Antiganee Kemp spotted the flyer outside a classroom at Midlands Technical College and was intrigued. The notice highlighted a program to help parents and children grow together by developing family-building skills and Kemp, a single parent, decided to sign up.
“I often worried that I was being too strict – that I didn’t know what behavior was appropriate for my child at her age,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to be the best parent possible for my daughter.”
For 14 weeks, Kemp and 7-year-old T’Mauri participated in the Strengthening Families Program in Columbia, S.C. Kemp learned so much from the sessions, she started encouraging friends to sign up.
“I went the first time just to see what it was all about,” she says. “But I left with a lot to think about and knew it would be a good thing for T’Mauri and me to keep attending.”
The Strengthening Families Program was first developed and tested in the mid-1980s by Karol Kumpfer, a psychologist and university professor. Randomized control trials showed the training could significantly improve parenting skills and family relationships, and reduce problem behaviors in children. As bonds between parents and children strengthen, the goal is to help increase family resiliency and decrease risk factors for substance abuse, aggression, delinquency and school failure.
Across the country, the Strengthening Families Program has been offered in schools, drug treatment centers, housing projects, homeless shelters, churches, and family and youth service agencies. In the Carolinas, The Duke Endowment is partnering with the S.C. Department of Social Services and the N.C. Division of Social Services to offer the program. Two organizations – Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina and Children’s Trust of South Carolina – provide training and implementation help for local nonprofits to deliver the sessions. The Endowment has awarded nearly $2 million in grants since 2008 to support the work.
Now in its second year in South Carolina, the program is offered through 10 agencies serving families in 14 counties. The expectation is to expand. Children’s Trust has two coordinators on staff – Karen Dukes-Smith and Sherri Caldwell – who work with each local group.
“This all came together several years ago through a public-private partnership that looked at how we could have an impact on child well-being by working together,” Dukes-Smith says. “We believed this program had a lot of value. The intent was to pilot it, test it, and get it off the ground – but to make sure we were able to do it right.”
Joan Hoffman, chief operating officer at Children’s Trust, agrees.
“Before we open a site, we look at capacity,” she says. “Is the community ready? Does it have what it takes to deliver an evidence-based program? Those are the important first questions.”
With Endowment funding to support an evaluation coordinator, data collected from each site will look at attrition rates, recruitment success and other key measures.
In North Carolina, the program is showing statistically significant improvement in several tracked outcomes, such as family resiliency, parenting skills, parental involvement and reduced child depression and aggression. In South Carolina, the first-year data included just four sites, but was equally impressive.
“We’ll see what the data is telling us about the family experience,” Hoffman says. “Based on that, we’ll look at next steps. We’re moving forward, but we’re being very thoughtful about how we do it.”
Each cycle of the program lasts for 14 weeks and can include up to 15 families. Parents and children attend the 2 ½ -hour sessions together.
Parents meet with group leaders to develop positive caregiver skills. They focus on building relationships through effective communication, and learn how to set limits and resolve conflict. Children meet separately to develop social skills, such as controlling their anger and using their “listening ears.” Facilitators help them learn how to tackle problems, understand their feelings and resist peer pressure.
Together, families try out ideas, such as holding family meetings. The weekly dinner provides opportunities for informal practice time and coaching.
“A lot of the lessons are practical, but if you’re not thinking about it, you’re not doing it,” Dukes-Smith says. “It’s all about helping families create structure so they deal with daily life stressors and have things in place to get past them.”
Six months after graduating, and then again at one year, participants are invited to reunite with their groups for two booster sessions.
Families often form a support system with their classmates, checking up on each other and offering a sounding board. One group in South Carolina even decided to meet at McDonald’s once a week for lunch.
“Our goal is to make them feel that their group is an extension of their own family,” Caldwell says. “We want everyone to feel welcomed.”
Antiganee Kemp believes Strengthening Families helped her grow closer to her daughter. Instead of relying on harsh discipline to correct, she learned to look for positive behavior to reward. Armed with realistic expectations about 7 year olds, she spends less time arguing and “nitpicking.”
“Our household is more relaxed now, less stressful,” Kemp says. “I see more smiles on T’Mauri’s face and she sees more on mine.”
Learn more about the Strengthening Families Program.
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care