaceful conflict resolution. They have great difficulty showing empathy toward their own children, and they have little confidence in their own parenting styles, which are often erratic.
They feel shame and guilt about domestic problems, but do not know how to begin to fix them. This vicious cycle of neglect and deprivation is perpetuated from generation to generation.
The German government does offer parenting support services, but has developed a one-size-fits-all slate of professional seminars that are pitched to a middle-class, educated audience, conveying mostly academic knowledge and failing to reach deprived families. Poorer, less educated parents find these programs condescending and alienating, and see no tangible incentives to participate.
This problem is compounded by the fact that poor parents typically mistrust and fear existing social welfare institutions. They worry that social workers will intervene and take their children away from them. They also want to avoid the stigma associated with dependence on public welfare. So they are disposed to stay out of official welfare programs in education.
As a result, poor parents in depressed regions usually feel isolated with their domestic problems. They feel they cannot approach Kindergarten teachers or doctors for help. There exist no support networks or groups they can turn to for advice and society at-large blames them for the problem.
Germany has recently experienced a spate of child deaths (from neglect) and incidents of child abuse, and the media reporting on these events invariably singles out low-income parents as the responsible parties.
The ELTERN-AG approach suggests that it is crucial to work with the parents of disadvantaged children as early as possible, because they most influence their children in the formative years before they enter school. The ELTERN-AG approach is a community-based, self-help parenting training program that empowers poor, isolated parents to form peer networks, to learn alternatives to domestic violence and neglect and to become loving, capable parents for their children.
Recognizing that the state’s response to the PISA study was inadequate, the ELTERN-AG team started its own parenting school in 2004. They
FOSTERING INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGES
understood that their first and most important challenge was simply to reach the key target group: Poor parents in depressed areas. The ELTERN-AG group of investigators and practitioners developed a recruiting strategy that has two important parts. First, their teams spend weeks getting to know the target neighbourhood and locating spots where parents congregate. They go to playgrounds, soccer matches, local clinics, and supermarkets. They find parents there and invite them to participate in events with other local parents—events such as barbecues, clown parties, bus trips, or simply shopping excursions to the second-hand clothes bazaar (mainly for mothers).
They entice parents with the offer of free childcare during these events, where he gets to know them and invites them to participate in his program.
Second, the ELTERN-AG group develops a referral network in each neighbourhood. The network includes child doctors, midwives, day nurseries, kindergartens, youth and employment authorities, childcare organizations, and health insurance groups that have a local presence. These networks refer parents to his parenting schools and then work with parents who have come through his training program. Kindergartens and day nurseries, which are seriously affected by delinquent parenting, have become most involved, and have provided free space for many of his parenting school meetings.
The schools run a free, five-month program targeted specifically at parents with children aged zero to six. Most of the participants are single mothers. It is facilitated by two trained mentors and consists of twenty weekly sessions, each designed as a stand-alone module to accommodate parents who cannot attend every time. The ELTERN-AG team understands that these sessions will not work unless they are informal and participatory and involve peer-to-peer learning rather than lectures from experts. Parents must feel that they are in charge of their lives, must experience some quick successes at home, and must not be made to feel inadequate or delinquent.
The first author and his team have designed the training program in three phases. In the first phase, mentors or other trained parents discuss some basic problems and strategies in child education (for instance: How to deal with a defiant child). The group decides beforehand which problems it wants to address and collects “best practices” to resolve them. In the second half of this phase, parents take over the sessions and present to one another.
The parents learn how to wind down—physically and emotionally—and be more calm and reflective about their parenting choices. The mentors teach exercises designed to reduce stress, and teach the importance of avoiding impulsive, angry decisions. The third phase is the most personal: Once trust has been established in the group, parents share their own recent parenting problems and explore solutions together.
FOSTERING INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGES