In conducting a recent study (Packard, 2003) which involved teen parents who are wards of the state, a team of Learning Basket facilitators were concerned with measuring the impact of a series of parenting sessions using the Learning Basket materials and learning approach.  Specifically we were looking for the impact on the mothers' perceptions of the role of play in learning and on their own self confidence as learners.  All of the participants in this study were more than one grade level behind in school.  All tested far below average in verbal proficiency, and all had attended multiple schools before reaching high school.  For many reasons these teen mothers might not see themselves as confident learners, and results of the study indicated that there was a significant impact on their self understanding as learners and their perception of the value of play in learning.  Based on the results of this study, and my experience with other parents who have not been successful in school, I conjecture that the approach that has been effective with teen parents who lack confidence, might also be effective with other parents who have struggled with learning.

The Importance of Confidence

Researchers agree (Csikszentmilhalyi and Larsen,1984; Gilligan, 1982, 1990; Mead,1958) that the process of forming a self-image is central to the development of an adolescent as she moves from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. "Despite considerable diversity in their methods and their conclusions, all acknowledge the significance of self and identity in directing an individual's life course"(Musick, 1993, p. 63-64). Adolescent learning needs to be seen in the context of the major developmental challenges that the learner is working through: that is, the formation of self-image and identity and becoming competent, while feeling she belongs (Rutter, 1993).  Ausebel (1954) observed that these developmental challenges are similar to that of a 2 year old, but the stakes are distinctly different.  The adolescent struggles to demonstrate competence and thereby gain independence or creative interdependence with adults; while the toddler struggles to demonstrate competence and in doing so is socialized into a sense of belonging and dependency on adults.

Unlike the toddler, the adolescent gains much of his self-image as a learner from his experience in formal learning environments such as schools. This self- image is formed by receiving messages from the external environment, which combine with inner messages communicated through self-talk and intuition to create a self image.  This self-image is powerful in governing behavior.  This self-image can also be changed or modified by messages; and when the self-image changes, the person's behavior changes as well. But the process is neither automatic nor instant.  It happens over time and is made more complex by the interplay of values that can protect an existing self-image from being affected (Boulding, 1955). Performance at school is one of the 6 factors that Stanwyck, Felker and Van Mondfians (1971) and Felker (1974) identify as critical in forming an adolescent's self image. Other factors that they named are behavior, anxiety, appearance, happiness and satisfaction.  Malcolm Knowles (1973) pointed out that the formal education system in the United States focuses on teaching content rather than nurturing the potential of the learner. He stated that the emphasis on product rather than process becomes increasingly more pressured as a student progresses from second grade in the system.  A student who has problems conforming to the style of the teacher has increased difficulty in learning and often has a negative self-image as a learner.

Discovering how one learns and thinks (processes information) is central to releasing self-directed learning and helping the learner to form a positive self-image (Knowles, 1990).  Fortunately today there are several instruments to help learners, facilitators and guides to discern learning styles (McCarthy, 1990), dominant intelligences (Gardner, 1993), and the use of modalities (Markova, 1990) to perceive and process information.  These instruments can be user-friendly and can be presented in such a manner that they provide learners with practical ways to approach learning geared to their particular strengths.

It is critical for those of us who engage non-confident learners in parenting sessions to take into account the distinct learning styles and needs of these learners in order to build their confidence.  If we are primarily concerned with transferring information, we miss an important opportunity that has the potential of affecting both parents and their young children.

The research of Belenky, Bond, and Weinstock (1997) revealed that parents who did not see themselves as thinkers and learners were less aware of their children's thinking processes than those parents who were confident in thinking and learning.  For a parent to be attentive to nurturing her child's learning potential, it is important that she see herself as an effective learner (Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, McCarton & McCormick (1998);

The challenge for those who conduct learning sessions with these parents is to use a consistent teaching/learning strategy that builds confidence and a positive self-image while nurturing the development of foundational skills and understandings. The Kaleidoscope Lesson Plan framework at the heart of the Learning Basket Approach provides this strategy.

