Partnering in the Name of Parenting | Promoting Child Wellness

In my first ever blogpost, Transformers . . . More than Meets the Eye, I gave a “shout out” to Parent University for its role in shaping how parents transform communities.

Every month or so, Parent University repurposes a local school as a learning environment for parents. Course topics range from encouraging baby babble to improving your child’s reading at home to managing household finances. Through this experience, parents demonstrate to their children that school represents more than a weekday chore centered on teachers, books, and tests.  They reinforce the notion of school as a cornerstone in our community and a place of possibility. — excerpt from Creative Coast blogpost: Transformers . . . More than Meets the Eye, May 2013.

Almost a year and half later, my relationship with Parent University has grown from an enthusiastic advocate to a facilitator of sessions that helps parents and caregivers create a home environment that supports healthy eating and physical activity. This Saturday, my relationship gets another boost as the Savannah Business Group partners with Parent University to host the Parent Summit for Child Wellness.  The Summit, which happens during Parent University, offers parents and community members the opportunity to participate in special workshops that promote child wellness at home, school, and in the community. So, how did we get to this point? Early last year, the Savannah Business Group received an implementation grant to engage employers, physicians, and parents to improve child wellness —specifically the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity. Funders included the National Business Coalition on Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and United Health Foundation. This community work builds upon an earlier planning grant that identified childhood obesity as a health priority for Savannah and Chatham County, Georgia. (See 2012 Report: Childhood Obesity in Chatham County.) While the Savannah Business Group and partner Memorial Health focus on the employer and physician components, bluknowledge works with community partners to implement the parent engagement strategy. Applying the 3L’s – Listen, Learn, and Lead as an organizing frame for community action, I highlight a few of our parent engagement activities: (1) We Listen to Parents, (2) We Design Opportunities for Parents to Learn, and (3) We Empower Parents to Lead.

We Listen to Parents

Recognizing parents’ expertise and experiences as invaluable resources, we initiated our parent engagement strategy with listening. We conducted focus groups that asked parents to share their knowledge and experiences about healthy eating and physical activity at home, school, and in the community. We also discussed their relationships with their child’s physician and preferences for communications about available healthy resources.

What we heard: [clear]

  • Keen on their role in helping their children live healthfully, parents (a) posed critical questions about school-based polices related to physical activity and healthy eating, (b) cited real-world challenges to promoting healthy behaviors at home, and (c) shared relevant, healthy practices with other participants.
  • Parents reported preferences to learn about healthy information and resources via their child’s school (e.g., Board of Education Office and classroom teachers), healthcare entities (e.g., physician office and community clinics), and parent organizations (PTA and Parent University).
  • Parents provided valuable, concrete feedback to improve the Georgia SHAPE FitnessGram process and confirmed its utility for helping them manage their children’s health.
  • When prompted to evaluate a school menu that includes breakfast and lunch meals, parents attended to multiple criteria: (1) preference (e.g., What do children like to eat?), (2) health (e.g., Are there enough fruits and vegetables on the menu?), (3) familiarity (e.g., Are the foods served similar to what children usually eat at home?), (4) quality (e.g., Are the meals cooked safely and presented in an appealing manner?), and (5) variety (e.g., Are certain foods served too much?).
  • Parents to support their child’s health; therefore they requested physicians (a) converse with them and their child about health-related behaviors at home and school, (b) allow sufficient time during visits to explain their reasoning for prescribing medicines or recommending healthy behaviors, and (c) include them and their child in planning for healthier families (e.g., goal-setting for food-related and physical activity behaviors and expectations for monitoring and follow-up).

Read our 2014 Summary Research Report: Parent Focus Groups for more details.

We Design Opportunities for Parents to Learn

Focus group findings and more informal ear-to-the-ground listening opportunities have informed the design of our Parent Resource Guide and the Parent Summit for Child Wellness. For example: Responsive to parents’ feedback about Georgia SHAPE initiative we included an annotated FitnessGram report to help parents interpret their child’s report and use it as a health promotion tool for their families. To support relationship building between parents and physicians, we have planned a Summit session, Partner with your Child’s Pediatrician where parents dialogue with a pediatrician about the best ways to work together toward the shared goal of healthy children. We consider these parent learning resources as more than the dissemination of information. To illustrate: A series of design decisions informed the Parent Summit for Child Wellness, which represents a working prototype of a collaborative, sustainable learning experience for parents and community partners. First, we embedded the Summit in an existing community space that has a decade and a half of proven success in establishing a culture of learning among parents in Savannah. By integrating six wellness-focused sessions into Parent University’s usual 30-class offering, we seamlessly offer an estimated 300 parents the choice to participate in sessions focused on children’s health. Whether Parent University first-timers or alumni, parents will associate these worthwhile learning experiences with Parent University and not the one-time grant funded Parent Summit for Child Wellness. More importantly, these parents can continue to learn at the next Parent University session! In planning the Summit, we invited several community partners to facilitate wellness sessions or share health resources with parents. The Summit acts a community mixer of sorts where we introduce our facilitators and vendors to Parent University staff, volunteers, and parents. Whether the initial meeting feels like love at first sight, a spark that needs some fanning, or an arranged marriage, we simply hope our partners take the next steps necessary to form a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship. This could include a commitment as facilitator or vendor at future Parent University sessions to strengthen and institutionalize children’s wellness opportunities within Parent University. Or community partners could lend an ear and listen to parent feedback in the form of shared experiences or suggestions for how to customize content and delivery of wellness topics. In the end, we wish to learn from each other about how to best transform our local community into a healthy place for children and families.

We Empower Parents to Lead

In parallel to these listening and learning activities, we have been working with representatives from Memorial Health Children’s Wellness Program, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) School Nutrition Program, and the SCCPSS Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to reenergize the local PTA Health and Wellness Committee. Specifically, we seek to (a) increase awareness and compliance with SCCPSS’ School Wellness Policy, which is a model in the state of Georgia, and (b) involve parents in education and advocacy related to the SCCPSS School Wellness Policy Again, with an eye toward sustainability and feasibility, we chose not to recreate the wheel or bite off more than we can chew. We connected to an existing effort and have begun to create a space for parents to take action in their child’s school. Next month, parents will learn about the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Smart Snacks Guidelines and conduct “audits” of vending machines, school stores, and fundraising efforts to ensure that all school snacks meet USDA’s nutrition standards. Through this focused engagement strategy, we aim to position parents as advocates. It is our hope that parents will use these experiences to put forth recommendations for education and advocacy that leads to healthy schools for all children. As we move into the final phase of this grant, the parent engagement strategy has started to emphasize the identification and development of parent leadership. To support this organic shift,, we will strengthen parent networks through community partners like Parent University and the SCCPSS PTA. We will continue to keep our ears to the ground and listen to parents, reflect on our learning about parent engagement, and of course, share our lessons learned and best practices.