Educators learn to help families help themselves

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union officials believe that raising healthy and well-adjusted children is a challenge, and that even the most prepared parents sometimes need a little coaching.
With that in mind, ACSU health coordinator Mary Gill and more than dozen other ACSU elementary school teachers, counselors and principals are taking time out of their summer, learning how to help make parents’ jobs a little easier.
Gill and the other ACSU professionals spent last week in a training program offered by the Vermont Family Based Approach (VFBA), a program for creating wellness coaches to promote mental health and wellness in young families.
The goal of the training is to enable participants to take central roles as those coaches and create one-on-one bonds with families of preschoolers in the district to help them chart the healthiest path for their children.
Gill believes the VFBA — which was developed by Dr. James J. Hudziak, a professor of psychiatry, medicine and pediatrics at the University of Vermont — offers the right way to help ACSU meet that goal.
“We really see it as just part of school programming,” said Gill, who was introduced to the VFBA at a conference several years ago by Hudziak. “We want to support parents and help them to raise and educate their kids the best that they can.”
The VFBA, according to its officials and literature, aims to produce children who are healthy physically and emotionally.
To that end, it addresses health and wellness through nutrition; exercise; healthy activities such as music, reading and playing sports; effective parenting; and healthy relationships. The VFBA focuses on the family because homes are children’s main centers of development.
“The systems of care for mental health problems are so … misguided in (their) focus on individuals rather than families,” said Masha Ivanova, who does VFBA training sessions around the state. “We are not using our resources effectively … when we are just trying to fix the problem in one individual child or parent, without appreciating that we still live in family pods that affect each other.”
VFBA-trained family wellness coaches do not hover above the family like an authority figure, but rather work as partners to create healthy paths for family members.
Many of those in attendance at the weeklong training session will take roles as coaches this fall, as the program is put in place in ACSU preschools. Some, such as those who have full-time jobs as school counselors or principals, may be assigned to only one or two families. A full-time wellness coach, however, may work with up to 15 families at a time.
“We’re going to try to divvy them up so that every family has somebody that they can contact,” said Gill.
Jeff Lester may be among those who take one or two families, in addition to his role as a Mary Hogan Elementary School counselor.
“It’s kind of exciting to see what could happen,” said Lester, after the first morning of the training session. “It’s nice that there are … people here from various communities.”
Gill stressed that the VFBA and wellness coaches will focus on building upon the families’ positive points, rather than dwelling on the weaknesses.
She calls it a “strength-based” program.
“We really want to look at the parents’ and families’ strengths, and work with them on that,” said Gill. “We’re not interested in trying to find what’s wrong, but (rather) just be supportive of the families. We feel like this is (one) way we can support their efforts to raise a healthy child.”
Nor is the VFBA program interested in blaming families; rather, its literature points out that our society can make it difficult to create healthy families.
It identifies as problems for families the loss of family and community support networks, long daily commutes, technology that can separate generations, the sluggish economy, media messages that display struggling families as normal, and the lack of good affordable childcare.
“(Those) problems interact with each other, creating toxic environments within families,” said Ivanova, “so it just makes sense to bring our interventions to the level of the family.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected]

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