The Lesson Plan Framework

The Kaleidoscope Lesson Plan  promotes participation, enables interaction, and provides consistency.   Daloz (1987) had the insight that the framework of a lesson itself can be powerful in promoting development, and this is the conclusion as a result of our study as well.  McKeachie's insight (1980) that students who have anxiety about learning need structure where there are clear expectations, specific assignments, prepared material, and short achievable tasks, confirms the Kaleidoscope Lesson framework.

This framework has 5 major parts: Preview and Attention Catching, Guided Conversation, Presentation, Play to Learn time, and Reflection.  I will describe the function of each part of the lesson and how we use each to encourage positive shifts in behavior.

Part I: Preview and Attention Catching: In the first segment of the lesson Learning Basket facilitators establish the learning climate by rehearsing the plan and timeframe of each section of the lesson plan. During this part of the session we preview what the session will include and who will be responsible for guiding each session.  By doing this, participants as well as facilitators have an image of what the session will include and their role in enabling the session to be successful.  This preview contributes to establishing a trustful environment by informing each participant of the plan, thereby creating a sense of learning community.  Also in this section we ask the participants to engage in an interactive game that will stir up positive energy in the room and engage the learners in having fun interacting with one another. We play games that equally include the participation of all and which emphasize cooperation rather than competition.  These games involve tossing balls, mimicking gestures, singing, dancing, and switching places. They usually shift the mood by bringing forth action and laughter.  The introduction section of the lesson lasts roughly 20 minutes.

Part II: Guided Conversation: In this second section of the lesson we use the Parents are Teachers literacy manual as a focus for guided conversations. The manual contains line drawings that depict issues related to parenting and child development.

We use these line drawings as focal points for guided conversations, which have the potential to draw out the voice and ideas of the participants. In guiding these conversations we aim to create a respectful environment in which all the mothers might share their experiences and ideas without fear of being ridiculed or criticized.  For the first 5 teaching sessions the facilitators usually lead the conversations.  In the sixth session and in each subsequent session, after the protocol of respect has been established, a volunteer parent is asked to guide the conversation. The parent volunteer uses the questions provided in the manual.  The questions in the Parents are Teachers manual follow Freire's (1968) insight of moving down levels of consciousness.  The first questions, "What do you notice in this picture?  What emotions are the parents expressing?" are usually simple for the participants in the group to answer.  The questions that follow ask the participants to think about and relate their own experiences. "Where have you experienced something like this?" Finally participants are asked to become critical thinkers and problem solvers by responding to questions like, "What problem do you see here?" and "What might be some solutions? What advice would you give to these parents?"

The conversation that comes forward from the reflection on the line drawings in the Parents are Teachers manual have the potential to include the sharing of the parents' personal experiences.  The intent of the conversation aligns with Musick's insight (1993) that it is important for teen parents to share their experiences and ideas and to have the experience of being heard. In programs that involve troubled teen parents, we have used  journal writing and  guided conversations as structural ways of inviting participants out of the thinking position of  Silenced, which is described by Belenky et al. (1986,1997).  We do this by providing a safe forum for the mothers to begin to articulate their thoughts and experiences using written and spoken language.

Part III: The Presentation  In this section of the lesson plan, we use written handouts with simply stated information, role-plays, simulations and guided reflective conversations focused on the handout information.  We create this curriculum to introduce the participants to new information regarding child development and parenting.

Daloz (1987) describes the importance of role-plays, pointing out that they provide a way for the facilitator to "mirror the behavior of the learner, and for the learner to look at herself with humor and discern what shifts are needed"(p.235).  Godbey (1978) points out that the more senses that are involved in the learning experience, the more intense and lasting will be the learning experience.  With this in mind our presentations use costume props, noise makers, music, opportunities for movement, and touch as well as reading and talking.

