Published by EducationNews.org — “MegaSkills” — which include caring, common sense, confidence, motivation and perseverance — can be learned by everyone.
Clucking like a mother hen, Debra Fowler shoos 11 young moms and their 16 children into the multi-purpose room in the big basement of McAuley Village. The women are grim-faced and move slowly.
But Miss Debbie, as she’s known to the moms, chirpily assures them that this is not parenting. “This is MegaSkills, and you’re going to like it, I promise.” She warmly greets each mom and kid. They adore Miss Debbie. But the moms roll their eyes and flop resentfully into the seats at tables with papers and pencils. They act like their experience with school and anything like it has been a total drag.
McAuley Village is a two-year transitional housing program for homeless single parents. Fowler, the Resident Services Coordinator, says, “With high unemployment and the cuts to social services, young families are the new face of homelessness. My job is to provide them with resources and teach self-sufficiency, so they have the tools they’ll need when they go back to the mainstream. These skills, these MegaSkills, look like they’d been designed just for us.”
The kids go elsewhere to their own activities.
Emily Garthee, the trainer, introduces herself and the Rhode Island Parents Information Network (RIPIN), which provides this program. She gives each mom a bookmark with the RIPIN hotline number, and encourages them to call with any sort of question. “Any question.”
That got their attention a bit.
Garthee has the moms introduce themselves, tell the ages of their kids and something special about them. On a big pad of newsprint she captures the special qualities – smart, friendly, patient, kind-hearted, energetic.
“Look at the skills your kids have already!” This is news to the moms.
Then Garthee shows the list of MegaSkills – Caring, Common Sense, Confidence, Effort, Focus, Initiative, Motivation, Perseverance, Problem Solving, Responsibility and Teamwork.
“See?,” Garthee enthuses, “You said ‘smart,’ and to be smart you have to have Focus. So over the course of the next five weeks, we’ll learn two skills a week. You’ll walk away with lots of hand-outs for fun things to do with your children that will help them get better at these skills.”
Really? These skills aren’t innate characteristics? No, Garthee assures us they can be taught. In fun, easy ways that children like.
The moms begin to look less insulted, a little more interested.
Garthee explains that MegaSkills was founded by Dr. Dorothy Rich, a parent and teacher. Decades ago, Rich realized that more and more children came to school without having learned super-basic life skills. They didn’t know how to take responsibility or “do what’s right,” as MegaSkills defines it. They didn’t know the value of effort, or the “willingness to work hard.” Without these “little engines of learning,” as Rich calls them, kids’ academics sputter. So she started developing ways of teaching adults how to teach these critical abilities to their children.
In 1988 the first of the five editions of her book MegaSkills was published. For evidence of the long-term efficacy of this program, see www.megaskillshsi.org/impactResults.
But today at McAuley, we’ll learn about motivation and confidence. (I focus on the latter.) “What is confidence?” asks Garthee.
A woman with a big personality declares, “Holding your head high, proud, well-spoken.” Good.
Starting another list, Garthee asks who the moms consider a confident person? After the big-personality mom nominates herself, the room goes strangely quiet. Later, Fowler explains that if these women are short on anything, it’s confidence. Life has put them down.
Garthee suggests that many people mention Oprah. That gets them going. Someone shouts “Miss Debbie,” who does seem self-assured. Then: Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, the President, and more.
One way people become confident, especially children, is by hearing encouraging words. While handing out a list of such words, Garthee talks about the simple, strong power of encouragement. Okay, now the moms are fully engaged, diving into this list. “I could use these words more often,” says one. “Sure you can,” says Garthee.
Then the moms build a list of times when they didn’t feel confident – when they were confronted with a new job, school, baby, neighborhood, or question whose answer they didn’t know. The moms are loving this. They’re in life’s foxhole together.
Garthee asks how they got through these trials. These answers came more slowly, but they came. Ask for help, guidance and information. Garthee shares a story of her own discombobulation, because everyone gets insecure. So when the kids are worried about something, share times when you felt insecure, so they know they’re not alone. Brainstorm solutions with them. The women smile, because if you put it that way, they can see how they could make a difference in their kids’ confidence. This has been helpful.
No one is born with the perseverance chip or a gene for teamwork. And how would you know the power of encouragement if you’ve rarely been encouraged yourself? We learn these things from other people. If no one teaches the parents such skills, they can’t be expected to teach them to their kids.
But to me the best part was that MegaSkills showed the moms how they could enjoy their kids more.
As of July, RIPIN became the National Center for MegaSkills and will be carrying the late Dr. Rich’s torch into the future. For further information call 401-270-0101.
Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.org.