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Q&A with Sandra Gutierrez

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

Too Small To Fail advisory council member Sandra Gutierrez is the National Director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors. She’s on a mission to get information into the hands of the people who are poised to make a significant difference in early childhood education today: Latino parents. Gutierrez spoke with Too Small to Fail about the model Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors has created for honoring and supporting Latino parents to help their children enter school ready to learn and able to succeed in life.  Programs in 250 cities across the nation are now using that model to engage parents in low-income communities.

Describe this model you helped develop—

We created Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors because demographics are shifting, the Latino population is booming, and there just wasn’t anything like it.  Outcomes for this population were so poor, in terms of the childhood obesity rate, the reading rate, and the rates of utilization – not just of preschool, but other things that benefit families, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

We wanted to support parents in their roles as leaders of the family, and to help them make sure their children did not become one of those dismal statistics.  We decided to take evidence of what actually works to stimulate early childhood development and improve outcomes for children.  And we used that information to write a curriculum.  The parents actually co-created the material.  We did a lot of listening before we developed it.

Now we work with national partners such as Catholic Charities, the United Way, and Head Start, along with several school districts, churches and other local groups.  Our mission is to support and honor parents in their roles as leaders of the family and children’s first and most influential teachers.  We want to help parents realize their own power to close the opportunity gap, because having informed, engaged parents opens doors, not only to success in school, but also to kids having healthier and happier lives.

Often, parents aren’t aware of the power of their daily decisions.  Not long ago, the common view was “Kids should be seen and not heard,” or “She’ll start doing that when she gets to school.”  Now we know better.  We have oceans of research, and we know there are things that parents can do, regardless of income level or educational background.  Small, daily acts can have a big impact.  We aim to convey that information in a friendly way – a way that makes sense to parents and that will lead to better outcomes.

Latino parents are more alike than they are different from other parents.  All parents want what’s best for their children.  And there’s a popular saying, “Mas vale prevenir que lamenter,” which means, “It’s better to prevent than lament.”  So when armed with data and statistics communicated in an accessible and engaging way, parents are motivated to use that to help their kids reach their aspirations. 

What do you do to engage parents?

We hold regular group sessions and we make them fun.  We promise parents that if they invest two hours, they will leave the session with new information and resources they can use every day to make sure their children have a good foundation and the best start possible.  For example, there’s a popular board game in Latin America called, “Lotería.”  And we developed our own version of this Mexican bingo game, to reinforce learning objectives like reading, counting and going to the library.  So we’ve created a fun curriculum based on knowledge parents already have.

It’s very rewarding to get the research off the shelves, and into living rooms and kitchens.  But one thing we can’t sidestep, or be romantic about, is that parents can’t give what they don’t have. Poverty is very complex and many systems don’t provide these families with the support they need. 

Our groups are run every week by partner organizations across the country.  For example, here in Los Angeles, we work closely with the L.A. Unified School District, and we’re partnering with Head Start – one of most important systems serving and supporting parents. 

Specifically, who are the parents you are aiming to reach?

The families we work with are Spanish-speaking and 100% low income within federal poverty guidelines. They’re the working poor, and have a great work ethic.  They want their kids to have a better future, and more opportunity for education than they had.

The parents say, “This is my dream for my child.”  And we say, “Let’s make that a goal. Given that home is really the first school, here are things you can do, whether you are very low income or not.”  This really resonates and helps parents get a sense of leadership.  We demonstrate how a household can promote early literacy practices, and it’s great to work with parents when the children are so young, because that prepares them for just one step in a much larger process of family engagement.

Parents also benefit from meeting with other parents, developing friendships and widening their social networks.  People talk very openly and candidly about their family struggles, such as a woman’s effort to get her husband involved.  Often, a mom will bring her neighbors.  The program succeeds in a way because it spreads by word of mouth. 

How is Opening Doors different from other efforts to stimulate child development and promote literacy? 

First of all, we consider these parents to be heroes, and we honor their roles as leaders of the family and their children’s first teacher.  The things they go through, the decisions they make every day have such profound consequences, and yet they are not considered everyday heroes.

Our approach is not a “top-down” one.  We partner with parents.  You will see parents across the country exploring myths they were raised to believe, which leads to these transformative moments where they realize, “That was then, and this is now.  I can do these things to make a better life for my child.”  We are providing them with something that is accessible and actionable.   

Each of our sessions begin with a proverb, “Lo que bien empieza, bien acaba,” which means, “What begins well, ends well.” We reflect quite a bit on how we were raised personally, and we stress the notion that we can be the parents we have, or we can be the parents we choose to be.  We explore how we were raised – oftentimes in rural locations in Latin American countries – and how that affects our parenting choices.

Many programs focus on early literacy.  Ours is unique in that it’s comprehensive.  We include social and emotional wellness, which few curriculums incorporate.  A lot of reading programs do not get very personal, but we dare to go there, because we consider it foundational.  And it’s very powerful.  We also help parents learn practical things like how to navigate the health system, and we help familiarize them with places like the local library, and how to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

There is so much coming at these parents each day, so we make a huge effort to keep this program friendly, culturally relevant and evidence-based.

What is your basic message to parents around language development in young children?

We demystify language by encouraging parents to talk, sing, count and read more.  We’re promoting engagement using practical, fun things that feel natural.  And we are backing that with oceans of research that indicate how important it is, and both the consequences of doing that and not doing that.  We don’t want to run from that, because we think parents should be informed and build a sense of their own strength and power, so we’re very explicit about this and showing local data about how kids are faring in their own neighborhoods so parents can make different choices.  These things are of major consequence. 

Another important issue we deal with is that these parents are raising bilingual children.  Unfortunately, there is still some confusion around bilingualism, and the benefits of learning both languages at an early age.  Often, parents feel at a disadvantage; we help demonstrate to them that they can promote vocabulary development, regardless of language.

Many parents are not aware of critical information about brain development, and are operating under the old-time wisdom of “You just need a lunch pail and a haircut” to show up ready for school.  We’re aiming to make sure parents have this valuable information about the science of child development, and to prevent those old mindsets from holding kids back.

What is one of your most effective techniques?

When we communicate about the impact of parent interaction on a child’s brain development, it’s new information, and it’s shocking to many people.

We make it very visual.  We do an activity where we stand in a circle and throw a ball of yarn back and forth to represent connections that are being made through a child’s synapses.  The way the game works is the more we talk, and read, the more we throw this yarn around, until we have a visual example that represents the sort of network of synapses in the brain that develop for children when you are proactive in stimulating language development.

And then we do the opposite.  We demonstrate how relatively bare that network appears when you don’t read, or talk or sing – when you live in a household that operates by that old motto of “Children should be seen and not heard.”  We show how the brain doesn’t develop.  And those kinds of things really hit home when you’re demystifying the physical effect of their actions on children’s brains.  It really is an “Aha!” moment to demonstrate the science to them and break down what they can do every day.

One key thing parents value, that keeps them coming back, is that it’s a very welcoming atmosphere.  We intentionally create an environment that is festive, with banners and music playing – and require our local programs to decorate the room, have music and make it a positive ambiance.

Describe the results you’ve seen so far.

We have formal outside evaluators tracking the impact of this program.  But on a day-to-day basis, what really warms my heart is how parents will come to one session and then come back to another session and report on how they used the information.  I’m really quite moved.  It’s distressing how much need there is, but I’m optimistic, because people readily want to use the information when it’s presented in the right way.