The role-plays that we use center on the behavior of two mothers: Frieda Forgetful and Connie Constant, dramatized initially by the facilitators. When fathers are present, these characters become Fred Forgetful and Carl Constant. The presentation is prefaced by the explanation that each of us is a combination of these two types of parents. Daloz (1987) points out that in the role-play it is important that the positive role model leads the learner to appreciate the worth in herself. For this reason and because playing a role engages multiple senses and has the potential to have a lasting effect (Godbey, 1978), we invite participants in the group session to play the role of Connie (Carl) Constant, but never the role of Frieda (Fred) Forgetful.  In each role-play Frieda (Fred) is pre-occupied with herself, her boyfriends and her need for entertainment.  The care for her baby is an after-thought, and often she blames her baby Julia for her boredom and restlessness.  In contrast, Connie (Carl) finds ways of caring for herself while giving maximum attention to her baby.  In assuming the role of Connie (Carl), parents are able to provide the positive example and take on the role of teaching the facilitators, who assume the role of Frieda (Fred).

We follow each role play with a reflective conversation in which we ask  participants in the group to discern what problems are being illustrated, and what alternative actions on the part of the mothers would be more effective. Paolo Friere (1968) points to the importance of developing the reasoning and problem solving abilities of learners. This is our intent in following each role play with a reflective conversation.  In addition to the conversation, we integrate Marakova's (1990, 1992) insights on including multiple modalities by distributing hand-outs and using wall visuals to accompany the role plays and to engage visual learners.

We have developed 11 modules to be used in the teaching sessions.  The subject matter for these modules is based on research regarding the needs of parents as well as on the needs and interests that parents express in interviews and information-gathering opportunities preceding the development of the sessions. The following is a list of the modules that we have developed.

1. How a Baby's Brain Develops
2. The Pruning of the Brain Cells
3. Brain Development and Play
4. Brain Development and Language
5. Brain Development and the Role of Play Review
6. A Child Learns at Their Own Pace
7. Falling in Love with Our Young Children
8. Sometimes We Don't Love Our Babies
9. Guiding A Young Child's Behavior
10. Techniques for Orchestrating Behavior
11. Handling Stress

The lessons on guiding behavior and appropriate expectations have been included based on studies by DeLissovoy (1973) and Field (1980).  These studies indicate teen parents are more likely to use physical punishment with their infants when the babies fail to meet developmental expectations. Other studies (Musick, 1993; Osofsky and Ware, 1984) indicate that teen parents are more likely to use hostile techniques like spanking, teasing, pinching and shaming to punish behavior.

Many adolescents give the appearance of having little tolerance for their children's developmentally appropriate demands or attempts to explore and assert themselves.  They tend to speak very critically and negatively to their children, handle them roughly, and terrorize them one moment and smother them with kisses the next (Musick, 1993, p183).  We include the subject of sometimes not loving our babies to acknowledge that there are times when a parent's personal needs, irritation, anger and stress direct the mistreatment of young children.

We include the focus on language as a result of observing multiple groups of parents interacting with their children during the play sessions within the Learning Basket sessions. During the play times in each session we have noticed that the majority of the parents are silent or use directive language rather than praising their children and using question-asking to stimulate their child's thinking.  Studies (Field, 1981; Osofsky, Osofsky, and Diamond, 1988) indicate that adolescent mothers spend less time than adult parents talking to their babies. "Whatever the cause, the fact that teen mothers vocalize less and offer less stimulation in general to their infants may be key factors in these children's later depressed cognitive functioning" (Musick, 1993, p. 182).

In each teaching session, by including information on how talking to a baby helps to develop her brain, by demonstrating ways of helpfully talking to a baby in role plays, and by prompting the mothers to talk to the child during the play sessions, we hope to encourage the parents to use supportive language with their babies.  The hand-out that we distribute as part of this presentation shares the following tips on how to teach a baby to speak:

A. Imitate the sounds the baby makes

B. Use a friendly tone. This is called "parentese".

C.  Look at your child while talking to him.

D.  Use positive words and names to describe the baby.

E.  Explain to the baby what is happening around her.

F.   Ask questions rather than always giving directions.
                                                  This will help the child think.

