Helping Kids Be Parents

April 30, 2003

Heather Heilman

When Neil Boris and Sherry Heller received a grant funding their study of two different treatment programs for teenage parents and their young children in Early Head Start, they didn't know they would get a lesson in politics along the way. Boris is a child psychiatrist and assistant professor of community health sciences, and Heller is an applied developmental psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology.

The two answered a call for proposals from the federal Administration for Children and Families to partner with Early Head Start programs to promote good mental health and development among children in the programs. Early Head Start is a federal intervention program for children ages 3 and under from low-income families.

The "original" Head Start is for children ages 3 to 5. They were awarded a grant in conjunction with the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge, which runs two Early Head Start centers in East Baton Rouge high schools specifically for the children of teenage mothers. Their proposal was to compare two different interventions. One, called the Nurturing Parent Program, has been shown to be effective with teenage parents. It uses active learning to teach good parenting skills.

The other, called Circle of Security, goes beyond education into the realm of therapy. Parents are videotaped interacting with their children and then watch the tape and talk about it with a therapist. It's a model that was developed at the University of Virginia and the Marycliffe Institute in Spokane, Wash., and which has proven successful in a Head Start program in Spokane. But it has never been used with such young parents and young children.

"It's pretty intensive and more costly to deliver, but for these higher risk groups it may be a worthwhile investment," Boris said of the Circle of Security protocol. "Then again, we don't know." "There's some question about whether adolescents are developmentally prepared for this protocol, which requires abstract reasoning and the ability to reflect on your behavior and your child's behavior," Heller explained.

In each program, teenage parents in groups of eight will meet weekly over a six-month period. The grant covers four years, but funds will be awarded annually. A year of planning got under way in September, with three years of intervention beginning this coming fall.

"In fact, the first year has turned out to be not a planning year so much as an investigative year," Boris said. "We had to answer the question of whether or not this even made sense, if perhaps the primary caregivers for these children are their grandparents rather than the teen parents."

In focus groups, they found that the grandparents were vocal about wanting to be involved in the program, as were some of the teenage fathers. In response, they've adjusted the program so the teenagers will formally present some of the material in the program back to their families. Teen fathers as well as mothers may participate in the groups.

The research team has been busy training therapists and designing an assessment protocol in which the parent-child relationship will be assessed before the intervention program begins, immediately after it's completed, and from six months to a year later. They also have been trying to find out whether their project--and the Early Head Start programs they're partnered with--will survive possible upcoming changes in the way the federal government will fund Head Start.

"The proposal is to move oversight of the Head Start programs from the Department of Health and Hospitals to the Department of Education. And the money would be put into a large grant to the state instead of going directly to the community agencies," Boris said. "There won't be money earmarked for administrative overhead or for the 0-to-3-year age group. That could be a threat to the integrity of these programs and a threat to our research at the same time."

The two Early Head Start centers are already doing a great deal of good in an area of high need, according to Heller. East Baton Rouge is a high-poverty area with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation, creating an environment where it's a challenge for anyone to raise happy, healthy children. And teenage parents may have a particularly difficult time meeting that challenge.

"There are always exceptions to the rule, but by and large adolescents aren't ready to be parents. They have a tough time doing what they need to do, even though they want to be there for their kids and to do well as a parent," Heller said.

"When you look at group studies comparing adolescent parents to other high-risk parents, you find that adolescent parents and their children have more social, emotional and developmental problems," Boris said. "And those differences tend to be maintained," Heller added, "If you have a mother who has a child when she's 16, when she's 23 you still see differences."

Heather Heilman can be reached at

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