Like most parents, Josefina Morillo sometimes gets angry with her 9-year-old son, Elijah, and 5-year-old daughter, Brianna. Though she admits they are generally well-behaved, there were times when she lost her patience and yelled at them for things like messing up the house – until she learned another way.
Morillo is one of about a dozen parents attending workshops focused on social and emotional learning at Public School 24 in Brooklyn, her children’s elementary school. The school has been teaching its students how to deal with their feelings and frustrations in healthy ways for several years, and the program was featured on PBS NewsHour in 2009. But this fall, the school also began holding monthly sessions for parents.
The parents’ curriculum is a collaboration with the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, a non-profit organization that helps students around the country communicate effectively and deal with their emotions.
“We do this so that it can be reinforced in the home,” said Emma Gonzalez, the Morningside consultant who works directly with school staff on the project, “so that we can have more peace in the home and understanding.”
Students at P.S. 24 are taught several ways to handle conflict, including having designated students mediate problems that arise in the class each week, and holding regular class discussions about emotions.
During these new sessions, parents are being taught conflict resolution techniques that mirror what their children are learning in the classroom.
“I attend the sessions because I want to know about how to help my children at home when they behave badly,” Morillo said. “I want to learn how to control them without hitting.”
Morningside staffers and administrators at P.S. 24 realized they needed to include parents in the discussion because when students tried using the techniques they were learning in school at home, some parents didn’t understand.
Take, for example, a student having a disagreement with his or her parent and telling them to go into the “peace corner,” an area of the classroom where the students can go to reflect if they are upset.
“If a kid gives you that kind of command, it can be seen as disrespectful,” Gonzalez said. “We’re doing this so that it can be reinforced at home, and so parents don’t see it as a threat.”
P.S. 24 is a dual-language school in Sunset Park. Approximately 90 percent of the students there are Hispanic, and almost half are English language learners. Many of the families at the school come from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and because of that, the workshops for parents are held largely in Spanish.
For Morillo, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother, the workshops have been very helpful.
“I learned how to control being angry with my children,” Morillo said. “When they make me angry, I think first. Then, when I’ve counted to 10 and relaxed, I come back to them and talk to them.”
At a recent morning session, a group of about seven mothers and one father gathered in the empty school cafeteria. After grabbing coffee and snacks provided by the school, the parents sat down on the small benches at the child-sized lunch tables.
Parents were instructed to begin the workshop by sharing something good that had happened in each of their lives recently.
Then the parents were introduced to the theme of the day.
“We’re going to be speaking about assertiveness today,” said Mariel Cepeda, a parent coordinator at the school.
The goal of the workshop was to help parents understand the word “assertive,” and when it’s necessary to be assertive in everyday life.
Cepeda put a white sheet of paper on the wall and wrote three words down – aggressive, submissive and assertive. She translated each word into Spanish, and then asked each parent what other adjectives they associated with the key words.
Soon, the paper had more words on it. Parents associated aggressive behavior with words such as proud, impatient and egotistical, submissive behavior with timidity, nervousness and tolerance, and assertive behavior with being determined and positive.
Next, the parents put their newfound understanding of words into action by participating in activities that demonstrated the difference between being assertive, being aggressive and being submissive – and when each was appropriate.
“I want to buy this coffee for this price,” said one parent, who was acting as a customer at a store.
“I’m sorry, but this flyer is from last week,” responded Cepeda, who played the role of cashier.
The scenario continued until the “manager” – another parent – was called into the mix. Ultimately, two scenarios were acted out. In one, the customer was given the coffee for the sale price without a problem. In the second, she didn’t get it.
After the scenarios, the parents were asked what stood out to them about the behavior of the different characters in each scenario.
Next, parents were asked to respond to another fictional scenario: they are at the Parent Teacher Association meeting and someone continues to interrupt them while they are talking.
“How do you respond?” Cepeda asked.
The group worked on “I messages.” In this exercise, parents were asked to discuss something that made them frustrated, sad, happy, and say why.
“I feel happy when my niece does her homework because she paid attention and listened to me,” one attendee wrote.
“I feel frustrated when my girls do not listen to me because what I have to say is good for them,” wrote another.
The stresses that each family deals with are different, and workshops center on several topics, ranging from needs from parenting, health, sex education, domestic violence and economic planning.
“We know there’s sometimes domestic violence in some of our families,” said Christina Fuentes, principal at P.S. 24. “There’s difficult, close living situations. There could be one family of four or five living in one rented room. That’s stressful. We felt that it’s really important to help develop parents’ skills on conflict resolution.”
The school offers several other resources to parents as well, including English as a second language classes, weekly math and cooking workshops, and literacy classes.
“I think that it’s important for parents to have an understanding of themselves,” Morningside’s Gonzalez said. “With the workshops, we can have more peace in the home.”