G.  Talk to the baby as you play and as you go from place to place

H.  Praising your baby teaches her to praise herself and others.

We include the topics focused on brain development and play to make popular research on these subjects available to the teen mothers in terms they can understand.  For example in the module "How a Baby's Brain Develops" we create two wall visuals, each having a large circle containing many dots.  Some of these dots are located within heart shapes that appear within the circle.  We explain to the mothers that these circles represent the brains of two babies.  The dots represent the brain cells, called neurons.  The hearts represent the emotional centers of the brain, in which many of the brain cells are located.  We ask for a volunteer to stand by the first wall visual and to observe the first role play in which the character, Frieda (Fred) Forgetful acts out her distraction and neglect of her child, Julia. We ask the volunteer mother to make a line that connects the dots (or brain cells) within the hearts (or emotional centers) every time she sees Frieda express a nurturing action toward her baby.  At the end of the role-play we note the number of connections (or synapses) that were formed in baby Julia's brain as a result of having received caring interaction.  We repeat this process focused on the role-play of Connie Constant caring for her baby, Amanda. In the reflective conversation following the role-plays we raise the question, "What is the difference in the number of connections formed in the brains of Julia and Amanda?  Given that these connections enhance the learning potential of a young child, how might Julia's options for learning be different from those of Amanda?  How did Frieda's actions affect her baby?  What advice would you give her for doing better?"  In the hand-out which we distribute, we describe the point of the role play in the following two sentences: Affectionate interaction that is enhanced by play, nurtures the development of brain connections in the emotional centers of the baby's brain.  This interaction involves speaking to the baby, gently touching the baby, showing the baby your face and fingers, and helping the baby explore tastes, textures and objects (Parenting Curriculum Lesson I, p.2).

In the module entitled "Brain Development and Play", we emphasize the importance of a baby's emotions to her success in learning.  In the role play we refer back to the visuals showing the hearts (or emotional centers) and the connections (or synapses) between the brain cells.  In the hand-out we include the following advice for ways to play with a baby that will enable him to feel good about himself while he is developing skills and understandings:

A.  Use a friendly tone of voice

B.  Ask questions that help the child problem solve as he plays

C.  Follow the child's interests and leads

D.  Give positive feedback using voice tone, words and facial

We include the topic of "Handling Stress" in response to the mothers' request for learning how to find time for themselves as well as give time and attention to their babies. In this module we ask the mothers to list 4 things that make them feel exhausted and 4 things that make them feel sad.  We provide the parents with a handout on which to write their lists.  Then we ask them to list 4 things that they like to do to have healthy and safe fun, 4 things that they like to do to relax, and 4 things that they do to deal with their frustration and anger.  We then distribute a handout that has a list of 8 major causes of stress, and a space to add two other causes.  We ask the mothers to check off on the handout the items on the list that are a part of their daily lives.  Among the items usually listed are "Eating a lot of sugar; not getting exercise; being worried and not having someone to talk to about those worries; and not taking time for myself."  There is also a list of suggestions on what to do to relieve stress.  We demonstrate some practical actions such as stress relieving body movements.  Then we ask each mother to create a weekly time design in which she would make time for herself.  Each parent shows their time design, and we talk about practical actions for making time for themselves possible within each day and throughout the week.

Part IV: Play time Within the flow of the parenting sessions we create a time for parents to play with their children.  We preface this section of the lesson with a small presentation.  In this presentation, we demonstrate the use of one of the objects in the Learning Basket using the Play to Learn activity book. Once we establish a respectful learning  environment in which a parent would not be ridiculed for stepping forward to take a leadership role, we ask parents to volunteer to make this presentation. After the parents see how the learning object is used, they receive the object to use in play with their children. Those providing childcare then bring the children into the room where their parents are engaged in learning..  During play time, the session guides each observe three or four mothers as they play with their children using the object that we have distributed and the activity from the Play to Learn book that focuses on the object and that is appropriate for the age and interest of their child.  At times we prompt the parents to follow their child's interests, to set up an enabling environment for play, to talk to the child during play, and to support the child to be successful in problem solving.

