Children gobbling down plates of spaghetti and parents and kids chatting about their day could be the scene from any dinner table, but on Thursday nights at Head Start in Casa Grande, the simple act of sitting down for a meal is one of several activities aimed at improving intrafamily dynamics.
Run by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension of Pinal County, Strengthening Families is a 16-week skill-building program for parents or caretakers. Through the program, participants learn effective communication skills that can strengthen family ties and reduce behavior problems in children.
But Program Director Esther Turner said Strengthening Families is not another parenting course.
“It’s about effective parenting, but I don’t think of it as a parenting class,” Turner said. “In the course parents and kids develop their communication skills and strengthen their relationships.”
The course has turned lives around, she said.
With effective communication between parent and child, delinquency rates decline. Drug and alcohol use among young people drops and school success increases, she said.
And families grow strong.
“We’ve seen lots of success,” Turner said. “We have documented evidence and statistics that show the program is working. It’s a proactive way to change behavior in children when they are still young. But we also have the feedback from the parents and teachers that tell us that kids’ behavior improves when they come through this program.”
The program is free for participants and open to any “at risk” family.
“These days, that applies to just about anyone,” Turner said.
Most families with a child between the ages of 3 and 5 will qualify to take part in the program, Turner said.
Some parents enroll in the course because their young children are having behavior problems, like tantrums or crying fits.
“Sometimes the parents feel their child is out of control and they don’t know what to do,” said Cathy Rodriguez, a program instructor.
Other participants simply want to learn to be more effective parents, Turner said.
Some repeat the class because they feel they need a refresher or because they simply enjoy the program.
“We have a lot of families who go through the program more than once,” Turner said.
Two sessions run concurrently — one in Eloy and one in Casa Grande with both Spanish and English available.
Each session caps out at about 10 families.
For 16 weeks, families gather at Head Start once a week for a two-hour class. Each class begins with a family-style dinner.
Parents and children eat together.
“We sit down and eat with them,” Rodriguez said. “We show them not only effective communication, but also ideas for nutritional meals.”
Barbie Morales, an early childhood educator with the program, said Strengthening Families demonstrates what parents should do at home.
“Parents should be sitting down with their kids and talking at dinner. But we’ve found that while a lot of families do sit together for dinner, a lot of times, they don’t talk,” she said.
After dinner, parents and children are separated for age-appropriate skill-building time.
“For the younger kids, we focus on communication skills and responsibility, like picking up their toys,” Morales said. “Three- to five-year-olds sometimes need to learn to sooth and comfort themselves or work on socialization.”
Older children do their homework, play games or sometimes, simply talk, Rodriguez said.
Parents or caretakers tackle tougher issues like discipline, gun safety and child psychology and learn effective communication techniques.
“Parents really enjoy the parent time,” Morales said. “For some of them, it’s the only time they get to have conversations with other adults.”
For the final few minutes of each class, adults and children are reunited to practice what they have learned.
Morales said her own daughter went through the program.
“Then she came back and taught a few sessions,” Morales said. “I’ll sometimes use techniques I learn here at home with my own children and grandchildren.”
By the end of the 16 weeks, participants and staff feel like family, Turner said.
“We all want to see these kids succeed,” she said.
A graduation celebration is held and Turner said each family is made to feel special.
“We really celebrate graduation,” Turner said. “We make it fun for them.”
Funding for the Strengthening Families program is provided by a five-year federal grant.
Many of the meals are donated and volunteer servers are provided by the Kohl’s Cares for Kids program.
“We couldn’t do this without the volunteers from Kohl’s,” Turner said.
Jose Berumer, a manager at the Casa Grande Kohl’s, said store employees take turns volunteering for the dinner. As well as setting up, serving and cleaning up for the dinner twice a week, they also do some fundraising activities for the program.
Strengthening Families is one of about 52 programs that Kohl’s employees help out with, Berumer said.
“The work here is rewarding. It’s one of my favorite programs,” Berumer said. “I know a lot of people who say if they win the lottery, they’ll donate to charity, but for me, I don’t need to win the lottery to help out. I can volunteer a few hours every week and it’s a good feeling to help.”
The Strengthening Families program is four years into the five-year grant. When grant money runs out, Turner said program staffers hope to find ways to maintain funding, either through a grant extension or other sources.
But she said the next few sessions are funded.
“We’ll be starting another one in January and we’re already enrolling for that one,” she said.
To learn more about enrolling in the program, call Turner at 836-5221, ext. 211.