A Story About Family Support

The Bookwagon program brings more than books to families' doorsteps. It also brings kindness, support and sound information.

When we met the mom in this story - a new resident in the neighbourhood - she was generally concerned to support her child's reading development. Could we and our funny little wagon help? Sure.

Mom already knew the child's independent reading level. We helped her identify strategies for helping her daughter at home with reading, and gave her appropriately leveled books.

A few weeks later, the parent's concern sharpened. The child was experiencing behaviour and performance difficulties at school. There were grave, official phone calls. Mom was being pressured to fix this unacceptable situation. ADHD testing was suggested, and Mom was concerned that drugs would be the intervention of choice.

We listened to what she was telling us. Then we gave her information about the impact of environmental toxins like harsh cleaning products or mold. (Here, Mom's face got a little white. She said the basement was full of mold, and they had found mold in the child's bedroom. She also said the child did not have these sorts of behaviour problems before their last move.)

We talked about the impact of diet on behaviour and performance, and the benefit of things like providing a protein breakfast.

We talked about a variety of parenting styles and strategies, and about connecting behaviours. We gently reminded her that she was the expert on her child.

We also reminded her of schools' well-established habits of blaming families for the difficulties teachers encounter in implementing forced curriculum, and about her rights and role as her child's advocate.

We followed up with print resources for the parent, while still supplying a choice of appropriate books of the child. We tried to stay connected and, in truth, we worried a little.

A couple of weekends slipped by without contact. Then, this week, we spoke with Mom again.

We learned that the child's behaviour and performance at school had improved. Indeed, Mom reported that the school called three times in the past week "to say 'Wow!'" and wonder at the positive change. More to the point, the parent no longer worried she would be pressured to medicate her young child. She also felt empowered; able to guide her child's development; able to parent.

How did this happen? Mom did it.

She took the child to, and talked to, her doctor (who confirmed our information about the importance of diet). She talked to her social worker (who confirmed some of the things we had said about parenting strategies and encouraged her to continue to talk with us). She found other, further confirmations in a particularly helpful parenting book. She dealt with the mold, changed her behaviour around her and her child's meals, and adopted some different parenting strategies.

Simply put, Mom sought information, tried things, changed things, took measure of their effectiveness, and refound her footing as an active, effective advocate for and caretaker of her child.

All we did was give a little encouragement, a little information, a little support - perhaps 80 minutes worth over a period of four or five weeks.

Of course, importantly, we didn't make things worse.

We didn't blame, threaten or punish - nor did we advocate blaming, threatening or punishing. We didn't offer inappropriate or ineffective early literacy strategies, nor books that were too hard for the child. And we didn't recommend giving anybody drugs.

(Though I might have suggested in private that the school needed to "take a pill" to deal with that contemporary hysteria in our educational system about young children not being at a certain skill level by a certain age - an unintended by-product of all those early brain development studies released 10-15 years back.)

It would be wonderful if all our systems and institutions that claim to support families would look at children holistically. But maybe that's unrealistic.

Can I brag for a moment?

No, not brag. Explain.

My colleague and I know what we're doing. We have years of experience working with adult learners (including adults with weak literacy skills). We've designed and run parenting and family literacy programs. We've studied Choice Theory and written about it's implications for community literacy work. We're working hard to understand and document the implications of naturalistic and holistic health practices for family literacy. In fact, we're doing a lot of studying - "grounded research" really - and when we talk, we generally know what we're talking about.

Which is why our Bookwagon and Quality Storytent programs aren't the kind of conventional literacy support programs that can be delivered by summer students or volunteers with a minimum of training and experience (however attractive that model is to funders).

The conventional "family literacy" support programs that provide a children's storytime, or send home pro-reading flyers and and a variety of children's books, are simply too superficial and too generic to help specific parents in times of real need. Programs that don't look at health determinants - which are also learning determinants - or give information relevant to each family's homelife are... well... not always useless, I guess.

I want to make plain that, in this story, it was Mom who did the learning, made the changes, and deserves the credit.

But our special contribution was to hear her, and give her the right kind of tools and information, in the right manner.

That's what community literacy can look like when its done well by people who are dedicated, experienced and careful.

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