In doing this observation and prompting, we notice behaviors that are consistent with the findings of  Musick (1993) that adolescent parent's play with their infants tends to be rougher, more physical and less reciprocal than the play of adult parents with their children. "The greater physicality may derive from her perception of the infant as a toy, something to be played with when and how it suits her without regard to how it feels (to the child)" (Musick, 1993, p. 183).  The guided playtime serves as a focused observation time for us to note a parent's behavior in play with their child and the child's response. For the mothers this time serves as practice for times for when the parents will be alone playing with their children. 

Part V: Time for Reflection and Feedback  At the end of each Learning Basket parenting session we provide an opportunity for participants to reflect and note their reflections in the Reflective Moments Journal.  This journal contains writing prompts geared to reflecting on the learner's experience and the content of the session.  Some of the statements focus on how the learner participated, for example "In this session I volunteered to ; I spoke up often, frequently, never."  Other statements ask for a description of the participants' feelings: "In the session today I felt confident, exhausted, proud, angry etc."  Other statements focus on the content; "Something that I learned that I will use at home; changes that I would suggest." 

There are multiple functions of this reflective time and these journal sheets. First, the sheets provide valuable feedback for us as facilitators about the participant and the lesson. Second, they serve as a means of data gathering for the program evaluation. Third, having an opportunity to reflect provides for the mothers an opportunity for growth.  Taylor and Marienau (1995) point out that reflection of this kind makes self-assessment possible and allows the participant to practice expressing her opinions.

Providing the opportunity for a parent to express her thoughts on paper helps her build her confidence toward expressing herself verbally. Self-assessment can also shift ones' perspective from assuming knowledge and information always come from the teacher, to realizing learning and direction can come from within.  As their voices grow stronger and clearer, the speakers do also (Taylor and Marienau, 1995, p.27). 

As a result of our study (Packard, 2003), we learned the following:

1)  The mothers gained the awareness that their schooling experience is only a part
           of their learning experience.

2)  The Learning Basket sessions revealed to the mothers that learning can be practical,
            multi-modal and interactive.

3)  The Learning Basket series instilled an understanding in the majority of mothers that it is     alright  to depend on others' help in raising a young child

4)  During the Learning Basket sessions the mothers learned that a child learns through
           exploration and movement and that it is more important for adults to flex to the needs of
           infants than to expect the children to flex to the style of adults.

5)  The majority of the mothers learned the value of play with objects in nurturing of their
            young children's intelligence.

6)  Steady attendance in the series of sessions resulted in steady growth and confidence
           as a parent and a learner.

In Conclusion: Research has revealed that a child's potential to learn is most developed during the first three years (Barnet et al, 1998; Bruner, 1986; Gopnick et al., 1999; Siegel, 1999; Sroufe, 1995) and that a parent or consistent caregiver has the most influence in nurturing or compromising that learning process (Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, McCarton & McCormick (1998); Field,1981; Osofsky et al,1988). When a mother gains confidence in herself as a learner, both she and her young child can benefit. In taking on the challenge of engaging parents who are not confident learners in a learning process, we have the opportunity to meet these learners needs and in doing so build their confidence.  The Kaleidoscope Lesson Plan provides a consistent framework that makes possible nurturing the confidence of the parent who might come to the parenting class as a non-confident learner. The consistency of the framework and the teaching strategy contributes significantly to affecting the parent's learning and makes possible shifting the parent's behaviors and understandings.

This process is what makes the Learning Basket sessions effective in nurturing learning and literacy with parents and their very young children at a critical time in their lives.


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The Learning Basket Program enhances the learning potential of children birth-to-three through research based parent-child activitiesl while empowering parents in a literacy-rich, culturally sensitive approach to adult learning and parenting.


Nurturing Learning and Literacy with Non-Confident Learners through the
Learning Basket Approach

K. Elise Packard, Ph.D.